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Forbes 30 under 30 lawyer Lauren Burke '06 is on a six-month van trip across the country to provide legal on-demand services to immigrants. Portraits by Miles Ladin '90.
By Edward Weinmann
here are 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants estimated to be living in the United States. Martina Carrillo once belonged to this group. That is, until she was the victim of a hate crime.
The racially charged crime took place when Carrillo was in middle school. A female classmate who routinely bullied Carrillo because of her Mexican heritage beat her to the point that she nearly lost consciousness.
“I was on the ground when one big guy stepped in,” says Carrillo, who in 2000, aged 7, crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. with her mother and two siblings.
“If it wasn’t for the guy who helped, I don’t know what might have happened to me.”
The trauma hardened Carrillo’s resolve, and she assisted local law enforcement in prosecuting her attacker, who eventually pled guilty and went to juvenile detention.
Carrillo continued through high school undocumented, destined like millions of other undocumented immigrants to a life of unemployment or underemployment, lack of adequate health care and living with the constant fear of deportation.
“Growing up, I never felt welcome. I often felt like I was alone.”
Then a high school counselor referred her to immigration lawyer Lauren Burke '06. Burke helped Carrillo apply for an obscure visa set aside for victims of certain crimes (and their immediate family members) who have suffered mental or physical abuse but are willing to help in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. The U-Visa.
“In 2012, my mom, one of my siblings who crossed the border with us and I were granted our U-Visa. Then in 2016, we applied for our permanent resident status. One year later, one by one, we received our green cards. Now, we are counting down the days to becoming U.S. citizens.”
When the needs of the world and your talents intersect, therein lies your next big adventure, Aristotle is purported to have said. Burke lives by these words.
She speaks Mandarin (a major at Conn), so at NYU she wound up practicing immigration law for her internship, aiding Chinese asylum seekers who immigrated to New York City to work in restaurants.
“I realized they didn’t have any understanding of the law, so I started a program to teach young people about their rights and how to become an advocate for themselves and their community,” Burke says.
Burke has directly represented more than 500 undocumented immigrants in New York City, the majority of whom came through Atlas: DIY, the nonprofit dedicated to empowering immigrant youth she and Carrillo founded in 2012. (Four of these immigrants are photographed for this story.)
After stepping down from Atlas: DIY in 2016, she and Carrillo were parting ways, Burke leaving lawyering behind to, perhaps, write a book, while Carrillo began studying respiratory therapy.
Then Donald J. Trump, who promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, was elected president.
“After the election I decided it wasn’t the time to turn away from immigration counseling,” Burke said.
So the two friends started a Kickstarter campaign to finance a six-month van tour across the U.S. in order to provide on-demand, mobile legal services to immigrants and refugees. Burke spent money her parents were saving for her wedding to partially fund the trip.
“I’m single and [right now] would rather have a van than a man,” Burke jokes.
The problem wasn’t raising money; it was determining where to drive. Hate crimes in the U.S. have spiked, up 20 percent in 2016, “fueled by the election campaign,” according to Reuters.
Of this 20 percent, some hate crimes went viral, such as the video filmed at Jefferson Mall in Louisville, Kentucky, which showed an elderly white woman ranting at a Hispanic woman, screaming at her to “go back wherever the [expletive] you came from, lady.”
The video hit over 5 million views within a week.
The van trip was meant to be a “rapid response” to the 2016 election, the drafting of the so-called Muslim ban and the escalation of threats to synagogues and immigrant communities. Burke knew that with her legal skills she could aid the undocumented who felt threatened.
“I’m lucky I have tangible skills to help what’s happening while seeing parts of the country I don’t fundamentally understand,” Burke says.
Burke and Carrillo have been driving through the parts of the country they’re not familiar with, places like Athens, Georgia, where the duo held an impromptu “Love-In” at Taqueria La Parilla after the restaurant was vandalized for closing on “A Day Without Immigrants.”
“Love-Ins show the people who are targets of these attacks that anger and resentment are not how most people feel about immigrants. They counter hate attacks by showing that this behavior isn’t tolerated,” Burke says.
The van-driving duo has been to seven states and, at the moment, is spending time in Yancey County, deep in southern Appalachia, teaching others how to advocate for the undocumented. It’s urgent work, Burke says.
“We keep trying to leave North Carolina but people are like, ‘Wait, don’t go.’ We heard about a pro bono lawyer who practices immigration law for 17 different counties, so we couldn’t leave,” because the overworked lawyer needed Burke’s help.
“If people want us to come, we’ll be there.”
THE NEW NORMAL
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents reportedly loiter outside courthouses, shelters and churches searching for the undocumented; many raids target so-called sanctuary cities to put pressure on these cities to comply with all federal immigration laws. Sometimes the documented are caught up in this dragnet.
The new normal under the Trump administration has frightened the undocumented back into the shadows.
“It’s not a crime to be undocumented,” Burke stresses at her many training sessions.
An important point she routinely conveys because on her trip she’s been counseling numerous undocumented persons afraid to seek help after a crime, or who are afraid to follow up on the status of their visa applications.
“If you say, ‘I need immigration help,’ you are exposing so much about yourself and putting yourself at such risk,” Burke says.
“I met a student who hasn’t gone to school in two months because she’s afraid she’ll go and when she returns home her mother will be gone.”
The fear is palpable. Virginia state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) accused ICE agents of engaging in “Gestapo-style” tactics that amount to racial profiling.
Even students protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have been arrested, some while in the process of renewing their DACA status. DACA, established by the Obama administration in 2012, protects certain people brought into the U.S. illegally when they were children. It allows undocumented migrants relief from deportation as well as education and work rights.
Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron, along with more than 400 college and university presidents, signed a statement calling for the continuation and expansion of DACA after Trump was elected.
Burke feels pride that her alma mater took this stand on DACA.
“I’m proud to be a part of a college community that is standing up for the rights of immigrant students and I hope to work with the college to push the conversation further and be a leader on these issues moving forward,” Burke says.
Because of her advocacy, Burke herself has become a target of death threats. These threats, however, haven’t deterred her. As a lawyer, she feels it’s incumbent upon her to advocate.
“Now is the time to be brave, particular those of us for whom it’s safer to be brave.”
It’s less safe for Carrillo. Despite her visa status, she’s still not an official U.S. citizen. She’s read the reports of activists with proper documentation being detained. And, of course, no amount of documentation will change her accent or hide her skin color.
Still, she wants her voice to be heard.
“I like telling other teenagers about my story, because there was nobody going the extra mile for me until I met Lauren,” Carrillo says.
Burke says that while the election of Trump has spread a wave of fear in immigrant communities across the country, the flip side is a wave of activists starting grassroots movements to aid the disenfranchised. There were the millions who assembled during the Women’s March, thousands who spontaneously protested outside airports when Trump signed his so-called Muslim ban and thousands crowded into congressional town halls protesting efforts by Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Activists are calling these grassroots movements “The Resistance.” In terms of immigration reform, Burke urges a restructuring of our immigration system, regardless of what one thinks should be done about the 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants.
“The immigration system is broken across the spectrum. It’s in need of a complete overhaul,” Burke says.
More than this overhaul, though, “we need a basic understanding that people are human and deserve basic human rights.”