Eliza Klein was an Immigration Court Judge for in Massachusetts, Florida and Illinois. She stepped down after over twenty years and is currently helping a law firm that represents clients of Central American and Caribbean descent to enhance their immigration law practice. We are facebook friends through a mutual friend in Cambridge, MA. We met in person for the first time for lunch at a toda madre in Glen Ellyn, IL. She was interested in my experiences from the road; I was equally interested in her perspective on immigration and immigration law. Like all good attorneys, Eliza has a knack for distilling ideas and actions into fundamental concepts. Our conversation was far ranging, yet her perspective on each topic enhanced my understanding.
I asked Eliza why she thought immigration is such a thorny issue in our country. She explained how everyone has positive personal stories about interactions with immigrants. However, there is collective fear of them, especially in difficult times, when we feel we’re losing stuff – jobs, income, healthcare, and education – if they gain something. “When we go through life, we personalize or globalize our experience. We think that the personal stories are the exception to the rule, but immigration is a collection of personal stories. You have to like people to work in immigration but it is hard to ‘own’ such a big national issue.”
Eliza has a twenty-two year old daughter, recently graduated from Yale. When I mentioned my hope for the future in having so many positive interactions with people in their twenties she put the idea in historical context. “We were fed the World War II myth of a ‘good war’ and American supremacy. Our parents believed it completely, and we acquiesced to it. Our children are not colored by that.”
Eliza asked about the stories I was hearing on the road; I described a few of my favorites, marveling at the meaningful ways that strangers opened themselves up to me. “People can open up to you because you are passing through. They can’t expose as much of themselves to people they see everyday.”
I asked about a growing consensus that we will have a change in our immigration laws, that both sides of the political divide are accepting that. Eliza agreed that there is agreement among politicians that we have to do something, but are challenged as to what and how. The Republicans will do anything to deny Obama a legacy, but they need the Latino vote to win the next election. Meanwhile the Democrats don’t like Obama much either. Eliza believes that Obama is true to himself, neither liberal nor conservative, he seeks collaboration in a hostile environment.
“When I began working immigration law, there was some way to portray nine out of ten cases in a beneficial way. Now, it is one in ten. In 1996 Congress reformed Immigration laws to move away from a policy of ‘family first’ to a punitive stance in order to prevent people from coming or coming back. The Executive branch can’t change those statutes, but it can affect whether and how they are enforced.” Eliza explained that the backlog of immigration cases is staggering. “Right now there’s this fictitious date, 11/29/2019, the day after Thanksgiving four years away, which is essentially a parking lot for cases. Executive decisions, like publicized cases of children separated from parents, get attention. But most immigration cases languish for years.” When Eliza began as an Immigration Judge, she was deciding cases of people fleeing internal abuse and terror. “Toward the end, I was seeing kids fleeing gang violence that the U.S. created in Central America. I had to leave. It was immoral.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“Since I retired I want a little trailer and travel, but my husband wants to update our house. Its a micro-example of how will we use our resources? How do we spend our days? In our case, my husband’s health is compromised, so I bend to his wishes.
“I take the ‘we’ in your question to mean the people on the planet. We have to rethink our relationship with the planet and other species.”