Law Student Helps Immigrants Realize the American Dream

Daily Point of Light # 6099 Sep 29, 2017
Jonathan Heath/Courtesy Jonathan Heath

As a student attorney volunteering at the West Virginia University Immigration Law Clinic, Jonathan K. Heath has heard hundreds of stories of desperation and despair, hope and aspiration. While he was in law school, he donated countless hours to helping the immigrant community navigate the complex system of law. Sometimes he succeeded, other times he did not, but every time he was proud to use his expertise to help this underserved community reach for the American dream.

What inspires you to volunteer?

I have always been an avid volunteer. I volunteered for years with soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New England when I was younger. I helped found a small nonprofit charity in the years before I came to law school. I feel that if I am in a position to help someone by donating my time and efforts, I should do it.

Describe your volunteer role with the WVU Immigration Law Clinic

I volunteer as a student attorney. I, along with other student volunteers, am allowed by statute to practice law under the supervision of our supervising attorneys. As a student attorney, I represent clients before judges in immigration court and before the immigration officers at USCIS, clients who are seeking asylum because they are afraid for their lives in their native country. I also accompany clients to interviews and check-ins with ICE officers and help them prepare for visa interviews,

Why is it important to you to support your community in this way?

There are very few attorneys who handle family-based immigration issues and asylum cases in West Virginia. Many members of the immigrant community have gone to Pittsburgh for help, which can be both expensive and logistically difficult. We fill that void by providing assistance, at no cost, to low-income clients from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I feel it’s important to volunteer because I am very privileged to be able to have gone to law school and to gain the skills to help these individuals.

Immigration has been in the news more than ever this year – has this changed your clientele or their needs? 

Definitely! This past year we have had many new clients and former clients contact the clinic because they were worried about either being deported or about being able to get relatives into the United States before the travel ban came into effect. We’ve had clients from those countries who were worried that their applications would be denied. Many of our clients are worried and some are scared.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your volunteer service? 

The most challenging aspect, for me is confronting the fact that some clients have no legal avenue to stay in this country. It is heartbreaking to tell someone that there is nothing you can do. Aside from that, I think it is listening to the horrible stories of past persecution from asylum seekers, who have fled to the United States out of fear for their lives.

How have you grown personally through your service?

I have learned about other country’s cultures and met some very interesting people. It is a unique experience, working with underrepresented immigration populations, and to hear their stories. I have made lifelong friends with others in the clinic and have fostered professional relationships with immigration attorneys in the area.

Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?

Everyone has something they can contribute, a skill, vocation or knowledge to share. In doing so, you can actually change someone’s life for the better. When you change that one person’s life, that person is going to have an effect on other people, and it ripples outward… your act of giving back will have a lasting effect on many other people down the line.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

Being able to help someone stay in the United States and pursue the American dream. There is no better feeling in the world than hearing from a client that their green card has arrived or that their application for asylum has been approved.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

Immigration law is highly specialized. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about this area of the law through my volunteer work. I have learned so much about the complex immigration system and my interviewing and negotiation skills have improved.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

No matter where you are in life, you have an opportunity to give back to your community. You have the ability to help change people’s lives for the better.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Jonathan? Visit All For Good to find local volunteer opportunities.

Jia Gayles