2019 Parents Fund Internship Grant Reflections: Katie Cantone

Internship Location: Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC)

Journal Entry #1:

Hi everyone! My name is Katie Cantone, and I am a rising Fourth Year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m spending this summer in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, completing an internship with Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) that emerges at a fascinating intersection of my three fields of study: Spanish, Media Studies, and Latinx Studies. I am working specifically with the LAVIDA (Legal Assistance for Victim-Immigrants of Domestic Abuse) clinic, compiling visa applications for underdocumented immigrants who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence crimes that took place in the United States and therefore eligible for U visas (victims of violent crimes) and T visas (victims of human trafficking) and VAWA self-petitions (if married to a U.S. citizen). I interned with LAVIDA last summer and had the privilege to return this year in a unique capacity, as the attorney under whom I’ll be working (Vanessa) has moved across the country. I will be covering her on-the-ground responsibilities, such as in-person meetings with clients. While last summer, I spent most of my time in the social work arena, this summer I will focus specifically on the legal components of visa applications.

My first week at VPLC was full of new experiences and challenges. In an unexpected turn of events, I was the only one from my department in the office for my first four days. I knew that Vanessa had moved, but the department’s paralegal had a family emergency and had to leave the country, and the department head was also out of the state. I called Vanessa to get filled in on my task list, and instead of briefing me on the case that she had told me I would be heading for the summer, she explained that due to our unique circumstances, I would be taking over a visa application that needed to be submitted within the week.

Last summer, I didn’t even come close to compiling an application on my own, so there was a definite learning curve. Rather than feeling stranded in the office, I found it comforting to have my own space and quiet to work through the materials and create a to-do list for finishing the case. Over the next three days, I triple and quadruple checked every USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) form, every Spanish to English document translation, every detail in the personal statement to make sure the history of abuse didn’t have any holes. Although the current wait time for application review is about four years (the biggest hole of all is in our immigration system!), applications are approached with a meticulous eye and all of the information presented must be absolutely clear and correct. As I amended and polished the file, I periodically called Vanessa for consultation. Definitely not a standard office setup, but I’d say it worked pretty well for the first time around!

By the time the department head returned on Friday morning, the case was packaged to be mailed and I had started on another file. We went through the materials together and she brought me up to speed on federal poverty guidelines and key components of a visa application cover letter. Although I was tempted to feel embarrassed about the mistakes I had made, it was valuable to receive detailed constructive criticism so that I can be more effective in the future.

I finished out the week by attending VPLC’s quarterly board meeting at a neighboring law firm. It was fascinating and inspiring to sit around a table with the people who volunteer so much of their time and energy to support the organization. I also gained an opportunity to learn more about the diverse and far-reaching initiatives of VPLC’s different departments. Although my work will be within one specific corner, VPLC truly operates like a family, and each branch shares in a common unifying mission.

All in all, it was a challenging but stellar first week. I am so grateful for the opportunity to return to VPLC this summer and contribute to the fight for social justice in the city where I grew up.

Journal Entry #2:

It’s hard to believe my summer internship with LA VIDA is halfway over! I have learned and grown in more ways than I thought possible and am truly excited to share about my experience thus far. From my perspective, there are three major categories that have defined the transformation from my internship with LA VIDA last summer to this summer, and they can be defined as such:

One-on-one communication with clients. A main part of my job has been working one-on-one on visa applications with clients, usually in Spanish. One great part of this has been that I have developed much more confidence in speaking Spanish over the phone, which has always been a big insecurity for me. Losing the advantages of body language and eye contact make it far harder to understand what someone is saying and get your point across if you don’t know the exact phraseology or vocab. A second key aspect of one-on-one work is that multiple times a week, I meet with clients in my office to fill out immigration forms, collect and organize supplemental documents they bring in, or work on personal statements. Having the full responsibility over these meetings is intimidating but also freeing in that I have been granted the agency to use my best judgment and provide support to our clients.

Taking the lead on cases. I have done several client intakes with people seeking legal aid for domestic or sexual violence crimes, and I am then responsible for reporting on the intake to my supervisors and making an argument for whether or not I think it is the type of case we can or should accept. If we do decide to accept a case, I am then tasked with follow-up: clients come in to sign authorization and engagement forms and I explain to them how the visa application process will work. Something that most non-legal aid/immigration attorneys or social workers may not realize is that for 95% of our clients, applying for and receiving a visa takes multiple years (between ~2 and ~5, depending on the type of documentation sought). Receiving legal permanent residence in the form of a Green Card after that, because all of these visas have expiration dates, tacks on even more time. The applications are intense and undergo rigorous scrutiny by USCIS officials, so we must treat clients’ experiences with extreme care to give them the best possible chance. 

Working more intimately with immigration policy. We primarily handle four different types of visa (or visa-like) applications, and each application requires the completion of multiple USCIS forms in addition to the mountains of necessary documentation of abuse, relationship with the abuser, financial standing, etc. Being the one to fill out these forms with clients means that I must be equipped with a comprehensive understanding of what information is required. For example, one of these forms requires a residential history for the last five years, which for undocumented persons can be extensive and complicated due to not being able to sign leases. With guidance from my supervisors, I have learned the detailed requirements of U Visas, VAWA Self-Petitions, and Battered Spouse Waivers so that I feel confident answering clients’ questions about what they will need to prove, how long they will have to wait for answers, and what their options are in the meantime.

I will relish my next 5 weeks at VPLC, to accomplish as much as I can for clients before I have to go back to school and continue learning from professionals in the legal field to consider what I want for my future.

Journal Entry #3: 

The intensity definitely ramped up during the last few weeks of my internship with LA VIDA. The goal of finishing the four cases I had been working on felt like a ticking time bomb as my summer working for the clinic came to a close. I discovered something unexpected as everything wound down: rather than meeting with clients, filling out incredibly painstaking forms, or translating and editing personal statements, by far the most stress-inducing part of the job for me was the act of completing each visa application. I sweat more than I had in hours of client meetings over reading through translations dozens of times, making miniscule edits to formatting, and putting on neon green exhibit stickers. I have adored stickers since before I could walk, yet they really did me in.

It may be ridiculous that seemingly superfluous finishing touches were my greatest point of insecurity, but these last steps transitioned three months of work into a palpable reality with a deadline. The fear of making a mistake heightened because at the moment that an application is packaged to be mailed to immigration, someone’s life is truly in my hands in the form of their potentially life-changing visa request being accepted or rejected. There are so many tiny stumbling blocks that we guide clients around throughout the application, and checking off those last boxes made me worry incessantly that no matter how much I reviewed, I would have missed something.

But like every other moment during this internship, there was grace with this process too. I was reminded by all three of my coworkers that perfection is unrealistic; even if we submit an application that is technically impeccable, it could be rejected or deemed incomplete for a reason beyond the clinic’s control. We do our best, and it is good enough. Our best is not perfect, but it has changed lives in the past and we can only hope that it will continue to do so in the future.

If a client during a meeting couldn’t remember her mother’s birth date or the name of someone in a story or how long she had been working at her job, I was taught to respond with understanding of how trauma impacts memory and not demand every detail. I was taught to be nonjudgmental and noncondemning. But I needed to learn to reflect that same level of patience toward myself and my quality of work; I couldn’t expect an A+ on every single assignment. Even if I was working somewhat single-handedly on cases in the moment, ultimately I had a full team behind me with encouragement, validation, and support.

This internship has skyrocketed me toward the field of social work. I feel empowered by my experiences and ecstatic for my future. Thank you, VPLC and PFIG, for two incredible summers that have helped me discover the person that I want to be.