Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

Stories not Statistics

The lines on the form are too short so I draw small arrows indicating that the reader should flip the paper over to read more. Most Saturday mornings that I volunteer at the Justice For Our Neighbors immigration legal clinic I could fill a notebook with the stories I hear.

I started volunteering at JFON a little over a year ago because I wanted to practice my Spanish. I usually do intake interviews which means filling out paperwork that the lawyer will review when she meets with the new client. The forms ask about income and savings and members in the household. They ask about arrests and imprisonments and jail sentences. They ask about entrances and exits from the United States. They ask if the person has ever been a victim of a crime and if they came to the United States against their will. Sometimes the questions feel intrusive. But each question could lead to an answer that provides a path that leads to a door with a lock to which the person on the other side of the desk from me in the bare church office may learn they have a key. Or not. It’s not my job to assess the case, only to hear the first telling of it.

Behind every word I write on the form is a story – a story of family left behind, of danger escaped, of hope followed, of fear of being caught. I asked Luisa, “Are you afraid for your life if you return to your country?” Her twenty minute answer of black eyes, broken teeth, a broken arm all at the hands of her common law husband, whose drinking buddy is the chief of police, whom she finally left when he threatened her with a knife didn’t fit in the lines. I asked Minerva, whose husband Rogelio had been deported, Has he been convicted of a crime? She told me about their home being broken into multiple times and Rogelio had gone after the perpetrator when they ran into each other on the street, but Rogelio’s lawyer hadn’t told them that the plea bargain would result in Rogelio’s deportation and they didn’t know that Rogelio’s deportation may have been stopped because he had helped the police investigate their home invasion.  I asked Mario, “Were you brought to this country against your will?” he laughed out loud. His answer, a commentary on the devastating effects of NAFTA on the Mexican farmer, was that he hadn’t wanted to leave his town, his wife, his children, but in 1996 it was no longer possible to survive on the income from his small family farm. I wrote, “No,” on form.

Behind every statistic is a story. Behind every applause line in a political speech are actual people in actual circumstances. To learn more about the complexities of immigration check out these websites:

Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights


  1. John Bell

    What a great reminder of what is at stake and what is important. Thank you Melissa for sharing these stories.

    • admin

      John, thanks for reading. I’m so grateful for the work of JFON and all the organizations helping the most vulnerable and all those who suppor the work.

  2. Rose

    Hearing these stories and putting it down on each form in invisible ink must of been very difficult? I had tears in my heart and ache in my heart. The woman who suffer from domestic violece (DV) physical/mental abuse especially. Her scares are permanent and to possible think they must of loved each other once. I also volunteer with DV Latina woman in our community. They can’t call Police when their husband/boyfriend abuse them in front of their children, he’s the only one bringing the income and the father of our children who I take to school, clean and cook for. Yes, there is more to these stories and yet with some similarity because someone or all have a love one that gets affected. Deportation, separated, jailed or more. Yet, I haven’t experience your pain, but want to help in any way I can to a fellow human being… sister/mother/daughter etc…you are my neighbor, friend, or someone that shops in the same grocery store that I do. If anyone feels the same, be a voice, friend, volunteer, or a financial supporter.

    • admin

      Rose, the situation people find themselves in are so complex. Thanks for your work with vulnerable people.

  3. Erin P. Gosser

    I just wish the people making the (Wall) decisions would read this…

    • admin

      I like that you think it’ll make a difference.

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