The Oberlin Stories Project

On working with IWP

Cynthia Malasky ’11

“For two months, I have been in charge of the Oberlin region, working with two other student interns to teach English classes, serve as interpreters, and prepare for court cases for undocumented and contracted immigrant workers.”

Protesters holding a sign reading We March for Pablo Lopez Romero

I left before the case was decided. Josana sat in the defendant’s chair, her strong hands stiffly crossed on her lap. Her three kids sat outside, anxiously waiting to testify. The only time they had seen a courtroom before was on TV. Before we went in, her four-year-old asked me, “What did Mom do wrong?” I didn’t know what to say.

I had met Josana a week prior. She had contacted the Immigrant Workers Project (IWP) for help on her case, and they sent me. She had been in the states for 10 years. During her time she had met and left a violent husband who, as far as she knew, had been deported. She lived alone with her three kids, all of them U.S. citizens, getting by with 60-hour work weeks assembling plastic products and supplementing her income with welfare. Her kids spoke little Spanish and had no connection to Mexico. Her other family members had left Mexico and, if she were forced to move back, with no government support available to her, she wouldn’t be able to feed her kids without appealing to her husband for help. “I can’t go back to him,” she said calmly.

We put together her case for staying in the states, which relied on proving two things: her kids had no cultural connection to Mexico, and her husband was abusive. The first involved her kids taking the stand, which wasn’t a problem. The second required testimonies from people who had witnessed the abuse. When it came to getting those from the people closest to the violence, Josana’s mother and brother refused to testify. Josana and I, both feeling confused and without any ideas of what to do, decided she would testify in court. In the courtroom, Josana remained composed and persuasive, but after seeing my fair share of immigration cases, I’ve learned that you can never predict what the judge will decide.

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There was a time when I was more interested in reality television than the status of immigrant workers in our country. That changed two semesters ago. I went abroad to Nicaragua during the fall of my junior year. I spent the semester filling my brain to the brim with information, absorbing an unimaginable amount from the people I encountered. I felt indebted to the people I had met. They had educated and inspired me in a way that had totally changed my perspective, but I felt that I had nothing to offer in return. I decided to seek help. On our 10-day whirlwind tour through El Salvador and its history, we met a man who was the leader of a community uprising against a mining company. Their protests had succeeded, and many community members credited it to his ferocity. I asked him what we could do to support their struggle.

“Your problems in your country are our problems. Fix your problems and ours will be fixed. If you didn’t consume drugs, we wouldn’t have drug wars and gangs. If you had fair financial policies, we wouldn’t be in dire poverty. If you had fair immigration policies, we wouldn’t have to risk the trail of human trafficking. If you didn’t insist on military intervention, we wouldn’t have to nurse the wounds of war.”

When I returned to Oberlin, I struggled with how I could turn the man’s advice into action. I still felt pretty hopeless but decided to take the ESL/Immigration ExCo as a start.

I loved it. I started to form relationships with the men (and sometimes women), and speaking Spanish brought me back to being in Nicaragua. The teachers of the ExCo were IWP interns. So, without having any idea what I was getting myself into, I applied to work with IWP this summer. The project was started in 1999 and provides services to migrant workers in seven major regions of rural Ohio. For two months, I have been in charge of the Oberlin region, working with two other student interns to teach English classes, serve as interpreters at appointments, and prepare for and interpret during court cases for undocumented and contracted immigrant workers. My fellow interns and I often feel like we are completely unqualified to be doing the work we do, but the truth is no one else would be helping these people if not for our boss, Jeff Stewart. Jeff hasn’t taken a day off since he started the project 11 years ago. He thinks of working 14 hours a day as getting off early. We only start stacking the building blocks from which Jeff erects immigration cases, fighting the sharp, uphill battle against racial profiling and a deeply flawed federal immigration system.

I encounter these realities every day with the people on the ground. Police officers often pull over Latinos for no other reason than to ask their immigration status. Unfortunately, many undocumented workers are too afraid to doubt the officer, so they are badgered into answering questions they have no right to be asked. A big part of IWP is to educate people about their rights in this country. My goals include beginning to educate our community and the communities of citizens we work with about the truths of immigration. Many people do not know that entering the country legally is nearly impossible for families who need to find jobs now. Immigration courts are still processing residency applications from the early ’90s, and many families do not have 10 years to wait.

I had the opportunity to begin this work through the ExCo, and I will be the teacher next semester. I also will be doing a private reading that will allow me to use education theory and my knowledge about the immigration system to create and implement programs. I am so excited to be starting my senior year knowing that my educational experience this year will be so perfectly coupled with the practical experience of my job and that the two will be able to complement each other. I have found the niche at Oberlin that allows me to feel productive and connected to my experience abroad.

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When I left Josana’s case, it was to drive a man, Lorenzo, to the immigration office. Lorenzo was 73 and had been living in Ohio for 15 years. He had five kids, four of whom were U.S. citizens. Three months earlier, he had been driving four miles above the speed limit when he was pulled over. He was ordered to leave immediately, but he asked for an extension since his wife had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. His request was accepted. The cancer was getting worse and as his departure date loomed, he requested a second extension.

He didn’t hear any reply for a month, so when the immigration office sent him a date to come in, he went. Assuming it was an appointment, he brought no luggage and said no goodbyes. “I just want to follow the law,” he told us as we drove into the parking lot. Upon his arrival some officers cuffed him and put him in the immigration jail. I asked the officer what was happening with his case. “His extension was denied, we were going to send him out a letter today. We probably won’t have any room on the plane today, but maybe next week.” We couldn’t do anything about it, so we left him with the immigration officers.

I walked out feeling immensely helpless. This was a more than daily occurrence. He hadn’t even said goodbye to his wife. As we drove away, I got a text from Josana. “We won.”