Feature Stories 2017: Pursuing justice for those without a voice

Isabel Saavedra with a sculpture of a homeless person in front of Catholic Charities in Washington, DC.
Feature Stories 2017: Pursuing justice for those without a voice
Pursuing justice for those without a voice

Acting on her passion for immigration law, Isabel Saavedra, JD ’14 has worked with detainees at the U.S. border with Mexico.

By Barbara Leblanc

Isabel Saavedra, JD ’14 has a passion for immigration law. It was born of her personal history, galvanized at UMass Law, and realized at the U.S. border with Mexico, where she worked with detainees seeking safety and opportunity in this country.

Today she is a staff lawyer with Catholic Charities in Washington D.C., where she helps immigrants earn the right to live and work permanently in the United States, something her own parents had to fight for after they arrived in this country from Colombia.

Focus on the plight of undocumented students

Saavedra, now 28, came to the states when she was 10 years old. Her father left behind the productive coffee farm he owned to seek better educational opportunities for his two daughters. He found work as a plumber’s assistant on Long Island in New York, and his employer sponsored his petition for a green card. 

While the petition was being processed, Saavedra’s undocumented status limited her college options and made her ineligible for most forms of financial aid. So she studied at The State University of New York at Old Westbury, where the application didn’t require a social security number and where she could commute from home.

“My parents worked double time to pay for tuition,” she said.

When she finally received her green card at age 21, she started Immigration Awareness Week at her college and decided to go to law school.

“I wanted to help to provide legal access to children who are brought to the United States without any say and discover later on they are undocumented,” she said.

UMass Law attracted her with its public interest law mission and a Public Interest Law Fellowship that paid half her tuition and fees.

Compassion born out of her own history

Professor Irene Scharf, director of the UMass Litigation Immigration Clinic, quickly became a mentor, taking Saavedra on a fact-finding mission to the Dominican Republic, where citizenship was being revoked for Haitian-born citizens.

During her third year at UMass Law, Saavedra took a year-long course through the Immigration Law Clinic, during which she helped a mother and daughter obtain green cards after being in the United States for 16 years.

“Isabel lived the experience of many of these people, the fear, the isolation,” said Scharf. “She really could empathize with people who have hope and that’s about it. But not everyone with her background ends up helping people like she does.”

Legal services for detainees at the Texas border

After graduating and passing the bar, Saavedra brought her compassion and training to Dilley, Texas, on the border with Mexico, where thousands of Central Americans are detained.

Saavedra was a paid lawyer for the CARA Pro Bono Project, which provides legal services for the detainees. She coordinated the work of other lawyers who volunteer for a week at a time to help the refugees gain legal access to the country.  They handled as many as 300 cases a week.

Witnessing the plight and determination of the women detained in Dilley was life-changing for Saavedra. She worked six days a week, 15 hours a day, often tending to the fevers and colds of the children before she could engage the mothers in their cases.

“I don’t know how these women did it,” she said. “I would be working with them, preparing for their hearing in front of a judge. It was extremely important for their case, but they had extremely sick children in their arms ...”

Helping immigrants build their lives in the U.S.

Saavedra had signed up for a six-month contract, but the work was grueling and exhausting. When Catholic Charities recruited her after four months, she took the job that brought her to Washington, D.C. Today, CARA allows only three-month rotations in the coordinator position.

Those experiences at the border are seared into her. Today, she often works with immigrants who were relocated from Dilley to Washington and are continuing their cases.

She takes great satisfaction in helping them build lives in the states. Someday, however, she would like to have a broader impact on immigration policy, perhaps by working for the federal government or counseling political candidates.

“I would like people to know that the majority of people I saw in Texas and the people I see on a regular basis are not economic migrants,” she said. “They are victims of political violence and the wars that are ongoing. I would like people to get involved and see us step up as a nation.”

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