At Home in Carolina

viviana and yvanne website 800 x 600

Last month, we visited the offices of North Carolina Immigration Law & Justice Center, which serves Fayetteville and the state’s surrounding Sandhills region. We took the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with both the executive director and the staff attorney.

 

The Beginning:   

As the child of Haitian immigrants, staff attorney Yvanne Vaughn had a front-row seat to the difficulty of navigating the U.S. immigration process. Yvanne’s high school years are filled with memories of her father going through the steps to becoming a U.S. citizen and the struggle to get a visa for her paternal grandmother so she could come to visit them at their home in New York.  Yvanne was already at university before she was able to meet her grandmother.

“It’s difficult to navigate the world of immigration as an immigrant,” says Yvanne.
“Imagine coming from another country, where you’ve had to learn and master your own language, culture, and laws, and then arrive in the United States and be bombarded with so many different obstacles. It just isn’t a straightforward process.”

Yvanne may have been destined from childhood to pursue nonprofit immigration law, but Executive Director Viviana Quiles’ route was a bit more circuitous.

“For me, it was different,” she says. Born in Puerto Rico, Viviana originally joined NC ILJ as a Spanish-speaking legal assistant. But soon, she was translating documents, working directly with clients, and hearing their stories. It was a life-changing experience.

“I was never so involved with the immigrant community before,” she admits. “But every time I helped our clients and the people in our community, it opened a new perspective for me. And it was just…joyful.”

The Present

Fayetteville is well-known for being the home of Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg), the largest U.S. military base—in terms of population—in the world, with nearly 60,000 military service members, 12,000 civilian personnel, and about 25,000 family members living on post.

Most of NC ILJ’s clients either have family in Fayetteville or have a relative in the U.S. Armed Forces, National Guard, or other military organizations. Many of Yvanne’s cases involve Parole in Place—a legal status that allows immigrants who are the spouse, parent, or child of active or retired service members to live and work in the United States, with the possibility of eventually becoming a lawful permanent resident (green card).

NC ILJ also works very closely with El Refugio/The Refuge, a local organization that seeks to improve the lives of immigrants through various programs, including ESL and citizenship classes. An NC ILJ staff member routinely does intake for potential clients at El Refugio. Both Viviana and Yvanne are frequent visitors as well.

“I went recently to introduce myself to some of the ESL students,” recounts Yvanne. “I wanted them to meet me as the attorney, to know that I am tied to the work, and passionate about it because I am myself a product of immigration.”

The Future

NC ILJ is moving to new offices in the next two months—a location that is more accessible to their clients. Viviana has plans and hopes to eventually hire another attorney and—somewhere down the line—a social worker.

“There is a huge need for this work in North Carolina,” says Viviana. “And our organization is growing. I’m putting all my faith and hope in it.”

Viviana has a buoyant smile, and it’s impossible not to catch some small part of her enthusiasm and energy. Meanwhile, however, there are the usual challenges all executive directors face: finding donors, building trust and visibility in the community, and connecting to partner organizations that can assist with housing, healthcare, and mental health issues.

“But my biggest challenge,” Viviana confesses, “is that I don’t know how to detach myself from the clients. I really love to be around them so much, and I enjoy the time I spend working with them.” She sighs. “It’s hard because I want to be everywhere all at once, and I just can’t do that.”

Yvanne nods her head. “It’s the emotional aspect, 100%,” she confirms. “More often than not, I want to take all the cases. Realistically speaking, I know that’s impossible. But turning people away is what pulls on my heartstrings the most. “

NC ILJ has volunteer attorneys who can take some of the cases they must refuse. They can also connect immigrants to their partner organizations and other resources. No one leaves the NC ILJ office empty-handed.

“We are all here to help them grow and thrive,” says Viviana. “We want them to feel welcome and know that they are part of the United States.

And that is joyful.

viviana at el refugio mexican dancers
Viviana at El Refugio, for a celebration of Mexican Culture.

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