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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Helping LGBT Detainees Caught in the U.S. Immigration System

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“There is nothing like being able to help someone solve a problem that has life-or-death consequences.” –3L Keisha Adams

Placement: Transgender Law Center, Oakland

Route to this Rung: Adams was writing a paper on LGBT detainees as part of her work for her law school writing requirement. In her research, she met Olga Tomchin, a Soros Justice Fellow working on behalf of transgender detainees at the Transgender Law Center. Tomchin saw Adams had the perfect background to work in the field, and brought her onboard as a volunteer. Adams is researching and writing, with Tomchin, on two amicus briefs in the 9th Circuit on transgender immigration rights. With her deep international knowledge, Adams also fields a hotline that gets calls from around the world from LBGT individuals wishing to immigrate.

Endorsement: “Keisha is an amazing activist, and I have been so lucky to have her assistance this semester,” Tomchin said. “Her personal and professional experience has made her ideally suited to serve LGBTQ immigrants and refugees. I look forward to having her as a colleague in the movement for years to come!”

Background: After graduating from Oklahoma State University, I ran a program in Logan County, Oklahoma, under the Workforce Investment Act, helping young people with encounters with the law get back in the job force, while I paid off school loans. By then, I was done with my small town. Done. Luckily, my family was very supportive.

I went to Kenya in 2005, at age 24, as a Peace Corps volunteer. For my first year, I was based in Mbuini, a small village in the Eastern Province where I lived and worked with the community. I worked in public health, doing counseling at Mbuini Voluntary Counseling and Testing Center (VCT). I was able to help secure funding through the U.S. Centers of Disease Control for the VCT. For the next year of my Peace Corps term, I lived and worked with youth vocational training schools in Ithiiani, another rural community, teaching life skills to youth and raising resources for learning exchanges and infrastructure. When my Peace Corps term ended, I secured a job with a U.S.-based NGO, working on processing refugee cases from Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

1L Summer: I externed at a civil society organization in Mumbai, India called the Lawyers Collective. I did legal research on LGBT rights.

Policy Drive: As part of my work in Mumbai, I did research on existing legal rights for sex reassignment for transgender people in Commonwealth countries. In my 2L summer, I worked with a small immigration firm in San Francisco, working on asylum cases. I also externed with a federal magistrate judge in Oakland.

Passion for Direct Service: I want to do immigration and refugee law. I love direct service. There is nothing like being able to help someone solve a problem that has life-and-death consequences. I learn so much from the lives and experiences of the people I get to serve. It’s a true privilege.

Clinic Experience: I did the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic. I represented an HIV-positive gay Salvadorian man. He’s faced so much prosecution in his home country because he’s gay. He came here and worked hard, but he was isolated from his family. He went back, but he found it was worse. Attitudes had not changed. He received asylum last week. I am very proud of my role in supporting his case. It was a very humbling experience and I learned so much from him.

LGBT Treatment in the U.S. Immigration System: There aren’t words to describe some of the treatment LGBT detainees, in particular transgender women, receive in our immigration system. Some are held in “protective” solitary confinement. Many are subject to abuse.

UC Hastings Volunteer Work: I am on the executive board of Hastings Students for Immigrant Rights. I am as active as I can be in Black Law Student Association. I was co-president last year.

Outside Causes: I volunteered as a foreclosure hotline volunteer at Tenants Together, a tenant’s rights organization. I like getting out of the insular bubble of law school. That work helps me stay grounded. I try to be as active as I can in different ways, and maintain my international connections, which are so important to me.

Home Turf: I’m a non-traditional student. I’m almost 35. I live in Albany with my partner. But I love the Tenderloin. It reminds me of Kenya. Something random happens every day.

Learning About Client Trust: Because of my biracial heritage, it was initially difficult for Kenyans to trust me. I was in an extremely rural area in Eastern Kenya. I lived with the Wakamba. I lived in a mud hut. It was comfortable. There was no electricity or running water, but no one had electricity or water. I bought a little solar panel and made the most of my experience.

I learned a little of their mother tongue, but mostly spoke Swahili. Most people thought I was from the Indian subcontinent. I definitely had a different experience as a black volunteer. There was a lot of colonial baggage. I had to work harder to earn their trust. They didn’t believe I was black, even when I showed them photos of my mother. I had long hair. When I finally cut it, they were like, "Oh, you are a sister!” I said, “I told you so!”

Dealing with Law School Stress: Law school can be stressful, especially with commuting and volunteer work. But these are first-world problems, and nothing like the kind of stress my clients face. I draw on my experience with these hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people in Africa, and here in Oakland, and that helps. I don’t want to forget the things I have seen.

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