Two young women sat in Katy Strader’s office, describing what happened to them the previous weekend when an armed man broke into their home. It was only Katy’s first full week as a Bilingual Paralegal for the Victim Justice Program (VJP) and this new client intake was a jarring introduction to the work. Both girls were shaking and crying as they detailed the robbery, which had left a third friend in critical condition with a gunshot wound.
As they related their story, Katy noticed one of the girls was breaking out in hives. “I tried to remain calm, repeat soothing words, and affirmed them for sharing their story and seeking help,” Katy tells me. During the meeting, Staff Attorney Annie Anderson accepted the girls’ case and began the process of connecting them to important resources. “I’m looking forward to following up with them to make sure they are getting additional support, and I am especially eager to help them file for a U-Visa in the coming months,” Katy says. “They are due justice, and this is one small way we can hopefully help them heal.”
Seeking justice on behalf of our clients is not just a line in the VJP job description—it is often a mission with great personal resonance for our staff. For Bilingual Paralegal Karen Salazar, who started her relationship with the Clinic as a client, she understands firsthand the value of this work. As an immigrant and a survivor herself, Karen says she is able to relate to those she now serves. And she sees the difficulties from the side of being an advocate as well. “The hardest part of my job is knowing that USCIS has long backlogs and that immigration benefits aren’t readily available for our clients,” Karen says. “I remember the healing process for my family and me. I remember the painful memories, but having a support system helped empower my family.” And now, Karen and her colleagues are able to empower others.
For Noemí Gallegos, a DOJ Accredited Representative in the VJP and a first-generation immigrant, her faith is what keeps her going. “It’s hard to know and gauge if you are doing enough—can you do more and, if so, what is it?” she asks. “My real day-to-day activity that always needs to happen is submitting myself to the idea that ultimately I am only one tool in God’s tool box.” This reminder to herself allows Noemí to trust that God is ultimately in control, even when there are so many pieces of a case that are out of her hands.
Of course, this faith—which is shared by Karen and Katy as well—does not always make the work easier. The VJP assists those who have experienced unspeakable trauma and the staff faces all kinds of barriers to the legal remedies they pursue—including the negative attitudes of others towards our clients. Karen prays that detractors will try to listen and empathize more with these survivors. “It is easy to judge, but there is more to the stories than one may realize. The people we help through VJP have come to the United States fleeing from violence and poverty,” she says. “Many immigrants, who are living in the shadows, become victims of crimes in the U.S., and they fear reporting their perpetrators due to their legal status and the language barrier. However, I believe it is our responsibility to become their voices. The work we do is so important because we are empowering our brothers and sisters to seek justice.”
Noemí shares this hope for a change of heart and perspective in those who may not be inclined towards our clients. And she applauds the strength of those survivors who seek assistance from the Clinic. “They are brave … always striving to turn their dreams into goals, their goals into realities. They are like the phoenix—they rise from the ashes.”
And yet, the importance of the work outweighs the challenges for the VJP staff. “Despite the unfortunate circumstances that bring our clients here, it is an opportunity for our country to help bring justice, reconciliation, and healing to an otherwise seemingly irreparable situation,” says Katy. “I have to believe that God is also present in our suffering and others’ suffering, and that He will show up in the ways we need Him to through our trauma or others’ trauma.”
To learn more about the VJP, please visit our website.