This piece was originally published on June 26, 2020, for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.
Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic’s reach can be felt in so many ways. The way we live and work has been transformed as many do their part to protect one another from the spread of the virus. CLINIC’s Defending Vulnerable Populations, or DVP, Program found a way to bridge the social gap left by social distancing. The DVP team participated in a Pandemic Secret Friend Activity to bring joy to a fellow team member during a stressful, unprecedented time.
The DVP Program provides support, training and analysis — on topics such as removal defense, asylum, special immigrant juvenile, or SIJ, status and criminal consequences — for immigrant defenders in CLINIC’s network. DVP also challenges anti-immigrant policies and regulations through federal litigation, where CLINIC has served as counsel and plaintiff. Additionally, the team develops remote-based response models to immigration enforcement. Ultimately, the DVP team uses their platform and legal expertise to raise public awareness of the detriment to human dignity caused by the current administration’s anti-immigrant sentiments.
Much of the DVP team were already working remotely — away from CLINIC’s national office in Silver Spring, Md. However, even the most seasoned remote worker has felt the effects of the pandemic, whether professionally, personally or both. DVP Legal Assistant Adriana Zambrano had been working remotely for a couple months prior to CLINIC’s all-staff transition to remote work. “I live with my in-laws, who are typically very independent,” said Zambrano. “We have had to adjust a bit to support them in their stricter quarantine.” Legal Specialist Brenda Hernandez, while fortunate to work from home, recognizes that many in the immigrant community are not as lucky. “I worry for my clients who don’t qualify for any government relief and have families to care for,” said Hernandez. “It’s been mentally exhausting thinking about these issues on a daily basis.”
The Pandemic Secret Friend Activity became a way for the DVP team to build cohesion when it seems that we are more divided than ever. Each member of the DVP team was assigned a friend to send a small gift to, hoping to brighten their day and connect in a way that email and video chats can’t compare.
As the givers, the DVP team recognized the ways in which their colleagues have been impacted during the pandemic. “I can’t imagine the strain that working parents of young children are under right now,” said DVP Staff Attorney Ann Garcia. Garcia gifted her colleague Rachel Naggar, the BIA Pro Bono Project Manager, a toy that Naggar’s two young children could enjoy. “It is nice to think that maybe this gift will entertain and teach her kids for a few minutes,” said Garcia.
As the receivers, the DVP team were even able to pay-it-forward to their local communities. The team focused on gifts that would not only bring happiness to their colleagues but would also stimulate small businesses and locally owned restaurants who are struggling during the pandemic. Staff Attorney Aimee Mayer-Salins received a gift card to one of her favorite restaurants. “It felt great supporting a restaurant that I knew had been hurting financially because of the pandemic,” said Mayer-Salins. “It was really fun to take a night ‘off’ where I enjoyed sushi and didn’t do any work.”
With the longevity of the pandemic uncertain, self-care is important now more than ever. For immigration attorneys, advocates and program staff specifically, the stress of the pandemic, combined with the administration’s continued attempts to dismantle the system that protects the already vulnerable immigrant population can be overwhelming. “Seeing each other as people — I already saw them as radical and tireless advocates — has brought us closer,” said Garcia. “This small exercise of care spoke volumes of our worth to each other, not just as colleagues, but also as friends.”
The DVP team urges other organizations and people to reach out to their colleagues in similar, intentional ways. “It’s important for us to realize that it’s okay to not be okay, to check-in once in a while and to provide a space where we are able to practice self-care,” said Hernandez. “If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, how are we expected to care for the people we advocate for?”
View photos from DVP’s Pandemic Secret Friend Activity here.