Immigration and Self Care

An Interview With Martine Kalaw: Immigration Advocate

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What was the most challenging aspect of the immigration process?
It’s difficult to pinpoint just one aspect because I felt like throughout the 13 years that I was undocumented and particularly in the seven years that I was in deportation proceedings, it was a gradual unraveling of my mental and emotional well-being. Being in a constant state of limbo for what seems like eternity can have major repercussions on your psyche, especially when there seems to be no viable way out. Your mind becomes your torture chamber where you try to imagine the outcome but cannot access peace. 

There was one particular aspect of my immigration process that nearly sent me to the brink of insanity. I had to testify against my deceased mother in court in an effort to win my case. My lawyer at the time made this request of me in the 11th hour. There I was, this scared young black woman, having to excavate my darkest secrets in a room full of white men. I felt alone, humiliated and violated by the judge’s response to me afterwards. I felt victimized for a long time after that incident and it took me years to regain my voice and power.

How do you practice self care as you see the atrocious things happening in the news?
It’s almost impossible for any bystander to read and watch the news concerning immigration and not feel contempt or a deep sadness for those individuals and for our country. Imagine how I must feel considering that I can identify with my fellow immigrants. I have overcome the trauma and no longer feel like I am reliving my experience by hearing about others. I no longer experience survivor’s guilt either. I know that I can help my community of undocumented immigrants because I developed these tools to help myself. What I experience now is a level of impatience because I want to do a lot to impact the state of immigration affairs. However, this is a process and it’s taking longer than I expect for me to have a national impact. To balance all of these emotions, I practice self care by meditating, exercising and disconnecting from social media, television and newspaper for a few hours a day. I know that if I don’t disconnect for a few hours a day to consider what is good and possible in America, I will become jaded and hopeless like I once was. I do myself and the immigrant a disservice because then I cannot contribute to the cause.

What are three first steps that you recommend for families going through the process?

  • Don’t rely on your lawyer to do all the work to save you. Educate yourself about your status by asking your lawyer questions, getting a second opinion, doing research online and aligning yourself with immigrant organizations such as Undocublack Network and National Immigration Law Center (NILC) that often send newsletters and offer training on current immigration legislation. Even if you have an attorney, I encourage you to align yourself with an immigrant advocacy organization that has an immigration policy expert. Get a second opinion from them about your attorney. There are some great attorneys out there but there are also some not so great ones. You want to look for the red flags and find an attorney you trust as soon as you can.

  • Join a group where you can network, such as a local church, a meetup or a local volunteer group. For many of us who are in precarious immigration situations, it’s going to take having a community to invest in us or vouch for us to help us maneuver through our immigration situation. I am not suggesting that you reveal your status to this community if you don’t feel safe. What I am suggesting is to allow this to be a space where people see your character and see your value and contributions. This also ends up being a space for you to momentarily escape from your current immigration challenges. I cannot stress this enough, but when you speak with your attorney, go to court or engage in any activity that involves your immigration status.

  • I highly recommend having an ally present. Just to be clear, I believe that your lawyer is your advocate but I do think there’s a clear distinction between an advocate and an ally. It’s like when people recommend that you take a friend to a medical appointment where you are seeing a specialist about a prognosis. It’s difficult to actively listen and recall what you heard when you are emotionally invested in the outcome. If English is not your first language filling out paperwork, keeping up with everything your lawyer is translating to you can also seem daunting. It behooves you to have a third party who is there to process the information, ask your attorney clarifying question and feed all of this information back to you after the fact. This individual doesn’t need to be an attorney, they just need to be proficient in English and emotionally attentive to you. Had it not been for the various allies who accompanied me to my hearings and my trials I would have been further traumatized. Having a support system offered me validation which was crucial during a time when my immigration judge told me that I was a nobody.

What does your book discuss about the process?
My book called, Woman Without An Identity, is a personal recount of how I went from being stateless, an orphan and undocumented to a woman with a masters degree, U.S. citizenship and a years of experience as an executive in various corporations. 

I discuss the technical aspects of my case but focus more on how it affected me as person. I highlight the issue of mental health, particularly the trauma that I suffered. I also humanize what it means to be an illegal immigrant. From reading my book I think that most people will realize that we are ordinary people whose life circumstances led them to being undocumented. We are not superhuman nor are we subhuman although the media likes to place us into one of the two categories. Many will argue that my immigration journey was lucky and serendipitous. While I am not completely disputing that, I also want to point out that being orphaned at 15 and undocumented for over a decade is hardly lucky. 

When circumstances presented themselves I was prepared to seize the opportunities. For instance, when a stranger decided to act as my benefactor and pay my way through prep school it was because he and the school recognized my good grades and my strong interviewing skills. When the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest immigration court overturned my case in 2007 it may have had to do with me being so public about my situation. I want to equip my undocumented immigrant community with tools that they can use on their journey. I also want to debunk stereotypes about my community. 

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