Affiliate Highlight: TJ Mills
We are proud to highlight the remarkable dedication and accomplishments of Justice for Our Neighbors’ (JFON) TJ Mills. With a career in immigration spanning 25 years, TJ has served as an attorney for JFON New York, an Asylum officer at the Department of Justice, and as a clerk for a number of Immigration Judges. Rob-Rutland-Brown, Executive Director of JFON’s National Office explains, “TJ is highly respected by the volunteers he works with, and clients praise him for his skill, compassion, and tireless commitment toward improving their lives through the immigration process.”
We thank TJ for sharing his exceptional skills and passion. His personal sense of duty to clients strengthens the foundation of our network.
Why do you do this work?
The clients’ stories are fascinating and inspiring. I’m awed by the courage it must take to throw your whole lot into an unknown place. To win asylum, to reunite a family, to help someone begin a new life invokes our most fundamental human rights. It’s a privilege to be part of an effort that aims to protect those rights.
When I attended college, hundreds of orphans at that time were fleeing Central America. A friend asked me to join a tutoring program to help out the Salvadoran kids who spoke little English. I hung out with a 12-year-old, Samuel. It began as formal tutoring but we ended up playing soccer each week. The chance to use my limited Spanish in a way that helped Samuel was meaningful for me – to help Samuel to find some stability after a lifetime of war was deeply satisfying.
Until Samuel, I knew little of the war that had killed his family and his cousins. The same tutoring program invited me to work in Central America with the International Organization for Migration. There I helped to resettle refugees as they crossed the borders. I could not imagine a greater privilege than reuniting people and helping them to start new lives.
What do you love about your job?
I love JFON’s commitment to serve the most vulnerable of clients in the very neighborhoods where they live. I know of no other agency that turns church basements into legal rights clinics and then provides full representation. The idea is to meet clients in a safe place with trained lay volunteers who provide paralegal help, interpretation, and hospitality.
I work in New York, New York, which is a city filled with immigrants, where immigrants are valued and a deep part of our culture and heritage. Immigrants are an essential part of our past, our present, and our future. I love being part of that. I’m proud that JFON ventures into neighborhoods whose blocks contain the most diverse populations in the world.
I love my job, not so much because of the interest and complexities of the law, but because of its ability to reunite people and to save lives. I believe that all of my clients deserve safety and should be treated with the dignity that every human deserves. Through our JFON clinics, we achieve those goals, and, for me, it’s a privilege to do that work.
I find that people who work with immigrants tend to have great empathy and respect for their clients. There’s a premise in a book I read years ago, Coyotes by Ted Conover, that I think expresses the quality I like best in my colleagues and in my job: the subversive idea that a human is a human, and that human beings everywhere, with a little effort, can come to understand and even like each other.
Tell us about a client’s case that has stuck with you over the years?
After Burmese troops executed his father and chased him forever from his home, Naw found himself stranded in American Samoa, a nightmarish catch-22, where the International Refugee Convention applies but the U.S. immigration code does not. Moments before Samoan authorities put him on a plane for Burma, Naw managed to get a distress call to a Protection Officer at UNHCR. The officer asked JFON to help.
JFON represented Naw before DHS at a Convention-only interview. He was recognized as a refugee but forever bound to stay in American Samoa or return to Burma. Fearful that his admission to the U.S. mainland would bring on a flood of asylum seekers, the U.S. refused parole. JFON persisted for five years. After four parole applications, along with a campaign of petitions from Amnesty International, Senators, Congressmen, and the Attorney General of American Samoa, DHS relented.
Naw got asylum, got a green card, got naturalized, got married, and -- after 13 years -- reunited with his mom when she immigrated on his family petition. Last month, Naw and his wife had their first baby.
Naw’s my hero. For five years, he languished, the only Burmese-speaker, on a remote island. He never lost hope.
How do you engage CLINIC?
CLINIC’s technical expertise and its generous mentors are invaluable. I’ve managed, for instance, to bother Charles Wheeler with questions -- ongoing now 20 years -- and he has never failed to call me back.
Any other highlights?
I’m on a UNHCR roster that periodically deploys consultants to far off places. I just got back from Egypt. I was part of a team of 25 nationals. We heard the stories of refugees from eastern Africa and the Middle East. Egypt may be the only African country that receives non-African asylum-seekers (and has already harbored twice the number of Syrians than has all of Europe).
To travel to Africa and the Middle East for the first time, to work with a constantly revolving team of people from all over, and to know refugees from places like Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, reinforced my commitment to this work and to the joy of working among folks who love what they do.