Thank you Abby for your kind words. This is such a huge honor.
First, I would like to recognize Katherine Darmer’s contribution for advancing the fight for equality for LGBTQ rights. I did not get the privilege of getting to personally know Katherine Darmer, however, I, like a lot of the people in this room, greatly admired her work and dedication to the LGBT community. She recognized that Orange County is where work needs to be done and where the good fight needs to be waged. What I’ve learned from Katherine Darmer’s work and from working at the Public Law Center for nearly 3 years, is that even though we may feel like a minority here our voices can still be heard and that we have the ability to make change .
I am honored to accept this award on behalf of the LGBTQ community whom I have had the privilege to serve. I am honored to accept this award on behalf of the Public Law Center, and our pro bono attorneys, without whom we could not serve as many clients as we do.
This award means a lot to me. It stands as a recognition of the plight of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants who are forced not only to live in the shadows (like other undocumented individuals), but are even specifically marginalized because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Our work centers around a cruel paradox. A majority of the LGBTQ immigrants in our country are here because they perceive the United States as a place that is safer and more accepting than their home country. They see our country as a refuge. The unfortunate reality for most is that even here they continue to suffer discrimination and mistreatment. They struggle to survive; many are forced to become sex workers. Too cope with their current plight and the past persecution they suffered in their home countries, they turn to drugs and alcohol, because they do not know where else to turn to. Inevitably, like other undocumented individuals, the LGBTQ community ends up being targeted by our country’s overly zealous deportation practices. Unfortunately, the LGBTQ immigrants are one of the most affected populations in our country.
Let me give you a picture of what I’m talking about. One of my transgender clients from Mexico who I will call Isabella, was abandoned by her parents at a young age because of her sexuality. She lived a life in the margins in Mexico. She was in constant fear and paranoia that her sexuality and gender identity would become known. And her worst fears came true. At the age of 25, she was brutally gang raped by a group of homophobic men who slashed her stomach in an attempt to kill her. It is a miracle that she survived. Within a few weeks, she fled to the United States for safety. While she felt some degree of relief and security, she lived in constant fear of deportation. She could not find a job as a trans woman and eventually became a sex worker—not out of choice but because this was the only means for her to survive. Isabella turned to drugs to help her cope the trauma of what she suffered in Mexico, and the trauma from being forced to sell herself. A prostitution conviction landed her in immigration custody where she is being detained in the designated LGBT module in the immigration detention facility in the Santa Ana Jail.
We have been in deportation proceedings for over a year because that’s the reality of our over burdened and inefficient immigration court system. Over the course of representing Isabella, I have witnessed remarkable changes. I am the first person to whom she ever disclosed the full extent of the persecution she suffered in Mexico; I am the first person who told her that what she had endured was not acceptable and that she did not deserve it. According to Isabella, I am the first person in her life who has ever fought for her.
To hear how I have helped Isabella is life changing for me. Before I came to PLC, I too had become cynical about what it means to be a lawyer, whether we can really do anything meaningful for anyone. After working with clients like Isabella, it is impossible to feel that way. I am happy to say that I don’t share in such cynicism anymore. And I’m sure PLC’s pro bono attorneys who are here today can relate to my experience.
Before I conclude, I want to talk with you a little about the newly designed LGBT floor at the Santa Ana Jail. Working with advocates and organizations across the country, we are about to embark on a sensitivity training for immigration officers; Santa Ana will be the first detention facility to receive such a training. ICE hopes to make Santa Ana’s LGBT floor a model to replicate in other parts of the country.
We now have the largest concentration of detained LGBT immigrants in the country. A majority of the detainees are too poor to pay for an attorney. Each of them is terrified of being returned to their country because of the harm that they know that awaits for them there because of they identify as LGBT. Each of them wants desperately to fight their case-to at least have that opportunity to fight What this means for us is that now there is more of a need than ever to provide legal services to this population.
As attorneys, we hold incredible power to affect change and to make positive things happen for people, for our community and for the world. We can be critical and cynical or we can see our role, indeed our power, as an opportunity to change things, to educate, to mobilize, and to make a commitment to help those who need us. It is a privilege to serve this community and one that I hope you will share with me. Even though I am honored and humbled to get this award, know that this requires a collective effort. It requires solidarity and it is not one person’s job.
I hope Katherine’s legacy is an inspiration to you to join this fight to ensure that we protect access to justice, fairness, and due process of our LGBTQ immigrant community. And that we will prevail in making this country more like the one of my client’s dreams: a place of safety, acceptance, compassion and a celebration of diversity.