Latinas working toward immigration justice: Interviews with Graciela Mateo and Brenda Hernandez
As we wrap up Hispanic Heritage Month, I sat down with Brenda Hernandez and Graciela ‘Grace’ Mateo, two of CLINIC’s Latina staffers, to learn more about the work they do and how their heritage has inspired them to work in immigration.
What type of work do you do at CLINIC?
Brenda Hernandez: I currently work as a legal assistant with the BIA Pro Bono Appeals Project. I interact with detained clients and their attorneys on a daily basis. I am responsible for ensuring that our clients are able to find representation before the Board of Immigration Appeals. Prior to working on this project, I was a legal assistant with the Religious Immigration Services department.
Graciela Mateo: I am an immigration attorney for Religious Immigration Services at CLINIC. I work closely with religious organizations who wish to bring a religious worker to the United States. I file petitions for religious worker visas, permanent residency, naturalization and other nonimmigrant visas.
How did you become interested in immigration?
B.H.: I come from a town where the majority of residents are undocumented and work in the agriculture sector. As a young girl, I always felt the urge to prevent families from being torn apart, especially because Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, raids were common in the area. I started out as an intern at a private firm and became fascinated by the complexity of the immigration system. Although each day has been a challenge for those affected by new policies, I am happy to be surrounded by a community supportive of and ready to advocate for immigrants.
G.M.: I have been interested in immigration ever since I was young. Listening to my family’s stories and the stories of other immigrants was very fascinating to me. I was also interested in the criminal justice system and the treatment of immigrants in detention. I soon determined that I wanted to help immigrants navigate the complexities of our immigration system and secure their future in communities across the United States.
How does your heritage influence your work?
B.H.: My Mexican background taught me to respect elders and those around me. As the only one at CLINIC who manages detention phone calls, I believe my upbringing prepared me to be patient and to listen. Every client I interact with has a story regarding their journey to the United States and a reason for leaving their native homeland.
G.M.: I come from a family of immigrants. My mother and father are from the Dominican Republic, and they came to the United States when they were teenagers. Their stories and experiences overcoming adversity provided me with a different perspective in life. I was taught to respect people for who they are regardless of where they come from and to respect their cultures. This has come in handy in my work as I interact with clients from around the world.
What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
B.H.: The most fulfilling part of my job is giving clients the great news that we were able to find pro bono counsel for their appeal. Most of the time, immigrants are denied relief by the immigration judge because they are unable to afford or find counsel in time for their hearing. When I send out the forms informing clients of their placement in the project, they call me saying they had been praying and are overwhelmed with joy that “God has answered their prayers.” Securing quality legal representation for their case makes a world of difference.
G.M.: The most fulfilling part of my job is being able to help my clients come to the United States. Religious immigration is a very niche and unique area of the law. Most attorneys do not practice in this area, and it is really rewarding to be a specialist in this field.
For more information about CLINIC’s BIA Pro Bono Appeals Project, click here.
To learn more about Religious Immigration Services at CLINIC, click here.