Making Every Minute Count
Kim Thien Nguyen ’08 is an expert at making time.
For the past two summers, she has worked as a McGill-Lawrence intern at Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services in Portland. The McGill-Lawrence program is designed to offer Reed students “the opportunity to complement their academic studies with a summer internship in the public or nonprofit sectors.” The application process is competitive; in 2006, six students were selected and given eight-week awards of up to $1,750.
During Nguyen’s first summer at Catholic Charities, she reorganized the office’s filing system. This past summer, she advised immigrants as a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) certified accredited representative. Now in her third year at Reed, she is a senior, writing a thesis in economics.
Talk about beating the clock.
The U.S. Department of Justice allows representatives with certain charitable organizations, such as Catholic Charities, to apply for accreditation to work with immigrants. The accreditation allows those employees to provide legal counsel even if they aren’t lawyers. Their practice is limited to immigration law. Nguyen might well be the youngest BIA-accredited representative to date in Oregon. To get certified, she was required to attend clinics in Portland and Miami.
Nguyen’s work mostly involves helping her clients complete the forms necessary to obtain legal status in the U.S. If the government requests more information, she has to make sure it’s adequate and accurate. If officials want to conduct an interview, she escorts her clients, often doubling as a translator. Bottom line: she’s responsible for her clients’ futures in the United States—futures that are, for the most part, on shaky ground.
Many of the immigrants Nguyen assists are Vietnamese, and some (from a wide range of nationalities) qualify for protection under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Often, the scenario involves an American-citizen husband who arranges an overseas marriage, or meets a foreign woman and promises to marry her if she returns to the U.S. with him. Once married, he refuses to file the required paperwork to guarantee her legal status as his spouse. He abuses her and threatens to turn her in to the immigration authorities to keep her from reporting the abuse. Congress passed the VAWA to allow women to petition on their own, without the involvement or consent of a spouse.
Sometimes, the woman has children; Nguyen has found that in some cases, the woman continues to care for her abusive husband. That’s what depresses her the most, “the fact that these women put up with their [partners] lovingly,” she says. Most of Nguyen’s clients face the added challenge posed by the language barrier. “Catholic Charities has attorneys,” she says, “but no translators.”
Nguyen herself is no stranger to challenge. Born in Philadelphia and raised in California, her parents were boat people from Vietnam who arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1980s with $200. During the day her father attended school. By night he worked plucking chickens—a job that kept him out until 3 a.m. Nguyen says her family’s struggle motivates her to succeed, and to advocate on behalf of those who, like her family, had to face significant adversity to carve out a place of their own in the United States.
Over the course of her short career at Catholic Charities, Nguyen has become less idealistic and more pragmatic in her approach to the law. “It’s kind of sad,” she says. “I came in with this idea of, ‘Oh, if I could only help them.’” Over time, though, she has become an expert in the imperfections and intricacies of the American immigration bureaucracy. “I can only work under the law,” she says, adding that the law is stacked against many of her clients. Her plan is to attend law school after graduating from Reed.
Renee Cummings ’94, a staff attorney at Catholic Charities and Nguyen’s supervisor, says there are two aspects to practicing law: how you change the system for the better, and how you help your clients in the meantime. Cummings says she’s impressed by Nguyen’s motivation and her thoughtfulness as she pursues both tracks. “She doesn’t get discouraged,” she says, “and she’s very focused.”
Perhaps this is why Nguyen seems to view time—her own—as such a precious resource, and why she’s trying to shortcut through Reed in just three years to get on with her career.
“Suddenly time matters so much more,” says Nguyen, who continues to volunteer at Catholic Charities, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., two days a week during the school year. “Your hours are so valuable to someone else.”
—Brian Radzinsky ’09