Neighborhood: Prospect Heights
Most Likely to: Get the party started; Fight the Patriarchy; Have a Spontaneous Dance Party; Go Sky-diving; Have a silly-string fight
Favorite Quote: “Nothing can make our lives, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness” – Leo Tolstoy
As a member of the Safe Passage Project—a not-for-profit that recruits, trains, and mentor volunteer attorneys for unaccompanied minors in immigration court—Lauren provides legal representation to child refugees who are fleeing gender-based violence. She’s also created a girls’ empowerment group Las Mariposas (The Butterflies) that creates a space for the girls she works with to connect with each other outside of the oft-pressing legal cases looming over them. Lauren’s sights are set on developing her own non-profit that provides free legal representation to immigrant girls and also offers them English courses, community events, shelter, a food pantry, and more.
What is your earliest memory associated with what you do now? When did your occupation become real to you?
These questions go hand in hand for me. The first case I was assigned at the Safe Passage Project was Mia (name changed for anonymity)—and it hit me like a ton of bricks. She fled El Salvador when she was 6 years old, after suffering months of being raped by her grandfather. She arrived in New York where she was reunited with her mother and thought she had finally reached safety. But because she did not have legal status in the United States, she was immediately put into deportation proceedings, where, even as a 6-year-old child, you do not have the right to a free attorney. Mia then ended up suffering horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s partner at the time. He used to rape Mia and force her to watch as he abused her younger siblings as well, including her infant sister. He told Mia he would kill her mother if she told anyone. Mia’s mother discovered what was happening because the abuser took videos of the abuse.
We were able to accept Mia’s case at the Safe Passage Project, and provide Mia with free legal representation. On my first day of work, Mia’s file was the first thing I was given to work on, as it was—understandably—a top priority. After months of working with my legal team, our social work team, and the NYPD, I was able to help her apply for a “U Visa,” which is a special visa for victims of abuse that occurred in the United States. Although her application is still pending, I was able to convince the Immigration Court to close her case, thereby protecting her from deportation. Her case has been a long and difficult journey, and there is still a lot more work to come, but this case is what immediately lit a fire in my belly—and there are hundreds of stories just like Mia’s that drive me to continue pursuing this work.
How does Brooklyn/your neighborhood particularly inform your work?
On the most simple and personal level, Brooklyn is my home. It is where I go to find my peace to re-charge, reflect, and reconnect. Some of my best ideas come to me when I am going for a run in Prospect Park. It is where I find my joy—whether it is going for a run at sunrise over the Brooklyn Bridge or trying a cocktail at Weather Up that has 5 ingredients that I’ve never even heard of before.
For many of my clients, Brooklyn is the first home they’ve had where they feel safe and welcome. They settle here to start a new life and pursue a brighter future. They know that New York, and Brooklyn in particular, is a city of immigrants. You can take a 3-minute walk down Flatbush Ave and find restaurants where you can eat food from Japan, the Caribbean, Korea, Italy, Spain. The list goes on and on.
Finally, Brooklyn is where I get to perform my super-power of being an immigration attorney! Although our office is in Tribeca, I spend a lot of time at the Kings County Family Court in Borough Hall. Many of my clients are eligible for a visa called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which is protection for children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both of their parents. The first step in applying for the visa involves going before a family court judge, telling your story, and having the judge issue an order that details what has happened to you. And this is exactly what we do. I help my clients explain to the judge, in a powerful and compelling way, what their life was like in their home country, how they were treated by their parents, and why it would be dangerous for them to return.
What do you feel is most challenging about being where you are now?
The current political climate has fostered and exacerbated many misconceptions about immigrants. I believe that, regardless of their reasons for coming here, immigrants make America great. We are a young country, founded by immigrants. Every person here has recent immigrant ancestors. That being said, most immigrants—especially those who do not have legal status or are undocumented—did not come here by choice. They are fleeing situations of violence in their home country. Many of them have experienced more trauma and violence in their short lives than we could even imagine. So it is difficult to work in this field when it feels like there is so much hatred and fear surrounding the immigrant narrative. It’s even more of a reason, however, for me to let my clients know that I am in their corner and will do everything I can to help them live a safe and happy life here.
What’s most rewarding?
Spending time with the children I represent is by far the most rewarding aspect of my work. It is an incredible responsibility and privilege that I get to be a part of their lives. Of course the subject matter of these cases is often heavy, but children bring so much light and energy. They spread their “vicarious resilience” to me and everyone they encounter.
To me, a “win” is much more than being victorious in the child’s legal case. Helping the child obtain legal status is important, and providing free legal representation, is my literal job description. But I also think that it is a “win” to just spend time with a child—listen to them, let them know that they are valued and that I believe in them. For some of these children, I might be one of the few adults in their lives that shows them empathy and kindness. People, especially children, remember how you made them feel.
5 spots in Brooklyn people should know about?
- Stocked – Cozy coffee shop during the day, beautiful wine bar at night, with the friendliest staff.
- Ample Hills – Their ice cream is good for the soul!
- Prospect Park – A green space to play, relax, go for a run, or take a nap
- Three’s Brewing – Great vibes, fun outdoor space, and beer that not only tastes good but has clever and punny names.
- Hungry Ghost – Amazing coffee, welcoming baristas, and is always filled with beautiful people.
What’s your most significant accomplishment to date?
In April 2017, I co-founded a girls empowerment group alongside our team’s social worker, Sam Norris. The group consists of about 20 teenage girls who are survivors of gender-based violence, coming primarily from Central America. We have monthly events focused on empowerment, community-building, and overall wellness. We’ve done self-defense class, salsa dance lesson, yoga, improve/acting, meditation, a journalism and film workshop, a soccer game, and a Broadway benefit concert.
Our group’s name is Las Mariposas (“the Butterflies”). We chose that name because it is a symbol of growth, migration, and transformation. We’ve created this space for the girls to connect with each other and connect with us outside of their legal case. Through our monthly events, the girls are learning to take the pain of their past, and use it as a source of power and motivation. We strive to have the girls embrace what makes them unique and we encourage them to claim their space and to not let anyone make them feel or be small.
Who/what inspires you?
My clients. These girls are brave, kind, remarkable people. They challenge me to be better. They remind me that there is more than one way to be a lawyer. More than one way to be strong. More than one way to be beautiful. They’ve helped me to find my voice and to never stop asking for more. They’ve taught me the importance of being vulnerable and open. They’ve taught me to slow down, to be silly, and to laugh without restraint.
They are in the process of healing and growing, while also making a huge impact on everyone around them. They are becoming leaders in their classrooms and communities. They are artists, basketball players, photographers, sisters, daughters, friends, role models. They have such a love for life. They take risks, and they pursue their passions with such incredible energy. They give me life and fire!
Thinking about the future, where do you see yourself in the next 30 years?
In 30 years, I will be the Founder and Executive Director of my own non-profit that provides free legal representation to immigrant girls. My dream would be to establish a non-profit that not only gives free legal representation to these girls, but also provides them with English language courses, community events, tutoring, a support group, sexual and reproductive health workshops, a food pantry, and a shelter for those who do not have support in the United States or are continuing to face violence in this country.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to a year of continuing to grow as an attorney and a human rights advocate. Just this past week, I received great news that I won two asylum cases. Both clients live in Brooklyn and are fleeing horrific abuse in Central America based on their gender. One girl is 9 years old and the other is 16. They are both so brave, smart, kind, and totally bad-ass. These girls, and these recent victories, are reminders of why we do the tough work! The girls now both have legal status to stay in the United States.
The next steps regarding my girls group Las Mariposas is to continue organizing activities and events aimed at empowerment and community. In February, we’ll have an event where we will use Valentine’s Day as a platform to speak with the girls about relationships and reproductive health. My personal next steps are to continue to elevate other’s voices and speak up for what I believe in. In particular, I will continue to work hard to send a message to abusers and misogynists everywhere that time’s up!