Susana Caterina Quiroga was born in Puno, Peru on May 25, 1978, not 1943 as her American lawyer indicated on her immigration forms. An attorney herself, Quiroga was wary of her lawyer’s suggestion to sign the forms without looking them over. Trusting her instinct, she insisted despite not fully understanding them; which turned out to be a good idea because she caught the mistake the attorney later blamed on his paralegal. This experience still stands out to her as one of the main reasons she decided to work in immigration.
“They told me, ‘just sign here,’ while my experience as an attorney said no. I didn’t want to sign without reading, but my English was – well, it’s an experience that almost every immigrant in this country has gone through,” said Quiroga.
Quiroga joined Catholic Charities – Atlanta as a CLINIC Fellow in June. While she has only been a Fellow for a few months, she has worked with Catholic Charities for almost a year and has been an immigration paralegal for eight years. Together her professional and personal experiences made her an excellent candidate for the CLINIC Fellows Program, but Quiroga points out that immigration was not her specific focus when she became a lawyer.
“When I decided to be a lawyer, the main idea was to help people gain access to an honest justice system. To fight for someone’s rights,” said Quiroga.
At the time Quiroga was finishing her law degree, Peru was in the middle of a political transition following a decade of intense terrorism by a communist guerrilla group. Alberto Fujimori had been elected president on a campaign promise to stamp out corruption. One of his initiatives removed all legal clerks and judges from office and replace them with the most accomplished students in the country. This gave Quiroga the opportunity to work as a legal clerk in family court, but she found herself disappointed when she became a licensed litigator.
“All of us young people had idealized this change that Fujimori had thought up, but in practice– once I was working– I realized that the corruption continued. It was something that couldn’t be eliminated from one day to another. The people changed, but the system stayed.”
Quiroga’s refusal to accept bribes, along with her vocal opposition to those who did take them, began to cause issues for her at work. Eventually, Quiroga quit and began working in immigration control. She would still be there if it wasn’t for her mother, who fled to the U.S. with her American husband following a terrorist attack on their home.
“The idea of coming [to the U.S.] didn’t appeal to me, because it meant starting over. I had already gone through the process: I had an education, I had a job, I had a lot of friends– I was doing well for myself. I would come visit my mother once a year. But every time I would talk to her on the phone, we would both end up in tears,” said Quiroga.
Her sister helped her realize one day she might regret not spending time with their mom as she got older, so she decided to visit for six months.
“It was during that time that I met my husband and that was that. I never went back to Peru!” Quiroga reveals with laughter.
Unable to transfer her credentials and continue her career as an attorney, Quiroga opted to take a paralegal course and began working in 2002. Today, she is able to get a Masters in Law degree that allows attorneys with foreign degrees to take the bar exam. Quiroga aims to be a U.S. attorney within the next 10 years, but in the meantime she’s focused on gaining BIA accreditation and doing community outreach in her role as a CLINIC Fellow.
“If you read the newspapers, especially the Latino ones here in Georgia, they hold nothing but sensationalist headlines. Many people become afraid of going to court, because the general idea being spread is that court automatically means deportation. I have the opportunity to offer the correct information,” said Quiroga.
The CLINIC Fellows program aims to increase the reach of immigration legal services and public education in underserved areas by funding additional full-time legal representatives that work with select CLINIC affiliates. Currently it targets eight states in the Southeast, in response to the heightened need for services in that region. For more information, visit https://cliniclegal.org/clinicfellows.