Salima Oines Khakoo ’02 (HUSL) is CEO and managing attorney of American Dream Law LLC and works with community organizations to ensure the provision of immigration-law services to working-class families. Born in Tanzania and raised in New York City, she teaches at Mitchell Hamline and lives in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood with her husband, Eric, and their children. Khakoo wrote this feature for our occasional series called “Life in Law.”
Frida, an 18-year-old Mexican national, built of a small frame but with a louder than expected voice, came into my office and asked if I was a lawyer. After I said yes, she at looked me with big brown eyes and said, “I need help to sue my parents for bringing me here.” I cleared my throat and asked for some information, to which she relayed a painful story of a childhood robbed. She explained that her parents were undocumented and worked long hours at low pay to support the family of three children. When she was not in school, she was the day care provider for her siblings. She also spent her time translating for her family. Frida had angry tears in her eyes as she described the feeling of isolation, hopelessness, and despondency that she felt when, in her teens, she was told that she was actually born south of the border and her family lacked the proper paperwork for any meaningful progress in this country. The look of despair in her face is something I recognize and see much too often in the youngest amongst us.
In my career, for better or worse, I have seen that despair in the eyes of highly successful students who learned that, due to their undocumented status, college was no longer an option. I’ve seen it in the eyes of young women who have escaped abusive marriages and taken the risk of long journeys with babies in tow to seek the protection of our nation, only to be told to go back to their certain death. I’ve seen that same despair in the swollen eyes of young men working multiple full-time jobs in dark places for little pay, which they cannot leave, just to be able to send some of the money home. Those eyes are sometimes hard to bear, but they are a mainstay of the work I do in immigration law.
I do this work because I find my daily work to be a form of patriotism—a way to give allegiance to this great nation that accepted me as a young immigrant and now has given me the tools to ensure that the engine of this nation continues to be fueled with the energy of the immigrant spirit.
After 15 years, immigration law continues to baffle, excite, and anger me all at the same time. It is like a continuous loop of learning, applying, and learning some more. Most importantly, our field requires a high amount of emotional intelligence and awareness of how our own trauma affects our ability to serve others, and this personal development to become a better human being is part of the work.
For Frida, things changed for the better on June 15, 2012, when an Executive Order called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” allowed her and almost a million other children who had been brought here before the age of 16, and who were under 31 at the time, to apply for an employment card and get a reprieve from deportation.
But then, on September 5, 2017, the Executive Order was rescinded and young women like Frida were unable renew their employment cards. This meant losing her job that allowed her family to have a living wage, giving up on college, and returning to the dark shadows of American life. Her fear was palpable, and those sad brown eyes looked at me and I almost broke down in tears.
It is unclear what the future holds for these promising young people. I have met many “Dreamers,” as they are known. They are working in Fortune 500 companies, studying to be physicians, lawyers, bankers, computer scientists, and entrepreneurs. They are valedictorians and salutatorians of their classes. The promise of America, the shining city on the hill, is deeply and profoundly embedded in their dreams as they seek only one thing: to be part of the American fabric and make our nation a better place.
Every day, in my vocation, there is an opportunity to give voice to the American Dream and to ensure its promise for our posterity with small acts like securing employment cards, permanent residence, and citizenship for immigrants. For this, I am forever grateful.
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