‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn’

Allegra Love doesn’t mince words. It’s obvious from the pace and passion of her speech that she doesn’t waste time, either. The immigration lawyer can’t afford to, not with her clients depending on her – plus the onslaught of “thousands of emails” and calls since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, just one week before we spoke.

The waves of new attention come from people who want to help the organization she created: the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal aid to immigrant youth and their families.

At one point during our Skype conversation, Love stands up to go ask her colleagues for a website address she wants to give me. “I’m sitting outside,” she explains, “so I don’t disturb all the other lawyers while I YELL. AT. YOU.” She laughs for a split second, recognizing the heightened emotion that has dominated the conversation, and then the moment of mirth is gone and it’s back to the urgent topic at hand.

Love, 35, is originally from New Jersey, but came to New Mexico 12 years ago for college and worked as a teacher before going to law school so she could escalate her fight on behalf of the communities she had come to love.

From her perch outside her Santa Fe office, she talked about the work to which she’s chosen to devote her life – but also the broader struggles and opportunities facing activists across the board in the aftermath of Trump’s election. Excerpts follow.

In reading about your work, I’ve been thinking about how what to some people seems like a sudden crisis around immigration is really part of a series of crises you and your clients have been experiencing for a long time.

Thank you so much for saying that, because that’s been one of the surprising stresses of the last week. I sure don’t want to say to anyone, “Don’t be excited about the movement,” but we’ve been asking people to care deeply about this forever. My colleagues and I have asked, and especially my clients. People are coming out of the woodwork as if this were a [brand-new] issue, and it’s been overwhelming.

This is an energy that can be harnessed. My fear is, I don’t want to lose the opportunity to use this energy, even if I can’t totally grab onto it all right now. This is a challenge across all aspects of activism: we have to figure out how to sustain this huge burst.

What do you recommend to people who are just coming to the issue now?

This is my recommendation: please learn. Take a deep breath. As an immigration lawyer, my job is incredibly complicated. I had to spend a lot of time learning to get to the point where I am able to advise my clients ethically and responsibly. Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn. That is the best advice I can give.

We have to come together and have common vocabulary. We need to know what we’re talking about. For example, people say, “Why doesn’t your client just fill out a citizenship application? I can come in and help.” I say, “My client doesn’t qualify for citizenship!” This is going to be a lifetime of learning, and I want other people to see that too.

Where can people start?

It’s going to be partially on us [people in the field] to create spaces where people can learn. But I would say, organize yourselves and then invite someone you know to come and lead it. Say, for example, “We’re a group of concerned women voters. We will set up dates, times, we will get the space, we will get the food and drinks. Can you give us a few hours of your time?” Don’t organize people to protest. Don’t organize people to start a legal clinic. Learn what you don’t know.

We need help and patience, and in one day you won’t get up to speed. Please respect that it is going to take some time to get up in there. It’s not like putting a safety pin on – and I don’t want to criticize the whole safety pin thing, but true activism takes more than a second. It takes time and commitment and willingness to stay in the fight… We practice federal law here. This isn’t something you can just pick up.

If someone said to me, “We have a hundred people and they’re ready to learn. All we need you to do is to show up,” that would be amazing for me. That’s what I’ve wanted for my community for a long time.

How else can we help you? Donating, obviously. (You can donate here.)

Yes! $50,000 hires me another attorney, and another attorney of mine can do 300 cases in a year. When you’re talking about the best use of energy, sometimes I say, don’t come volunteer for me. Use your talents and your gifts to then raise money. That will translate into paying my attorneys, keeping the lights on. I mean, the cost of toner alone! Your best use of time might be to create a piece of art and auction it off and donate that.

What about on a national level?

The best thing to do is to keep in touch with high-quality local organizations in your city. There’s a map called Immigration Advocates.org with a map that you can click on, and it shows you all the immigration advocacy organizations in your states – but nationally, I’d also follow the National Immigration Law Center for updates.

One national organization I’m very fond of is the CARA Pro Bono Project because that’s the one that helps the detained women and children on our borders. Advocates, day in and day out, putting their bodies in the way of these women getting deported. It’s failed to capture the American imagination… It’s mind-boggling that we’re jailing babies and we can’t find a way to stop it.

United We Dream is a great organization to keep in touch with if you’re concerned about Dreamers.

What are the stress levels like now in your community?

It varies wildly. We work with a very diverse group of people. Just like every American, there is a real sense of anxiety, and of course it’s higher among our Latino community. Our [president] targeted them for 18 months and called them rapists and criminals.

What I want people to see is that… the immigrant who could be deported, could be someone who delivers your baby one day. That’s where I think even the most liberal among us need to pause and consider. It’s not just that they’re not criminals. These are real live talents, people who benefit us by being in our community. This is not a group of people who we can afford to dismiss. It’s not just because they’re people and they’re humans. It’s because they’re deeply complex humans.

If you wake up on Jan. 20 and Deferred Action is cancelled, and the person who draws your blood at the hospital is gone, how are you going to feel? Your doctor, your teachers, a public defender! Our first undocumented lawyer is here in New Mexico. Our clients depend on her and can’t afford for her to be taken away. Half our clients work helping [others].

We don’t want them to go away. We educated them, we trained them. They are ours. In the warmest sense of the words, they belong to us and we belong to them. That’s what I just cannot believe that people can’t see.

Are you passionate about immigrant rights? What are you thinking, reading, discussing, doing, donating? Please share your suggestions or comments below. I’ll share in a future post some comments on putting Allegra’s advice (and yours) into action.

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