We are celebrating 20 years of MSLC! What is the story of how it began?
It all began with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jay, and a Presbyterian seminarian, Mike Pentecost, who were working with the small Hispanic community in central Kentucky in 1999 and realized there was nowhere for these families to get legal help. Their concern resulted in a meeting with private attorneys, legal aid attorneys, interested individuals and faith leaders. The meeting resulted in the Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church offering office space for an all-volunteer legal services group. In October 1999, Maxwell Street Legal Clinic opened for business with several volunteer attorneys and interpreters. We were open on Sunday afternoons for about 4-5 hours each week for walk-ins. Very quickly we learned that the real need of the immigrant communities we were meeting was advice and assistance with immigration issues. So, as your GPS would say: recalculating! None of our volunteers had any experience with immigration law. Bob Rodriguez and I went off for training with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) - a relationship that continues to this day - and they offered excellent comprehensive training. Old dogs did, indeed, learn new tricks!
What has it taken to get to where we are today? It took committed volunteers! It took continuous training. And it took money. The demand for services grew exponentially. We increased our hours of services, recruited volunteers for office support, experimented with numerous intake models and began to build a practice where clients returned for help with additional immigration issues for themselves and family members. And then came the day when our first full-time, paid, trained attorney, Cori Hash, came to us as an Equal Justice Fellow. By this time we were a program of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, and it was the KEJC Executive Director, Rich Seckel, who made this possible. From that point, we have gradually increased the staff, through KEJC support, grants, client fees and individual and organizational donations, until we have two full-time attorneys, two full-time DOJ Accredited Representatives, one full-time support staff and two part-time support staff, volunteer attorneys, law school interns, volunteer translators and interpreters, volunteer office workers, and volunteer college students. The types of immigration work we can do has broadened and deepened. And we have served clients from more than 100 different countries.
What are MSLC's biggest wins? Every client who obtains legal status, every client who becomes a US citizen, every client whose Temporary Protected Status is renewed, every family that is reunited, every DACA recipient whose work permit is renewed, every victim of crime, abuse or human trafficking who obtains status is a success! And to have helped those clients overcome hurdles, struggles, trauma and despair is incredible! Two of my fondest memories are standing at Bluegrass Airport and watching a mother be reunited with her four children, whom she had not seen for seven years, and one grandchild, whom she saw for the first time, and obtaining a green card for a mother whose husband and six children were all US citizens. This is work that gives you the chance to help make one day in someone else's life transformative and full of joy.
Do you have any favorite memories or moments from MSLC? There is one memory that opened my eyes about how our clients sometimes view us. I answered the office door one day and met a nicely dressed African woman who said she needed a bankruptcy attorney. I explained that we only did immigration work, but that if she would come back in a week, I could let her know whether I had found someone who could help her. I called Jim Gardner, when he was doing bankruptcy work, and he agreed to see her. When she returned to the office, I opened the door and immediately told her "I've found a lawyer for you." She threw up her hands and shouted "God really does love me!" Jim was an answer to this woman's prayers. I hadn't really thought of lawyers that way before.
What does MSLC mean to you? What have clients told you the help has meant to them? MSLC has given me a remarkable retirement. It gave me the chance to help in some small way to make someone else's life a little better - at least for a day. It has shown me a part of life and a part of the world that I would never have seen otherwise. I have met remarkably resilient people, whom I would never have met otherwise. One of the most intriguing parts of this work is language - I have watched people communicate with each other without my having any idea what is being said. How have we developed so many different ways to "connect" with one another? Clients have expressed their gratitude in so many ways - notes, hugs, small gifts. And there is one little girl out there whose name is Marilyn because of gratitude for our work.