Andrea Chavarria is an American lawyer and business owner who works on immigration issues at the Chavvaria Law Firm in the Dallas/Fort Worth Area. Andrea after completing her Bachelors on Journalism in 2004 from University of Texas, went ahead to pursue a year long masters program in International Law and Diplomacy from Schiller International University. Thereafter Andrea joined the Juris Doctor programme at Thomas M. Cooley Law School and qualified in law in 2009.
Andrea pursued a few more short term courses at University of Geneva, the Hague Academy of International Law and at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
In this interview, she speaks to us about:
- What motivated her to pursue law and take up immigration issues
- How her experiences at the Hague, the University of London and the University of Geneva impacted her
- Her pro bono work with CARA
- Her views on the immigration issues and refugee laws, as well as her expectations about the evolution of policy in those areas
How would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
I was born in Mexico and raised in the United States. I am an attorney and business owner in Texas. I love traveling, reading, listening to live music, and tacos.
Growing up in America, what motivated you to take up and pursue a career in law?
As a kid, I would watch my mother help out people in our community. They were usually people who had just moved to the United States or who didn’t speak English. I knew that I wanted to help people as well. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that I wanted to become a lawyer. As an immigration attorney, I have the opportunity to help people in a way that positively changes their lives.
What prompted the switch from journalism to law? How do you think the two professions differ with respect to the impact you can make towards social justice and change?
I originally wanted to become a journalist so I could write about politics, laws, and human rights issues. I was taking a lot of political science classes in college and that’s when I realized that I wanted to work directly with people and the law rather than write about it.
The two professions differ but both professions are necessary in order to have an impact on social justice and change. Immigration attorneys can have a direct impact on someone’s life, which in some cases can be a matter of life or death. For example, I represented an individual who, if returned to his home country, would be persecuted by his home country because of his religious beliefs. We won the case and the individual was able to remain in the United States where he can openly practice his religion.
Journalists are important. They can have a broader impact because they are able to present an issue to a wider audience. There was a particular judge in an immigration court who was known to be ruthless towards children in removal proceedings. Complaints were filed by several attorneys, but nothing changed until a newspaper published an article about the behavior of the judge. Soon after, all of the children cases were removed from the judge’s docket. That’s just one example of how journalism can have an impact on social justice and change.
Consequently, how did your experience as a legal assistant/intern change your views on the ground realities of the practise?
It wasn’t until I worked as a legal assistant and as an intern that I realized how much work goes into one case and how important it is to have a good team working together. Attorneys generally get the credit, but assistants, paralegals, interns, and other staff members deserve credit as well. It really is about teamwork.
Your extensive work as a volunteer covers refugees, family detention, mentoring, etc. What motivated you to take up these causes?
Through my practice, I realized that there was a great need to help certain individuals who were fleeing their countries, but who did not necessarily have the funds to hire an attorney. In the United States, individuals who are in removal proceedings are not afforded an attorney. Even children as young as three years old are not provided an attorney. These individuals are often seeking asylum. Having an attorney can often make a difference in someone’s case. Everyone deserves to have the right to put forth the best case possible. That’s one of the reasons why I am an advocate for volunteering and working with refugees and fighting against family detention centers.
I also do volunteer work through the Dallas Bar Association and Dallas Hispanic Bar Association. I enjoy volunteering with these organizations because I get to help my local community. It’s important to give back to your community.
To what extent did your education at The Hague Academy, the University of Geneva, and the university of London augment your perspective on the immigration laws and other related issues within the U.S.?
My time at those institutions has taught me how intertwined the U.S. immigration laws are with international laws and human rights principles. When working on an immigration case, it’s important to not only look at our current U.S. immigration laws, but to also look at our international principles and obligations. In the immigration field, we have seen situations where the United States failed to adhere to its international obligations. We’ve recently seen this happen with the detainment of Central American women and children. The institutions mentioned above have helped me gain a better understanding of our international laws, obligations, and the complexities of enforcing these laws and obligations.
What would you like to tell the readers about your pro bono work with CARA?
I previously did some volunteer work with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. CARA was created due to the Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) significant expansion of its family detention centers in Dilley, Texas and Karnes City, Texas. Women and children, who are often seeking asylum, are being detained in facilities that are inhumane and inconsistent with a fair and just legal process.
I spent some time at the detention center in Dilley, Texas where I assisted in representing women in their bond hearings, preparing them for their credible fear interviews, and informing them of their legal rights. All of the women I spoke to fled their home countries because they feared for their lives or the lives of their children. Some of the women had been in the detention center for months because they could not afford to pay the bond the immigration judge issued. Some of these bonds were as high as $15,000. Many of the women felt hopeless. A majority of them were traumatized. Others were stressed and worried about their children who were also in the detention center. Some children weren’t receiving adequate medical care. Other children weren’t eating properly and losing weight. It was shocking and heartbreaking to see women and children, who had fled their countries due to fear, be treated in such an implacable way. Unfortunately, these family detention centers still exist. Women and children continue to be detained in this centers. If it weren’t for CARA and the help of volunteers, many of these women and children would not know their legal rights. To learn more about CARA visit their website: http://caraprobono.org.
What drove you to establish your own firm in 2010?
It was a culmination of things. I was working for a particular law firm and realized that it wasn’t the right fit for me. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I knew that I still wanted to work in the immigration field. I relocated to Dallas and soon after I realized that there were many people who were in need of immigration assistance. Both of my parents are business owners so I grew up with a business owner mentality. It was with their help and support that I made my decision to start my own practice.
Given the socio-political atmosphere within the country owing to the upcoming elections, how do you think immigration and refugee law and policy will evolve in the near future?
I would like to think that in the future we will have sound immigration laws and policies, but I don’t foresee it happening in the near future. In the last couple of years, I have seen how fear and xenophobia have affected refugees and immigrant communities. The state of Texas tried to block Syrian refugees from entering the state, which the federal government said it can’t do. That’s just one issue, but there are so many other issues that we have to deal with in the immigration field.
Overall, our immigration laws are complex. Advocates have been trying to push for some type of immigration reform for more than ten years. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass any type of immigration reform. The Obama Administration has deported more individuals than any other president. Recently, the United States Supreme Court issued a 4-4 split decision in U.S. v. Texas, which was a lower-court challenge to the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). The deadlock means DAPA and the expansion of DACA will not move forward.
There are numerous issues that need to be addressed within immigration law and the outcome of our next presidential election could gravely affect how our laws and policies evolve. Depending on who wins, we may see harsher policies and more deportations or we may see a push for comprehensive immigration reform. At this point, I’m unsure of what our future immigration laws and policies will look like.
As a lawyer, do you believe that it is a responsibility of those well versed with the legal statutes and policies to aid those without the resources to access this due procedure?
Yes, I strongly believe that individuals, such as attorneys, who understand the law have a responsibility to provide assistance to those without resources. One of the best ways to assist is by providing pro bono services through a non-profit organization or local bar association.
Summing up, what do you believe are the main obstacles to progressive immigration laws?
One of the main obstacles is Congress and its inability to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Congress has been deadlocked over the issue for the last few years. On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced his executive action plan, which would grant deferred action to certain individuals. Some members of Congress believed that his actions were beyond the scope of his authority. His plan to bypass Congress was met with some controversy and once again, Congress killed any chance of passing a sensible immigration reform bill. Will Congress remain at a standstill? Only time will tell.
Another major obstacle is the misconception of immigration laws. There’s the rumor that giving birth to a child in the United States grants automatic citizenship to the parents. It does not. I’ve been asked why undocumented individuals don’t just get in line to obtain legal status. There is no one line. Some individuals may not have a qualifying relative to petition for them. In other cases, it can take more than 20 years to obtain legal status through a family member. The process isn’t as quick and easy as some might think. Another common myth is that most immigrants are in the United States unlawfully. While there are some undocumented immigrants, there are also various other immigrants who are legally residing in the United States or who entered the United States lawfully. All these types of misinformation are harmful because it undermines public support for immigration reform.
How do organizations such as AILA help change the status quo?
Change comes through advocacy. Organizations, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), play an important role in advocating for reasonable changes in immigration law. In April, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in AILA’s National Day of Action. Several AILA members and I visited Congressional offices to explain why comprehensive immigration reform is necessary. This type of advocacy is important because it’s an opportunity to highlight the problems plaguing our current laws. It’s also a chance to give members of Congress and their staff examples of how our existing laws have affected immigrants, their family members, and their communities. Since it’s the role of Congress to pass legislation, it’s crucial to inform its members why certain laws aren’t working.
Finally, do you have any other advice for our readers, most of whom are college students?
You will make mistakes. We all make them. However, learn from your mistakes and always own up to your mistakes.