Senior Staff Attorney, Immigrants' Rights & Advocacy Project
Brooklyn Legal Services
It’s a complex time to be an immigration lawyer in New York City. The work is abundant, urgent and heartbreaking. For Sarah Telson, it is a dream come true.
Sarah says the chance to have hands-on experience during law school informed where she landed. But it is not difficult to see how a child of Haitian immigrants who grew up in Queens might end up interested in immigration law.
“I went to law school because I didn't know what else I wanted to do,” Sarah confesses. “And I thought if I went to law school, I would make a lot of money.” While in her second year at Cardozo, she opted in to the school’s Immigration Justice Clinic, where she had the opportunity to get practical experience representing people.
“The Cardozo Clinic is well known for helping people who are in deportation proceedings who can't afford other help. I worked on a case for a whole year with someone who is Haitian, and my family is Haitian too. Our client was going to be deported, and in the end, she wasn’t. She is now a citizen.”
And with that, Sarah’s ideas of big money lawyering gave way, and a clear path emerged: Public Interest Law—helping people who need it most.
After law school, Sarah landed a job at Brooklyn Legal Services, the biggest civil legal services provider in the city, where services are free for low-income New Yorkers. While her interest was in the immigration practice, the openings were in housing. “I just knew that was an organization I wanted to work for... however I was able to do it.” Sarah took the position just as the city was increasing funding to help reduce evictions in response to the increasing gentrification in Brooklyn that had been displacing low income residents. Growing up in Brooklyn and Queens (her mother lives in Midwood and her father in Rosedale), she saw how the housing crisis was affecting people.
“I was in court three times a week with tenants who were about to lose their homes or had already lost their homes in an area in Brooklyn where landlords are ruthless,” Sarah started in reference to the gravity of her role. “For a long time, tenants just didn't win because they didn’t have lawyers.” Landlords who had legal representation often brought people into housing court who ended up losing their apartments. According to Sarah, landlords using unlawful tactics often get people out of rent-stabilized apartments to destabilize them, which has reduced the amount of affordable housing in the city.
Sarah spent almost four years advocating to keep tenants in their homes, though she never lost sight of her aim to move to immigration. A position opened up last summer when, spurred by the immigration crisis, the city began investing in more support for immigrant rights. Still in her first year of this new domain, Sarah is working to build up her knowledge base and practice a lot. “Our organization is shifting its priorities. We used to file a lot of affirmative applications—people getting green cards and visas—and we weren't really doing a lot of deportation defense. That's what we are shifting towards now. I have clients who are in removal, people who are getting deported for a criminal offense. That's ultimately what I want to be doing.”
Sarah is committed. “I want to stay there to help develop that practice at BLS. We just got a grant from the city to represent unaccompanied minors who were in removal proceedings—those who crossed the border and somehow ended up in New York. There are a lot of children who are placed in New York, and they do have some relief available to them.”
She strongly supports New York’s Sanctuary City status. “I can't imagine cities not being sanctuaries, because it speaks to how our city views people who weren't born here. I don’t know how other cities place such little value on people just based on where they're born…to the point that they'll just turn them over to have whatever happens to them happen.”
For Sarah, this is impossible to contemplate. Her parents left the country they were born in and came to America. Her mom was able to petition to get her brothers over relatively quickly, because they were under 21. (Sarah was born here.) She says, “Anyone that has made that sacrifice to come here, to send their kids here—whatever trials they took to get here—having them turned over to ICE and sent back to the place that they were fleeing seems just cruel to me.”
Sarah compares her family’s experience to the modern one: A sibling application being processed today would have been filed in 1994. Generally, she says, if you have a green card, it takes four or five years to bring in your minor children; siblings take about ten years. A current client is waiting for her seven-year-old daughter to come here, and because of her own pending application, she can't travel to go her child. “I can’t imagine that separation and I don't think anyone is doing it because they want to be doing it,” Sarah starts. “So I know my parents had an easier time just because the laws were in place, and there was just less animosity towards immigrants.”
Sarah has seen—and helped—a lot of different people in difficult situations. And the more people she helped, the more she saw her own trajectory as lucky.
“I come from a low-income background in Queens, but I went to very privileged schools. There's something about having that experience and seeing the variety of opportunities available to different people in the world that opened my eyes.”
“My parents knew what Prep for Prep was, and that program enabled me to go to Grace and then Dalton, U. Penn and Cardozo. I think I would have worked hard wherever I was, but I don't know that that for sure. Maybe I would have ended up in law school. At some point it struck me that not everyone can get a Grace level of education. I think recognizing the income gap early in my life made me realize that it is not something that individuals can overcome themselves. I don't know when I realized that it is a systemic problem, but when I did, it made me think it about what I can do to help people get where I am if they don't have the same opportunities.”
Before Grace, Sarah’s schools had all black students (and all white teachers). She says the transition to Grace was a shock. “I remember feeling different. I wasn’t the only black person in the room – there were other black students and students of color. But it was really different.” Sarah remembers that Mrs. Cooper was always a good resource for students of color. She says there she doesn’t remember any affinity groups and they might have been helpful, even if she didn’t realize it at the time. “The fact that they exist now is awesome.”
At this moment, when we are opening serious discussions on race and racism at Grace as part of the school’s commitment to anti-racism, we asked Sarah if she had any advice for students of color at Grace today.
She said, “Speak up. But it shouldn’t only be the responsibility of the students of color to speak up. To the white students and the white staff – listen, let students of color be the ones speaking, take up less space, believe people’s experiences.” She added, “Students of color, stick together and find your resources.”
A conversation with Sarah convinces you that she is a force forever moving forward, and she is on the path of good. Encountering people in a completely avoidable bad legal spot because they couldn’t find representation, or didn’t know they needed it, is a recurrent frustration. It is one of the reasons that public interest law has such a pull on her. “I don't know what it is. I think I’m just always seeking fairness.”
With reporting from
Ellen Jorgensen '19