Immigration and the Power of Storytelling

Like many lawyers, I used my undergraduate education to explore my various passions.  For me, that led to a double-major in English and physics.  Physics fascinated me with its natural laws and its ability to provide a foundation for all other sciences.  English fed my artistic side—it was amazing how the order of words and their shades of meaning could shape an emotional landscape in a reader’s mind.  The words were like building blocks—like atoms thrust together to form a unique and volatile molecule.

Now that I am an immigration lawyer, I often think about the connections between the law, the sciences, and the humanities.  Like physics, the law contemplates a set of rules that govern the interactions between people.  Unlike physics, these rules are man-made and subject to change.  (Imagine if physicists could legislate a change so that gravity no longer applied!)

When people create the rules, whether through actual law, or through policy, the rules they create are inherently subject to their personal and political biases.  More and more in immigration law, it seems facts are disregarded in favor of prejudices.  Statistical studies showing the importance of immigration to our economy and our shared prosperity are rejected by political extremists.  The same is true for studies showing that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.  Science and its methodologies, it seems, are insufficient to sway public opinion in an age when TV and social media viewers are bombarded with images of fear and violence involving immigrants.

If science has struggled to alter the negative stereotypes surrounding immigration, then perhaps it is time to shift the burden in larger part to the humanities.  After all, it is stories (not statistics) that inspire sympathy and promote understanding.

Immigration lawyers help our clients tell their stories almost every day.  We use our skills to make sure clients’ stories are accurately, clearly, and vividly told to ensure that the government understands where they’ve been. When we represent asylum applicants, for example, we help them to describe the persecution they faced in their home countries as they write their personal declarations.

Generally, these personal narratives are confined to the realm of the immigration court or asylum office.  As lawyers we are bound by confidentiality, but I urge my fellow attorneys to encourage our clients to share their stories with trusted friends (including native-born Americans).  The more our clients talk about their experiences outside of the courtroom, the more they connect with their communities.  Even if the sharing happens on a small scale, the stories help Americans, whether native-born or naturalized, understand what it means to be an immigrant coming to the United States.   This expanded understanding is ultimately what is needed to help shift the tide of public opinion.

Perhaps even more importantly, the act of sharing their stories outside of the courtroom can help our clients to process traumatic events and feel more at home.  A recent client of mine told me that she felt her depression and anxiety slip away for a time when she talked with her friends at her church about the domestic violence she had experienced.  It may indeed be that immigrants need to tell their stories just as much as others need to hear them.

As immigration lawyers, maybe we should be thinking differently about the stories we are helping to tell.  When our clients share their stories with us, we know to say, “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me what happened.”  But maybe we should also be asking them, “Do you have a friend whom you trust enough to tell your story?”

by John Wheaton