A Transformative Year Ahead
This is the transcript of the installation speech given by AILA President Allen Orr, Jr. during AILA’s Virtual Annual Conference on June 10, 2021. You can also watch the speech, part of the free recording of the conference kick-off if you choose, embedded below.
Do you know that 5% of the 1.2 million U.S. lawyers are African American? African Americans make up 13% of the population. These percentages have been constant for more than a decade.
The knowledge of those numbers makes today extra special. Today, we make history together. I would like to take a few minutes to explain how we arrived at this point, and to explain what I see as the next big opportunity for AILA.
I’m from Valdosta, which is in South Georgia. In my early years, I was raised on a full-service farm where tobacco was king. While I was there, I learned responsibility from my grandfather and fell in love with the land. In my head, I still hear him say “If you don’t have anything to do, dig a hole and fill it in.” We both work long, exhausting days. There are no unskilled jobs, I know that from experience.
Having young parents was a part of my upbringing. My father is a landscaper. My mother worked as a civil servant. My father is big Al, and I am little Al. Several of you, like me, had mothers who spent their lives making their children’s lives better. I had the pleasure of growing up with my extended family on the farm, joking called Orr Village on Orr Rd.
I lost my mother to cancer in 2012. Her absence today makes me sad, for I would have liked to see her enjoy her hard work and support that got me here, in front of you all today. I would do anything to share this moment with her. I am grateful for Mother and Father. Thank you, NC, Mary, Arrie, Angie, Shirley Ann, Joseph, Rozell, Brad, Minnie and George- you are appreciated. It would be impossible for me to do what I do without the support of my family.
Since I was 5 years old, I knew what I wanted to be a lawyer. The dream was to grow up and be just like Martin Luther King. I loved school and never missed a single day. My dream almost died in High School when my counselor told me, without asking me for my vision of my life, that if I aimed high, I could possibly be a grocery store manager. I was a good student but struggled with learning differences and language. I tuned-out the limitations and focused on my goal of attending Morehouse College. I was accepted and enrolled in 1991.
Morehouse College is a small all-male historical Black College more commonly referred to as an HBCU in Atlanta of which Dr. King, Julian Bond, Herman Cain and Rafael Warnock are alumni. There I learned these words from Dr. Mays, the President of Morehouse College when Dr. King was a student.
I have only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me
to use it.
I will suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.
In short, don’t waste time – Have a purpose.
My potential was transformed into possibility by Morehouse. as a philosophy major, I learned a life lesson – always check the source and the intent. You get to define and determine your life. Flowers do not ask for permission to bloom, they just do. Morehouse changed my life and made me a better student, a better person – truly a better citizen. Morehouse was my first tribe outside of my family. Discovering your tribe is the key to success.
My experience at Morehouse led me to decide to pursue a legal education at Howard Law School, one of the six historically Black law schools. I always thought I would become an environmental attorney because of the love of land I developed on the farm growing up. However, during my Second year at Howard Law I achieved high marks in a class on immigration law, which led to a summer job at an EB-5 firm in Virginia. Ilene, the general counsel of the company, knew about AILA. In fact, it was this connection that led me to my first AILA immigration lawyer – The Dale Schwartz. I was then introduced to Palma Yanni by Dale. Palma then planted me in the DC Chapter’s fertile and rich soils and we bloom today.
Palma and Dale did more than introduce me to AILA. They opened doors for me, pulled up chairs, and made people see and listen to me. I had done the work. I had the tools, but I needed an opportunity to use them. Dale actually wrote my recommendation letter that earned me a position with the largest law firm in the world as an immigration attorney. Not to be outdone, Palma Yanni told me early in my career that I might become the first Black President of AILA. That is who AILA has been to me – my mission is to pay it forward for you.
I hope to inspire you to realize your full potential in the community during my time as President. It’s important to me that every member feels they belong. AILA is a place where we are in control of how we view, treat, and support other members. AILA Volunteer leadership is enlisted to nurture and empower all members. It is possible you will become President, or a chapter leader, or chair a committee, or speak on a panel, or lead a workshop, or serve as a subject expert writer. Like Morehouse and Howard for me, AILA has the tools, the time, and the resources to help you succeed as an immigration lawyer. I will make sure every member knows about the benefits of membership. Afterwards, it will be your responsibility to make the most of your time, your minute with AILA.
For me AILA has always been a group of friends on a path to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members. 16000 lawyers are a hefty community. That is why I am calling on people like Dale and Palma. We are good at providing opportunities for new members, I want us to be great. If you have spoken on a topic 100 times, you have mastered it; perhaps you could mentor or sponsor someone else. Mentorship means you train someone to continue your legacy. Sponsorship means you just bring the person in the room as they are experts on the issue but lack the opportunity to present.
AILA is a tribe. Gayle, Amy, Todd, Aimee, Brent, James, Diane, Sharon Catherine, the board of governors, AILA staff and you are valued members of the tribe. During these trying times in the world, we need to place greater importance on what unites us than anything that divides us. There are outside forces trying to divide our community and undermine our mission. In this world, some members are devalued due to their profession, their ethnicity, their gender, their race and/or their religion. Many of our clients are subjected to anti-immigrant remarks every day. In order to stay faithful to our mission, it is essential that we support each other.
Sankofa is an African word from Ghana. Sankofa teaches us that we must go back to our roots to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward.
Throughout the course of our organization’s history, we have learned strength is derived from numbers and purpose. Our membership has grown from 19 members 75 years ago to what it is today. Thank you to all the strong leaders that built the community we enjoy today. By strengthening our strong connections, we will be able to accomplish our goals and met the challenge of our mission.
I see you. We believe in you, and we are here with you. AILA’s next big opportunity is YOU.
As I close, I wanted to thank Tim for all his support and the joy he brings to my life. I have been blessed with the most amazing circle of friends. I want to thank Brad, Brad, Steffen, Scott, James, Keith, Clay, Shawn, Tommy and Bobby for the support and friendship they bring to my life. Happy Pride Month. Happy Immigrant Heritage Month, Happy Black Music Month. Happy Caribbean Heritage Month.
WATCH the speech here: