For the past six months, 23-year-old Alex Kleemann has worked countless hours with undocumented immigrants ages six to seventeen, learning their stories and teaching them about their rights at the South Texas Pro-Bono Asylum Representation Project (also known as ProBar). Yet a year earlier, Kleemann would not have been able to guess that immigration law would be her future.
“Before working at HIRC [Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic], I had no idea what I wanted to do after college,” said Kleemann. “Working at the clinic, especially translating during attorney-client interviews and supporting HIRC attorneys and students on a variety of cases, completely changed the trajectory of my post-college goals.”
Two summers ago, while she was working toward a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and in Anthropology at Tufts University, Kleemann began a ten-month internship at HIRC. She fell in love with the work, and looks back fondly on its day-to-day tasks of writing and interpreting. Yet when she recalls her most transformative experiences in the internship, it is clear that her passion for immigration law was sparked not by the type of work she did, but by the kind of people she encountered. From the beginning, it was the human aspect that drew her to this profession.
“The first case I translated for was absolutely inspiring though also extremely challenging,” said Kleemann. “The client was one the most driven and optimistic women I have ever met, especially given the extreme circumstances of her past. She was my age and had been consistently persecuted and violently raped by gang members in her home town. I felt so privileged to have the opportunity to learn and speak her story.”
Although Kleemann had not previously considered entering the legal profession, interacting with this client set her on a path toward her current work in immigration, and also toward a future degree in law. In spite of the difficulties she faced in translating the traumatic experiences of this client and of others who came after, Kleemann reflects that the overall impact of hearing their stories in person has only served to make the work more meaningful and urgent.
“I found her pain and perseverance extremely inspiring and it motivated me to work as hard as I could, in my limited capacity as an intern, to help her win asylum,” said Kleemann.
Kleemann continues to be inspired by those with whom she works, who, though young, share similar stories. In her current work at Probar’s Children’s Project, she helps unaccompanied migrants under the age of eighteen who are detained in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities in southeast Texas through “Know Your Rights” presentations, legal screenings and, in special circumstances, pro bono legal services. Although Kleemann spends less extended periods of time with the clients than she was able to while at HIRC, she continues to be inspired by their perseverance and does all she can to help them once they leave the shelter.
“It is definitely difficult to only spend such brief amounts time with each child, especially given the deeply personal information they share with me during our short meetings, but it is necessary in order to serve as many children as we can,” said Kleemann. “Additionally, every so often, I am able to reconnect with the children after they leave the shelter to give them phone numbers and letters of recommendation for legal service providers in their area. Having that connection with them after they leave the shelter and knowing that they are doing what they can to advocate for themselves is one of the most rewarding parts of this job. It’s a reminder that the things I do every day, that sometimes feel insufficient, actually make a difference in their lives. [. . .] It’s important to have those little reminders of the long-term effects of the work we do on a daily basis.”
Kleemann is thankful to have worked with so many inspirational people–both clients and lawyers–at HIRC and ProBAR, and appreciates the guidance and support she has received. As she gains the skills and experience needed to launch her career in immigration law, she will take the essence of what she has learned and spread it from Massachusetts to Rio Grande and beyond.
Written by Jessica Tueller
Jessica Tueller is a sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in History and Literature with a specialization in Latin America. She is also working toward a secondary in Ethnicity, Migration and Rights and language citations in both Spanish and Portuguese. She is currently interning at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.