WLSO Summer Scholars: Charu Kulkarni “The Lawyer as Translator: Some Reflections on Women’s Rights Advocacy in the Immigration Context”

By Charu Kulkarni

I am relatively new to legal advocacy as practiced in the United States, and newer still to advocacy in immigration. I grew up in India and developed an interest in law only in the past several years. I have worked as an intern in the Immigration Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services for two months. The first thing that struck me about immigration practice was that it seemed to be fundamentally about translation–not just in the sense that clients often speak in languages other than English, though this is a major part of immigration work, but also because the immigration lawyer’s particular brand of legal advocacy involves constant translation.

The immigration lawyer is faced with two realities: the sum total of the client’s life experiences on the one hand, and the US immigration system on the other. The lawyer stands in the middle, and her task is to translate between the two. When preparing asylum applications, as I did, a lawyer interviews clients over the course of many weeks, tracing the arc of their lives to the present day and getting to know their families, communities, and cultures. The lawyer is then tasked with constructing a narrative from the information gathered that can persuade an American asylum officer viewing it through the lens of the law. This narrative comes to be called a ‘declaration,’ and the client is required to swear to the accuracy of its contents. In this way, what at first was only a story about a person becomes a repository of facts cognizable by an agent of the law; what was a client’s tortured recollection of the severe domestic violence she suffered becomes a series of facts, each of which neatly fits into the required elements of a U-visa.

I have realized that if immigration law has a language, documents are its alphabet. At GBLS, I am putting together an application for a U-visa grantee to become a permanent resident and stay in the US with her daughter, who is a US citizen. One of the things this process involves is proving that she has lived in the US for a number of years. The story of the client’s life over these years is told through her personal documents. Taken together, this story can be hundreds of pages long. Along the way, I learned to select the documents with the most persuasive power, determine how many to include and what parts of her life story to highlight, make sure nothing in them is damaging to the client’s best interest, and arrange them so that they are easily accessible to the immigration officer. I have tried all the while to reflect on the problem of how to translate a human story told through documents into a legal argument. This kind of translation is essential in women’s rights advocacy in immigration law.

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