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PI Week Recap: Where Do We Go from Here? Positive Action in Uncertain Times

March 14, 2018

By Jordan Andrews C’20

On February 21, during the Law School’s 10th Annual Public Interest Week, TPIC and the Penn Law Immigrant Rights Project (PLIRP) welcomed ACLU Deputy Legal Director Cecillia Wang and Honorary Fellow-in-Residence Juan Cartagena for a discussion on strategies for successful advocacy. Moderated by the Co-Directors of PLIRP, Kimberly Grambo L’19 and Maggie Kopel L’19, Wang and Cartagena drew on their career experiences in social justice lawyering and respective work with the ACLU and LatinoJustice PRLDEF (for which Cartagena is President and General Counsel).

When asked how to best reconcile direct service and litigation at the grassroots versus national level, Wang reflected on the inherent challenges and advantages that the ACLU has when bridging the gap between targeted populations. With ACLU affiliates on the ground in every state, Wang highlighted the strength of the ACLU coalition and its reach. On the other hand, she also pointed to her personal challenge as a woman of color and as a lawyer working for a multi-issue, values-based organization in that she is “always coming in as an ally, not a part of a community.”

Leaning into the crowd, Cartagena responded as well, highlighting the level of agency LatinoJustice has in choosing its clients and issues. While he admitted the disadvantages of not having membership organizations in every state, Cartagena also highlighted that lawyers are not always the best organizers, nor do they always have the best solutions — particularly because grassroots is “much better than ever before.”

“Social justice lawyering is activism with a degree,” Cartagena said before emphasizing that lawyers must also check their egos at the door.

Moderators also asked the two guests about how they adapted their strategies in non-progressive areas given that a lot of their work is in more liberal spaces. Without pause, Cartagena responded, “You go in with fire,” describing the long-term battle he is currently fighting in Georgia for a handful of people who want to resolve driver’s license cases but are too often flagged for having paperwork in Spanish.

Wang nodded at his sentiment, stating two key aspects of her own to adapting strategy. She described the importance of first going into communities ready to listen to needs and desires and, second, worrying about how to tailor those arguments to judges. Wang also noted that a silver lining of President Trump’s immigration policy is that “the extreme nature of collateral damage” extends sometimes to American citizens, so we will begin to see a shift in public opinion.

On a similar note, Wang also responded to a question on the effectiveness of courts and nationwide injunctions. Using the Muslim ban as an example, Wang pointed out how lawyers won in every lower court but then saw the Supreme Court come down on the other side of the issue.

“It’s a scary thing to look down the barrel of judicial appointments,” she said in response.

When asked about how to build momentum daily in social justice lawyering, Cartagena countered that pro bono is not the same in every market. Smiling at the crowd, Cartagena recounted a struggle he faced finding support, as “Puerto Rico doesn’t have a long history of pro bono, so you can’t just do a gala like in New York.”

Wang noted challenges as well. While private and public partnerships can be positive, she asserted that people cannot just protest every weekend because it does not happen organically. One ACLU innovation to combat this is the platform People Power, which Wang explained helps ACLU members meet each other and plan action.

On the same topic, Cartagena also warned against putting too much stake in midterm elections.

“At a time when we knew stakes were high, we as a nation didn’t turn out,” he noted.

The last prepared question asked Wang and Cartagena to comment on what steps Penn Law students can take to fight for immigrant rights as budding lawyers. In response, Wang stressed the importance of helping even one person avoid removal, telling students to consider what they can already do in the legal bubble. Cartagena took a different approach, telling the crowd to prepare kids to be unapologetically black, LGBTQ, Latinx, pro-trans, pro-working class, and more. Reflecting on his own work empowering youth, Cartagena put emphasis on preparing the new generation to embrace many identities.

Before the end of the event, Wang and Cartagena took several questions from the audience including how to share stories in immigration work without putting clients in danger. Cartagena urged the asker to not dismiss the voices of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, as many of them are being leaders and sharing their own stories. For Wang, however, the issue was less about the delicacy of sharing and more about the effectiveness.

“Stories aren’t working. They’re just not,” she said reminding the crowd of the danger of perpetuating the deserving or blameless immigrant story, which does not get at the heart of the issue.

The two guests also responded to a question about how to engage high school students and aspiring undergraduates. Both highlighted workshops and mentorship programs within their organizations.

The final question of the night centered around media attention, as the asker wanted their thoughts on why Temporary Protected Status disappeared quietly while DACA is regularly in the news. Wang ended the night on a positive note, agreeing with the asker that while there is not one face to immigration, President Trump’s comments have brought the marginalized to the forefront in ways that even immigrant rights organizations have been remiss.