Dear Activist: The Healing of Handwritten Letters of Thanks

As an immigration attorney, I have reasons to feel defeated every day. I take solace in writing letters.
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“Handwriting is an almost forgotten art and doing it now has forced me to take stock of the things that are still positive and good in the world.”

YES! Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene 

For a while now, I’ve been looking for ways to offset the disorder that is happening all around us. So, recently, I’ve taken to handwriting notes of gratitude and sending them by mail to people I see working to make a difference.

To the doctor, repulsed by the mounting carnage in hospital emergency rooms, who has been traveling the country speaking out in favor of gun control. The math teacher, who fundraises in her spare time and recently created a wish list for needy kids. The lawyer, who is also an animal rights activist who makes us all think twice about visiting the zoo.

Handwriting is an almost forgotten art and doing it now has forced me to take stock of the things that are still positive and good in the world.

For an attorney practicing immigration law, those have been in pretty short supply. My colleagues and I have had front-row seats to some of the most devastating policies and actions of the Trump administration.

No doubt, everyone has heard and read the big headline-grabbing stories—from the travel ban and birthright citizenship to the heartbreaking separations that have devastated asylum-seeking families at the southern border.

But what not everyone sees are the hard and harsh policies and decisions flowing out from the administration at a dizzying pace, the consequences of which we then struggle to decipher for our clients.

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It’s not that immigration law has changed, because we all know it has not. What has changed is how this administration is interpreting existing law, denying what in the past was normally approved.

The administration is systematically narrowing the immigration structure in this country and, in my opinion, gearing up to detain and deport as many legal immigrants as possible. Donald Trump has said he wants to reduce legal immigration by half, and his administration is maniacally working toward that end.

As the architect of the master plan, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed his agenda on the entire immigration court system. His actions ranged from diminishing the grounds upon which people can seek asylum in the U.S., eliminating entire groups of people, like those who are victims of gang violence, to preventing judges from closing cases while at the same time imposing unreasonable quotas on them.

Before he was forced out, Sessions set about exploring a provision to expand the judicial reach of his office. It would allow the attorney general to rule directly on immigration cases even before they reach the Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws.

Elsewhere, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees applications for visas, citizenship, and other immigration benefits, has become ground zero for some of the most confounding immigration decisions, creating what many of us have been calling the “invisible wall.”

Cases that in the past had been approved as a matter of course are now denied—and with no easy or quick way to seek recourse. As a result, many people and families have been forced to leave their jobs and uproot their lives and wait outside the U.S. while their cases are refiled. Some may never be able to return.

Policy has been implemented to begin deporting people with certain denied immigration cases, including religious workers and victims of crimes and domestic violence. Even legal permanent residents whose citizenship applications have been denied on certain grounds will soon, for the first time, be subject to be deported.

The administration recently proposed expanding the definition of “public charge” to affect anyone coming to the U.S., including tourists, but particularly those applying for green cards. Estimates by the Fiscal Policy Institute show that 24 million people nationwide, including households with 9 million children under 18, would decline crucial health care and food benefits for which they’re eligible out of fear of jeopardizing their immigration status.

I heard a clip the other day of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the son of immigrants, talking alongside Madeleine Albright, another former Secretary of State and herself an immigrant, about the wonder of this country.

“Tomorrow morning, at every consular office that we have, and in every embassy, people will be lined up,” Powell said. “And when they get to the window they’ll all say the same thing: ‘I want to go to America.’”

Long an example for the rest of the world on immigration, the U.S. has lost its way, Powell said. “Somehow we’ve got to get back on track.”

So I’ve been writing to those people volunteering in their communities or speaking out on social justice issues to let them know that I’m grateful.

I’m grateful to all those beating the drums for criminal justice reform, advocating for immigrant rights, fighting and demanding that women be heard, standing up for LGBTQ rights, pushing to reform gun laws in this country, helping preserve the integrity of the health care system, fighting to address climate change, and standing up to bullies in power who wield that power to do harm.

They do what they do, not always knowing whether it’s even noticed. I want them to know I see them. And that their passion is contagious.