Special for the Armenian Weekly
This was my second time participating in the Annual Conference of the National Organization for Women. Once again, I was the only Armenian in the audience, but this time an Armenian attorney was the recipient of a humanitarian award. Kathleen Gasparian, an American-Armenian immigration attorney from New Orleans, received the Olga Vives Award for her pro bono work with undocumented kids from Central America.
Kathleen Gasparian is the founder of “PB&J: Pro Bono and Juveniles,” which recruits and matches pro bono attorneys with immigrant children who came to the United States through Mexico. The children are first detained, then some are released to sponsors or relatives throughout the United States. Many of them face deportation to dangerous situations.
“The story I am going to tell you is a little about international crisis and a lot about kids,” Gasparian said. She talked about the reasons why these children were sent to the United States without accompaniment of any adults. Most of the children who fled to New Orleans are from Honduras, followed by Guatemala and El Salvador. They came to the United States not to pursue the American dream but to escape violence, gangs, and the drug trade.
The history of Hondurans living in New Orleans goes back a century when United Fruit Company imported bananas through the port of New Orleans. The company provided many benefits for its employees, including educational visas to study in the United States. Some stayed in New Orleans upon graduation. Thus a strong social pipeline was created between the two places.
Gasparian could not stand to see so many children left alone, unaware of their legal rights. Her expertise in immigration law and passion to do advocacy work for immigrants became her reason to do something about the situation. She used the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which is designed for the most vulnerable kids who have been abandoned or abused and cannot return to their country, and who will be faced with a life-threatening situation upon deportation. Gasparian contacted her lawyer friends and started her mission to assist these desperate children. In the first round of the project, pro bono counsel was provided to more than 60 children.
As I was listening to her speech, I could sense her care for the undocumented children. They were not just her clients but human beings in need of help and advocacy. Gasparian stressed, “These children had the right to have an attorney but they were not assigned one. … I can’t solve narco-terrorism or extreme poverty but I can be a lawyer for these kids.”
She ended by saying, “It was easier than I thought to make such a big change. I did not realize how big that change was until now.”
When I met her and introduced myself, I asked her if she spoke Armenian. She answered, “I feel very Armenian, and I wanted to help these immigrant children because my grandfather was an immigrant child and somebody helped him.”