Adapting to new remote-study conditions hasn’t stop student efforts to support migrant rights organizations, said Philip Rody, a dual J.D. in Law and an M.A. in Latin American Studies student at The University of Arizona.
With the Migration Protection Protocol still in place and in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, things are looking bleak at the U.S.-Mexico border; about 1,300 asylum seekers have been sent back to the Mexican migrant camps since March 21. As court hearings are delayed, advocates and health authorities are warning of the high risks of virus expansion.
Rody, who is specializing in immigration defense and employment law, continues to support remotely his client through the Worker’s Rights Clinic of the College of Law, which provides pro-bono legal consulting services to low-wage workers. Currently, the Clinic is also informing workers on their rights for sick-leave and prevention of COVID-19 exposure risks, said Rody.
As board member for the UA International Law Students Association and president of the Latin America Studies Student Association, Rody has created crowdfunding campaigns, professional conferences and public events to advance awareness on immigration issues. He believes in the small wins and the power of collective response.
Las summer, Rody gained experience in asylum litigation process working with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, and this year he accepted a summer internship with Al Otro Lado, a bi-national organization heavily involved in the current litigation surrounding the Migrant Protection Protocols. Rody says that in case COVID-19 measures prevent him from joining the organization in person, he will continue to support their work remotely.
We talked to him to learn about his core motivations and the current state of immigration defense from a student perspective.
Q: What do you think was the wake-up call that led you to study Law and got you into immigration defense?
There was this opportunity to go in an alternative spring break to the border, a professor at NAU (where I studied my undergrad) was leading it, and I thought to myself: "Well, I was born and raised in Phoenix, three hours north of the border, but I know nothing about the border".
It was really an eye-opening experience. I’d never seen the border wall, the border fence, I had never talked to anyone who was born and raised on the border. I was in this trip from 4 or 5 days and talked to people who were involved in activism and humanitarian aid workers.
I wanted to do law because I felt I was really missing that one-on-one interaction and that tangible way to provide clarity and assistance to people who are subject to the U.S. flawed system of immigration. As I become involved in this it has become so apparent that counsel is so incredibly important. It makes a dramatic difference on if someone’s asylum petition has a chance of being granted or denied. I felt law was a way to make small differences wherever I could.
Q: What seemed like the biggest public misconception on immigration, after you were working on-ground?
The hardest thing for me was being in the detention center. A lot of people say that immigration detention isn’t prison, but I remember the first time walking into the detention center and it most certainly felt like prison. I was assigned (in the Florence project) to do intakes with potential clients to see how we could assist them. The one thing that really stuck with me was: people know that asylum seekers are fleeing violence, but what does that look like? What are the actual stories that demonstrate that violence? It is almost sounds unreal because it’s something that most of us are so fortunate not to experience.
You can’t really understand the flaws of our system if you can’t understand why people are forced to seek asylum. I feel a lot of people who are ‘against immigration’ don’t understand what people actually go through, because it seems like such a distant reality.
Q: What do you think is the best way for the US public in general to touch reality with the humanitarian crisis at the border?
At the core of it all is: you have to be compassionate. You have to understand that your life experience is not everyone’s life experience. I feel like if you can’t just show a sense of compassion for others, you’re never going to really understand the asylum process, you’re never going to understand what you hear in the news. I guess the lack of compassion is really what it’s striking to me. And I don’t know how you teach compassion to people.
Q: What is at the forefront of the discussion of Immigration Law and Policy?
The main concern right now is there is a lot of discussion around social distancing because of COVID-19. When the pandemic first came into national discourse, there really wasn’t any discussion about people who are detained. They can’t social distance! It was really the effort of community activist and people who were on the ground talking to people, what really brought to national attention; we have so many incarcerated people in this country, not just in immigration detentions but in prisons all over the country. I really do think it was the work of community activists who shine the light on that. That been a big point of contention now.
Q: What do you find promising?
I’ve been really inspired by a lot of students in the law program who despite their own personal circumstances, despite their classes and moving online, have been so active in filing those petitions. I really give them a lot of credit for finding that internal fire and passion to keep doing that, because we are all dealing with these change circumstances differently. But to be so selfless in a time when things are so different than what everyone’s used to is very inspiring. That gives me a little bit of hope at the ed of the tunnel for sure.
Q: What are some of the opportunities for citizens to engage and make an impact?
Although I can’t name any particular experiences that might be good opportunities for folks without legal background, I do know that a lot of non-profit organizations like the Florence project and Catholic Community Services that are always looking for people who can help with data entry, writing literature and things like that. And all that stuff can be done online. They need help with data analysis and publishing. Now that we are stuck in this world of virtual communication it’s hard to find ways to get involved, but I would definitely encourage people who are interested in helping out to definitely contact people like Margo Cowan at Keep Tucson Together. They are always working hard to make sure that people have pro-bono representation and help when they need it, especially in the immigration realm.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.