Noelia Rodriguez Quiñones ’10

The Fighter

By Thomas Rozwadowski
A self-proclaimed loudmouth, Noelia Rodríguez Quiñones ’10 was “born to be a lawyer.” Yet being at the center of one of the nation’s most turbulent issues—immigration—has revealed a harsh reality to the feistiest of fighters: the frontline struggle is often a lonely one.

It's Noelia Rodríguez Quiñones’s day off, but she wants to show a visitor the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in downtown Chicago. A security guard abruptly stops her before she reaches the walk-through metal detectors in the lobby to ask what business she has inside. Her lawyer switch flips on immediately.

Rodríguez ’10 pulls out her Illinois bar card and American Immigration Lawyers Association membership to prove that she’s an immigration attorney who regularly comes to this building to represent clients. When the guard pushes for an answer to his original question, she pushes back. She isn’t doing anything suspicious or soliciting anyone. It’s a public building she visits for work. Why is she being questioned?

After about two minutes of escalating tension, the guard acknowledges that he was wrong to single her out. Rodríguez accepts the apology but is still fired up minutes later. “That’s never happened to me before,” she says, shaking her head. “Look, I know my rights.”

An afternoon in the Windy City with Rodríguez quickly reveals what her family has known since she was a child: Noelia Rodríguez Quiñones does not back down. You want her on your side.

“I’m one of those kids,” Rodríguez says with a laugh as she describes how, growing up in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. “I’m a loudmouth. I love a good fight. I’ve been told from day one, ‘This girl can argue. She is going to be a lawyer.’ So, to me, it always made perfect sense.”

While the fight always has been inside Rodríguez, she didn’t decide what she was fighting for until law school at Loyola University in Chicago. A psychology major at Carleton, Rodríguez had largely processed her passion for the law in cerebral terms—know your facts, win the argument. Then she spent the summer of 2011 clerking with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), a Toledo, Ohio, nonprofit that provides legal aid to immigrant farmworkers. The experience revealed to her an “invisible population the law is supposed to protect,” she says.

undocumented immigrantsundocumented immigrants Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images For decades, Ohio farmers have relied heavily on migrant labor during the growing season. A recent New York Times article, which examined the uneasy coexistence between largely Hispanic labor forces and predominantly white residents in small, conservative Ohio farm towns, reported that 7 in 10 fieldworkers nationwide are undocumented.

According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent numbers, there were 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2015. About 8 million of those immigrants are estimated to be in the civilian workforce, the highest percentages in farming and construction.

“These men and women were severely underserved and extremely hard to reach,” Rodríguez says. “They were living in camps that didn’t comply with safety and health laws. They had kids to take care of, many of them born in the United States. I spent the majority of my clerkship making sure these families had access to legal services and that their U.S. citizen children were receiving benefits. I would often travel two or three hours to find these rural communities. I knew very little about this world.”

Working with ABLE exposed Rodríguez to the law’s humanitarian side. After earning a law degree from Loyola, Rodríguez joined the practice of Nancy M. Vizer, a firm in downtown Chicago that focuses on family, business, and humanitarian immigration law. Since joining the firm in 2014, Rodríguez has represented foreign nationals, as well as U.S. citizens and institutions, before the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Executive Office of Immigration Review, and the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois.

“The majority of immigration attorneys work with refugees and torture victims. We’ve seen and heard a lot,” Rodríguez says. “Most immigrants don’t come to this country out of malicious or criminal intent. Their stories are more complicated than that. Many are fleeing violence and persecution by gangs and their government. They are trying to improve their lives the only way they know how.”

Rodríguez considers herself a “mechanic of the law.” Her job is to read cases and extract legal minutiae that will help her clients. But her personal mission is grounded in alleviating the fear and suffering that immigration rhetoric overlooks, often intentionally, she says.

There’s no way to avoid the emotional wringer in her work. The stories she hears stay with her. Rodríguez wrestles with that level of personal investment every day. She’s also resigned to how proponents of beefed-up border security and more restrictive immigration policies respond to her call for greater empathy: If you are truly an officer of the court, how can you protect people who’ve broken the law by entering the United States illegally? Are there any rules to maintain order and security? When is enough enough?

“I hear it all the time,” Rodríguez says. “But breaking one civil law does not mean you lose the right to pursue possible remedies under the law. Our law clearly establishes a process for people to pursue a claim for asylum in the United States. If they fail, they leave the country. But they get their day in court.”

undocumented immigrantsundocumented immigrants Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images In addition to her private practice, Rodríguez stays close to her nonprofit roots by taking pro bono cases and volunteering with community outreach workshops on citizenship and guardianship. A trip to the U.S.–Mexico border in September 2016 was life changing. Rodríguez spent a week in Dilley, Texas, with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a human rights collaboration between volunteers of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. CARA provides services to border-crossing immigrants placed in family detention centers by way of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy that began under President Obama.

With a capacity of 2,400, the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is the largest of those facilities. While she was there, Rodríguez mostly met with women from the Northern Triangle of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—who were in the custody of ICE agents. Her job was to inform them of their legal rights and prepare them for what is called a “credible fear” interview, which determined whether they had a claim for asylum or humanitarian relief. The women she met often lacked formal education and were separated from their husbands and other male family members. ICE detains men in higher-security settings.

“You become their therapist,” she says. “My job is to prep them so they know what to expect in the legal process ahead, but I also have to get them to share their stories—why they’re fleeing their countries. It’s hard stuff to hear. And they have to learn to trust me.”

In Texas, Rodríguez counseled a Venezuelan woman who had been receiving death threats due to her involvement in union activities. Her husband, who was a medical professional in their home country, had been sent to a detention facility in Florida. Along with their teenage daughter, the couple was detained at a U.S. airport after declaring their fear of returning to Venezuela—“which is what they’re supposed to do,” Rodríguez says. “It didn’t matter.”

The family passed its credible fear interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officer and eventually was reunited—but not before an exploitative bond company took advantage of their efforts to get the husband out of Florida, she says. Rodríguez is representing the family pro bono on their asylum case.

Though the family is safe and together, there’s a long legal road ahead. While she’s rummaging through stacks of documents about the case on her desk, Rodríguez discusses her frustration over how the immigration debate is shaped in public consciousness. The names, dates, and countries of origin only scratch the surface. The personal details cut deeper. Can she sustain this level of emotional investment in her work? Is she making a difference?

“I am not surprised that Noelia is putting everything she has into this kind of work with marginalized communities. She will stand up for people,” says Maria Elena Doleman, a retired senior lecturer in Spanish who was a mentor to Rodríguez at Carleton. “I still remember the letter she wrote me as a freshman asking to be my student helper. It was so well written and full of conviction.

“That’s Noelia—she never does something just because. She has to have passion. She has to care.”

Rodríguez finds support in private Facebook groups where immigration attorneys can vent openly and share advice about how to tackle the next case, deal with the ongoing volatility of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and counter the onslaught of misinformation that peppers conversations across the country—from small towns to big cities.

She also gives back to Carleton the best way she knows how: with plenty of straight talk. When Career Center staff members began researching topics of interest for programming, they discovered that immigration was important to students. Rodríguez participates in the 30 Minutes program, where current students meet one-on-one with alumni to learn about professions and career paths.

“I’m upfront about immigration law—how hard it is and what goes on,” Rodríguez says. “This work is not something that you’re told to aspire to in law school. So to see interest from Carleton students, for a brief moment, it made me feel like one of the cool kids.”

Rodríguez braces herself for what the future holds. She believes that the more chaotic the immigration divide becomes, the less willing the government will be to follow its own rules—“which makes it more difficult to uphold our laws.”

“Immigration law is incredibly complex and fact-dependent, particularly in the context of humanitarian relief,” she says. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘You shouldn’t have entered this country without permission. So leave now.’

“Honestly, it feels like a losing battle,” Rodríguez continues, referring to heavy burnout among immigration attorneys. “There are not enough of us. The people who take advantage of immigrants get in the way of our work.”

But before her lament goes too far, Rodríguez remembers what brought her to this platform in the first place: she loves a good fight. “My clients aren’t about to break, so I can’t break, either,” Rodríguez says defiantly. “No, there’s too much at stake. I have to keep fighting.” 

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