Attorney at Law Magazine Jacksonville Publisher Tom Brady sat down with Kara Roberts to discuss mentors and the rewards of being an attorney.
AALM: Do you have any mentors or professors that encouraged you along the way?
Roberts: Professor Ericka Curran, director of experiential learning and professor for the Immigrant and Human Rights Clinic, and Nancy Hale, director of the Refugee Immigration Project at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid are the primary reasons I do what I do. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first students in the class when Ericka’s clinic started in 2007, and was more than inspired by the experience. She recommended me for an externship with Nancy at the Refugee Immigration Project and they have not been able to get rid of me since. Ericka and Nancy heavily influenced my perspective and approach when it comes to being an attorney.
Ericka and Nancy are machines in their fields – their passion and dedication are a constant. If you have had the good luck or fortune to work with either of them, you know they have a way of leaving you hungry for more – more challenging cases, more knowledge, more experience, more opportunities to help, more justice for those who never believed the word could apply to them. They demonstrate everything that is good and right about this profession and I strive to be even an inkling of a similar example in my community.
AALM: What experiences have taught you the most?
Roberts: Working with immigrants generally has taught me the most – it makes you pause and reassess your priorities on a regular basis. Refugees (and other immigrants in similar positions) are the most inspirational and educational.
I recall a day where everything seemed to be going wrong – tire blew, late for meetings, fraud on an account, fights with family, and I could not remember if I turned the stove off . My first appointment was with a refugee from Sudan who had lost his entire family – he was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I was helping him apply for citizenship. He had such a bright, beautiful smile. Listening to some of his life story, I wondered how a young man who had experienced so much horror could still be so optimistic about life.
I had to laugh at myself a bit. If you take a moment to listen to their stories of persevering through unimaginable hardships just to find a safe place under the sun, you will find yourself grateful for all the problems you have here.
AALM: What do you find particularly rewarding about being an attorney?
Roberts: Our profession provides us with a mechanism to effectuate real change in people’s lives. Most people think a green card is just the logical next steps on an immigration journey, but it can mean much more. It can mean stability; it can mean a reunion with family through petitions or sponsorship; it can mean finally feeling like you belong somewhere in the world for those who are stateless (like some Palestinians); it can mean finally being involved in a community and giving voice to one’s opinions; and much more.
AALM: What do you find particularly challenging about your practice? How to you overcome these challenges?
Roberts: The biggest challenge lately has been the political climate that is drawing a lot of attention to immigrants and refugees. Good or bad, there is a spotlight on these folks. Most people who have negative opinions on the subject tend to not have direct experience with the individuals who will be impacted by the policy decisions of the current administration. I try to stay involved and help as many as I can as much as I can through my work and community involvement.
AALM: What accomplishment are you most proud of achieving?
Roberts: I am most proud when I am able to reunite families. Seeing a mother see her children for the first time in over a decade; a man hold his wife again aft er losing touch for over a year; a man reunited with his wife and children aft er six years of separation, it is something I cannot describe. These are more than achievements for me and I feel lucky to have been in a position to help.
AALM: What do you most hope to accomplish in the future?
Roberts: I would like to continue my efforts with the goal of protecting and expanding immigration services in my community. The recent economy and politics has made it more about protecting services, but I hope we reach a point where these services can be expanded.
On a personal level, I hope to train my two goldfish to play soccer or basketball in their tank. Yes, I have a kit and it is okay to make fun of me about this.
AALM: What events are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
Roberts: The event I look forward to every year is the one I help run – Citizenship Day. We just had our 10th annual event in April. We assisted more than 125 immigrants in our community (biggest one so far!). Citizenship Day is an annual community event providing free legal services to help immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship. Professor Curran and the Immigrant and Human Rights Clinic started it a decade ago. I have been fortunate enough to help run Citizenship Day since 2012. We have the largest Citizenship Day in the country and we are very proud of the level of services we provide. I always look forward to it.
AALM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Roberts: I would like to mention the need to help the organizations in our community providing legal services that give our local economy much needed support. These organizations do incredible work and deserve our support. A recent study commissioned by the Florida Bar Foundation found that every dollar spent on legal aid services results in more than a $7 economic impact. When it comes to immigrants, I believe that economic impact is even greater. I would like to encourage anyone willing to help to donate (time or money) to legal service providers and other organizations providing free legal services to the low-income populations.
The organizations that provide services to immigrants in our community will be facing drastically reduced funding. Over the years, I have seen refugees come to our city, and when they get even a little help with the legal and basic needs in their lives, they are able to become self-sustaining much faster. They focus their children on education. They save their money and start businesses because they want to stay in the place that gave them their fresh start. Their children go to college and become professionals, but always give back to their community because they know their success came at the sacrifices of their parents and the support from their community. I believe most of the people in Jacksonville want to support immigrants creating new lives here, so it is time we let them know through our actions.