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Law Office of Heather MacKenzie
by Emily Wilson


Fresh out of my first year of university, I plunged into the work of immigration law at the Law Office of Heather MacKenzie with the position of summer intern. Such a plunge took courage both on the part of the attorney and myself; I was a nineteen year old with little experience in the real world and nowhere near fluent in the Spanish language. However, Heather MacKenzie, the attorney, recognized my enthusiasm and was brave enough to take on a student determined to nurture her love for the language in the form of a summer internship. I was thrilled to have found such an incredible opportunity. At that time, I was unsure of my future plans. On account of my argumentative nature and skill in logical thinking, my parents have always told me I would become a great lawyer. But I knew I wanted to really make a positive difference in the world, and in my mind, the two goals conflicted. It seems however that this opportunity was made for me --- immigration law seems to be a combination of several of my interests, including that of law, exploring different cultures and meeting new people from those cultures, helping others, and my love for the Spanish language and culture.

The ten weeks I spent at the office as an intern opened my eyes to a whole new world of professional possibilities, and to all the Spanish I had yet to learn! My internship consisted of a myriad of tasks, including answering the phone and handling most of the Spanish calls, translating such documents as birth and marriage certificates, tracking cases lost in the mazes of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and even meeting with clients and working on cases, start to finish. Mrs. MacKenzie provided no training for me, but instead insisted that I jump right in to the work and learn as I go, asking questions along the way. About halfway through the internship, the attorney deemed me "NACARA expert." NACARA, a relief act granted to certain Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants, was at the time a relatively new law. I was and remain the only person in the office that dealt with such cases, which involve gathering a massive amount of information, including the immigrant's addresses and places of work, complete with address, wage, position and dates of employment for the past ten years. In addition, the client must gather and include with the application evidence that he or she has been in the country the past seven years, is of good moral character, and would face severe hardships if deported to his or her country of origin. While gathering such evidence for more than 30 clients, I heard unbelievable stories of the terror the clients faced in their home country, and the challenges they face as immigrants. Such stories enforce my determination to help these immigrants in their new country.
Since the end of the internship I have continued to work at the office on a part-time basis. I have not found a job. I have instead discovered the work to which I want to dedicate my life. The work is frustrating at times as clients sometimes back out of retainer agreements after all the work is complete, the Immigration and Naturalization Services "misplaces" files, or clients simply fail to bring in the required documents. But the daily joy of meeting people from all over the world and helping them realize their dreams of U.S. residency or citizenship far outweigh those relatively minor frustrations. My area of work has expanded to include work permit renewals, family petitions, applications to adjust an immigrant's status, petitions for immigrants that are victims of domestic abuse and labor certifications.

I continue to learn daily, not only in the office through interaction with my colleagues and employer, but also through the courses that I am taking at Wake Forest. Certainly my vocabulary, critical thinking and writing skills have improved in the literature classes I have taken as part of my Spanish major, but the interpretation class in which I am currently enrolled has proved even more practical. The class is an introduction to the skill of interpretation, which has a wide variety of applications, ranging from community settings to more formal conferences. The short-term memory skills I have acquired, as well as my continual practice with conference and simultaneous interpretation has already boosted the efficiency of communications in the office between clients and my non-Spanish speaking colleagues. More importantly, such skills will certainly attract potential future employers as I begin my career. Interpretation is not an easy skill to acquire, and is not for everyone, but with continued dedication and practice, it can be an invaluable asset in today's increasingly culturally diverse communities.

Many people assume that as a Spanish major, I will teach. Indeed I will, but through my experience translating and interpreting at the office of Heather MacKenzie, I have realized that the law, Spanish and immigrants is where my passion lies. My teaching, therefore, will not be of the Spanish language, but rather a guiding of the "tired, the poor, the huddled masses" down the often rocky path towards citizenship.



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