The title of this piece is a refrain for me as I advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized. It developed from the experience of watching Nelio (not his actual name,) a young Honduran boy in immigration court in Houston, Texas. His case had been called up and he sat alone at the Respondent’s table as the judge began to ask him simple questions – what is your name? where are you from? At that point he began to tremble and although he opened his mouth, no words or sounds came forth. The judge pressed on and Nelio’s quivering voice provided some basic information, after which the judge reset his case for a full hearing at a later date.
I was present in the court room in my work as an attorney for unaccompanied minors in a shelter operated by Catholic Charities, but I had no authority or guardian’s permission to represent Nelio. However, outside of the courtroom I approached his “guardian,” the staff member of the detention center where Nelio was being held, and asked if I could represent him at his future hearing. She agreed and I greeted Nelio and let him know that I would be with him at his next hearing. The relief in his face was palpable, and we agreed to meet in my office the following week to discuss his case.
In our subsequent meeting Nelio spoke with great passion and in fine detail about his past and what had caused him to leave Honduras and seek to live with his parents in the U.S. It was a powerful and compelling story and yet, none of this could be conveyed as he sat alone in the courtroom.
At Nelio’s final hearing he testified brilliantly and with the same passion and authenticity, which was evident to all present. As I reflected on it later, I was struck by the fact that I was recognized as Nelio’s advocate, and yet I had not done anything other than to listen to his story, assure him and stand (or sit!) with him as he told his story. All I had done was to affirm that his story was good and true and valid, and needed to be heard; in fact, it demanded a hearing. Therefore, although I engaged in advocacy on Nelio’s behalf, I had not done much other than to give him the confidence and opportunity to tell his story. It was his story and not mine!
Advocates do play a role in shaping and refining the position of those they represent. However, too often in advocacy, we tend to hear the story of the poor and then to put our own gloss on it. We hear a tragic tale and then begin reading reports and statistics, and thereafter construct our story as to what is happening. Research and investigation are crucial to being a good advocate, however, we must always remain sensitive to the question of whether we are telling their story or ours.
Tom Greene SJ, New Orleans Province, Director of the Jesuit Conference Social and International Ministries Office in Washington, D.C.