Affiliate Highlight: Jessica Bernal
Our affiliate highlight this month is Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Jessica Bernal. Recommended by Program Director Jossy Rogers, Jessica brings dedication, knowledge, experience, and passion to her role as a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) Fully Accredited Representative .
Jessica joined Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha in July 2010. Exemplifying a commitment to immigration legal services, Jessica became partially accredited by the BIA the following year and shortly after, transitioned as the lead case worker for the Immigration Legal Assistance Service Program. A self-motivated learner, Jessica became a BIA fully accredited representative in January of this year with the help of CLINIC.
Jessica’s knowledge of immigration law covers wide-ranging topics including family-based immigration, U visa, VAWA, naturalization, waivers of inadmissibility, Cuban Adjustment of Status, and renewing employment authorization for individuals with withholding or suspension of removal. Delivering high quality services to at risk immigrants, Jessica maintains strong relationships with local homeless shelters to use her gifts to better the lives of those who are most in need.
Why do you do this work?
When I first started working at Catholic Charities I didn’t know anything about immigration. I only knew what my parents had told me from when they went through the immigration process themselves. My parents came to the United States in the 1980s and as a result qualified to adjust their status through the 1986 amnesty. When they got their green cards I was one year old and do not recall anything, but my parents often tell me and my brother about the process and struggles they went through. When my parents applied for naturalization I was in grade school, all I remember is that they would make us go to bed early and they studied for hours each night, quizzing each other. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now, working with clients who are applying for naturalization, I have a better understanding.
I do this work because I want to help others and because I see my parents in my clients. My passion for immigration further expanded when I started college. At the time, I was living in Chicago, IL. This was during the time of the proposed legislation known as H.R. 4437, which would have increased restrictions on immigration and undocumented immigrants and penalized undocumented immigrants and anyone who helped them enter or remain in the U.S. as felons.
On March 10, 2006 a march was organized to protest over the proposed change to U.S. immigration policy, I left class early that day to participate. This march stuck with me. I remember small children marching with their parents, families of mixed legal status. In my head I kept thinking that if my parents had not adjusted their status through the amnesty that would be my family. From then on, I knew I wanted to do something to help the immigrant community.
What do you love about your job?
I love everything about my job: the clients, our small but mighty staff of three, and the complexity of immigration law. Immigration law keeps me interested as it is always changing. Every day I learn something new. I can’t see myself doing a type of work that is not related to immigration. I especially enjoy seeing families who have been separated for many years reunite.
Tell us about a client’s case that has stuck with you over the years.
There are many cases that have stuck with me over the past years, but one in particular is a U visa case. A woman consulted with our staff in September 2010, at which time she revealed that she had been a victim of sexual assault, in which she was forcibly raped by an acquaintance. She met the requirements for a U-visa.
In 2000, she was a single mother, and decided to leave her home in Mexico and come to the U.S. to work and provide a better life for her newborn son. Her intent was to work to be able to provide a better life for her son. It was a hard decision as her son was only two months old at the time, and she felt she was left with no option other than to leave the infant with her parents. To make matters worse, after arriving to the U.S., she soon discovered that her father was physically abusive to her son, which necessitated that her son live with a family acquaintance in Mexico
When she applied for U visa, she included her son, who still lived in Mexico, as a derivative in the application. In order to make the case happen for her son, she faced the struggle in obtaining a passport for him, a process that is often impossible to complete without the physical presence and cooperation of both parents. It is important to consider that if she had left the U.S. to return to Mexico to assist her son, it would have possibly jeopardized her status. It took her about four months of persistence, work, and coordination, but she was able to obtain a passport for her son in Mexico. Seven months after filing her U visa application, their application was approved. She received a work permit and we began the U visa consular process for her son to enter the U.S. for the first time.
The process required coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Guadalajara, Mexico. Her son was granted his visa in December. After eleven years apart, they reunited and in a sense, meet each other for the first time. Her son met his three siblings whom he had never met. He arrived to the U.S. at the end of December 2011. She recently returned to Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Assistance Service Program as she is now eligible for adjustment of status this summer.
How do you engage CLINIC?
I engage by attending in-person trainings and doing webinars and E-learning. I also take advantage of being an affiliate and call CLINIC’s technical assistance, for guidance on cases. The CLINIC staff is always kind and helpful.
Jessica Bernal is Lead Case Worker at Immigration Legal Assistance Service Program, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha