Sylvia Arias’ credentials are nothing short of impressive.
She moved to the U.S. from Peru when she was only 24 years old to obtain a master’s degree from the University of San Francisco. She worked with La Raza in San Francisco, then moved to Texas to get a master’s in law from the University of Texas-Austin. Arias eventually found herself working in the Washington, DC area as a law clerk before again moving to the South with her husband, who is an attorney.
When asked what she likes most about her job with Catholic Charities in Biloxi, the second year fellow said working for a nonprofit is incredibly rewarding.
“I used to work in the private sector and you have to charge people more. You have to do it or lawyers won’t survive. But here we charge them so little and you help them a lot. They get a good quality of services for very little money. I’m very proud of that.”
However, working in Biloxi is not without its anxieties. Last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris sparked a backlash against immigrants and refugees.
“People came here thinking that we were getting refugees. Most people don’t realize that not all refugees are from an Islamic background. We [received] threats through phone calls and Facebook… It can be a little scary.”
Regardless of the occasional hostile environment, Arias maintains a philosophy of patience and empathy.
“The south is very conservative in terms of politics. Not everyone is like that. You just have to be very tolerant and get used to people who have prejudices. That’s a lesson I’ve learned, and I try to understand the viewpoints even when I don’t agree with them.”
Arias’ ability to put herself in the shoes of others has allowed her to become an essential member of the Catholic Social and Community Services team.
Magda Leleaux, Arias’ supervisor, describes her work ethic as incredible.
“She always finishes what she starts and she is knowledgeable when there’s a case that she’s working on. She always follows up to achieve that level that we need to do a good job,” said Leleaux.
Additionally, Arias makes sure to reiterate why her clients need these services before the end of the interview.
“It’s not easy to get adjusted to this society and to try to get ahead. They’re not people [who] want to leave their lives without doing anything about it. You get people who are go-getters. A lot of people, they can say, ‘Oh, she’s just a maid.’ No! They are the go-getters of their countries. In order to come here and do all this, it’s a hard ride for everybody.”
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. This program has already reached roughly 20,000 people in its first year. For more information, visit https://cliniclegal.org/clinicfellows.