Until now, most of my blog posts have been about my experience working as a corporate attorney at a Biglaw firm in NYC and about my eventual burnout from that job. I also sprinkle in advice to others following in my footsteps, either as junior associates looking to advance in their law firm careers or those who have had enough and are looking for ways to leave their stressful law firm or corporate jobs.
I thought it was time to write about another important piece of my work at my Biglaw firm and share the story of Marisol (not her real name), my very first client. I met Marisol in 2010 when I began working on her immigration case on a pro bono basis. I worked with her and on her case until the day I left my firm in 2018. While I’ve changed her name and any identifying details, I haven’t changed the essence of her immigration story. This is Marisol’s story.
There’s actually nothing special or remarkable about Marisol’s story. If I were to relay these facts to anyone working in the non-profit immigration world they wouldn’t even bat an eye because they see this type of case every day. But I expect that the story of Marisol’s life might be as remarkable to you as it was to me.
I met Marisol in 2010. A diminutive woman from El Salvador with a shy smile and giant gold hoop earrings, she shifted uncomfortably as she sat in my office during our initial consultation. I knew a few facts about her case – she was referred to us as a pro bono immigration client because an initial screening interview by a non-profit organization indicated that she might be a candidate for a U visa.
The U visa is a special visa available to an immigrant who was the victim of a violent crime in the U.S., who suffered mental or physical abuse because of such crime, and who was helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of such crime. The main purpose of the U visa is two-fold – to assist law enforcement in gathering evidence in their investigation of violent crimes such as sexual assault and human trafficking, and to offer a path to remain in the U.S. legally to those victims who are willing to come forward and offer their assistance.
In Marisol’s case, the notes from her initial screening interview indicated that she was the victim of a violent crime after she crossed the border into the U.S. Because of this, she was a candidate for a U visa, which in turn could eventually lead to a path of legal permanent residence, more commonly known as a green card. We didn’t begin our initial meeting discussing the facts of the crime or her U visa application, though. We started further back, beginning with where she came from and why she left, to paint a full picture of how Marisol ended up in an immigration clinic in New York City.
Marisol was born in a tiny town in El Salvador. From what I gathered over the years of getting to know her, she had a loving family, but resources were scarce and crime in her town was abundant and only getting worse. By the time she was 14 years old, she already had a daughter, with a man who was 15 years older than she was, and by the age of 17 she and this man, who became her husband, had a son. The kids would never know their father after the ages of 5 and 2.
At some point, still in her early 20s herself, Marisol made the decision to leave her young children behind and try to make it in the U.S. I don’t think her plan was too thought out, beyond the fact that she was desperate to escape the crime, gang violence and future she saw for her children in El Salvador. So she made the trek to the U.S., paying a coyote thousands of dollars to help her make it here. Traveling for weeks by foot and hidden away in the backs of trucks, she eventually crossed the border in the Arizona desert.
Unsure whether she would even make it across the border without getting detected, her plan was simply to get here, to make enough money to send home so her children could attend school (something that, past the third grade, she was never able to do) and to eventually send for them to join her in the U.S.
That must be the dream and plan of so many who risk their lives every day and risk never seeing their family again to cross the border for the chance at a better life. Unfortunately for Marisol, her hardship did not end there.
In fact, Marisol’s hardship turned to more suffering after she crossed into the U.S. The coyotes who “helped” Marisol get to the U.S. from El Salvador locked her in a house in the desert once she arrived. She was forced to call home to her family, begging them to pay the coyotes the thousands of additional dollars they were suddenly demanding for her freedom, even though she had already paid the agreed-upon fee prior to leaving her home.
The problem was, of course, that her family did not have an extra thousand dollars lying around, nor did they have the ability to get that kind of money any time soon. Marisol remained locked up in that house for weeks, likely only surviving because they needed to keep one woman around to clean and cook for the other victims, from whose families they were still trying to extract money.
The more graphic details of her first few weeks in the U.S. are not important to tell here. You can imagine the way she was treated. Somehow, though, after those first few weeks, the perpetrators gave up on more money ever making it from El Salvador on her behalf and decided to move on. They abandoned the house Marisol had been staying in, drove her out to the middle of the desert, stripped her of her clothes and the little possessions she had left, and left her to die. But she managed to find safety in a nearby house and guaranteed that her story wouldn’t end there.
Marisol eventually made it to New York, where she had a second cousin or a great-aunt or a friend of a friend – someone familiar enough to take her in while she searched for a way to make that money she promised her children she was leaving them for.
She did take one trip back to the desert, to take the stand at the federal trial of the men who had held her captive. We never discussed this in detail because it was too painful for her and because I didn’t really need the information from her (I had the initial police reports and an affidavit from the federal prosecutor supporting her story, which were more than enough to support her U visa application).
Apparently these men had been running an immigrant smuggling ring, preying on the poorest of the poor and the most desperate of the desperate. With the help of Marisol’s testimony, the coyotes were put in U.S. prison for a very long time for the crimes they committed against her and against many others. With this assistance and the bravery it must have taken to stand up to them, Marisol not only helped to put the coyotes in jail but also gave herself the opportunity to remain in the U.S. legally, and to maybe one day bring her children here, too. If there was anyone deserving of the chance to make a new life in the U.S., it was Marisol.
A relatively short time passed between the time Marisol arrived in the U.S., to the time she testified, to the time we had finished filling out and submitting her U visa application. And then, she waited. For years.
If you’ve ever played the waiting game for anything, you know how having something hanging over your head can follow you around like a dark cloud, never easing up or letting the sun shine through. This is what it must have been like for Marisol, waiting for years wondering when she would be able to see her family again and whether she would ultimately be allowed to stay in the U.S.
She waited for an initial response from the government to confirm they were reviewing her U visa application and would grant her temporary authorization to work while the application was pending.
She waited to receive travel authorization to be allowed to go back to El Salvador just one time in four years, to see her children and to go to her father’s funeral.
She waited for a court in El Salvador to agree that her husband, who had abandoned their family ten years prior, did not need to sign off on the issuance of the kids’ passports, which they needed to be able to leave the country.
She waited and waited, for over six years, for her kids to get the permission to travel to the U.S. to join her.
She waited to receive her green card, her children’s green cards and finally for the peace of mind that the three of them would be able to remain in the U.S., together.
Marisol and her children are living together on Long Island now. And, somehow, after all that she has been through, Marisol is grateful. She is grateful for her family, for her minimum wage job and for her life in the U.S. While this piece was meant to shed light on her story, I can’t help but reflect on my own story and my own feelings of gratitude that her story elicits in me.
It is impossible for me not to compare myself to Marisol. After filling out countless immigration forms on her behalf and for her children, I still have memorized her cell phone number, parents’ names, parents’ dates of birth and the tiny towns in El Salvador where they were born, and of course Marisol’s own birthdate. It falls just one month after mine.
When I think about the facts of her life, I am grateful, too, for being born in this country in the first place. When someone sacrifices so much just for the chance to be here, you can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that you didn’t have to do anything to get to live here.
The first 30-something years of our lives could not have been any different. Every time I take a pause to reflect on that I am thankful for the life I was gifted, but I am also grateful that Marisol was finally reunited with her children and persevered for her chance for a better life in the U.S.
THE END OF THIS CHAPTER OF MARISOL’S STORY
I almost added the concept of “luck” to the title and headings of this piece, but it didn’t feel right, after laying out the facts of her life, to say that Marisol is “lucky.” But in reality, she is. Just look at the caravans of innocent and desperate people trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border to escape the horrific circumstances they were born into.
All of the hardship that Marisol endured before she arrived in the U.S. wasn’t what actually led to her U visa and ultimate green card. Those are mere anecdotes to her story, never even showing up in her government immigration file. If she hadn’t been a smuggling victim and hadn’t bravely assisted in the prosecution of the criminals who perpetrated the crimes against her, she would not have been able to remain in the U.S.
There are so many people who arrive here just like Marisol, desperate to leave their lives behind, but who are turned away and sent back to a dangerous place they’ve just risked everything to leave.
So yes, she is one of the lucky ones. I’m not sure if, when she looks back on her life someday, Marisol will say that it was all worth it, but I hope for her sake that it was.