Immigration vocation: Spanish-speaking Wayne student goes to bat for immigrant families

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Wayne Law student Cesilie Cordovilla finds every minute of work in the Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic to be extremely rewarding.

“Whether I’m working on my own cases, interpreting for other student attorneys, or just making copies to meet filing deadlines, I know every task is important to the lives of our clients,” she says. “I've learned so much in the clinic including trial skills. Last year I was able to win bond for a client on my own and to represent another client in an asylum ‘trial’ on my own.

“Even losing my own asylum ‘trial’ was rewarding because, although it was awful to lose, I know that collaborating with my client meant her story was told in full with all of the detail necessary to make her case. She was detained and did not have access to the resources she would have needed to express herself completely. We were able to be that resource, and to be there as just humans who cared about her when she was feeling so alone.”

Cordovilla, who earned her undergraduate degree in Spanish, international studies and Latin American studies from the University of Evansville in her native Indiana, hopes to have a career working within family, humanitarian and removal defense immigration.

“I love working one-on-one with clients in English and Spanish,” she says. “It's the perfect fit for me.”

For the past 18 months, she has worked with Ann Arbor attorney Noel Saleh, a solo practitioner specializing in civil liberties and immigration law.

“We’re ‘two peas in a pod,’ if you ask me,” she says. “He and his wife are like family to me now. He uses all of his experience and expertise to teach me and mentor me. He also understands my learning style—give me a brief background and let me give it a shot.

“Together we work on humanitarian and family immigration petitions and applications, and removal defense. My favorite cases are the ones that involve working with individuals to develop extensive equity and hardship evidences.”

Cordovilla has dreamed of becoming a lawyer since childhood.

“Then it was probably because I thought it would make me rich, but after college, I found my goals had shifted. I wanted to work collaboratively and on something that could impact individual lives,” she says.
Through a job at Catholic Charities in Evansville, she learned the area was lacking immigration legal services.

“It was a perfect fit,” she says. “The organization put me through training to become a Board of Immigration Appeals Accredited Representative and employed me as I provided basic immigration legal services to over 100 clients in our first year. Most of my clients were kids. Still, I came to know of so many community members who needed reliable, honest representation in court...and I wanted to be there to work with them.

“The idea of stewardship, as I see it, is to use what skills and tangible things you have to do good. It motivates me daily to know that soon I'll be working in my own name one-on-one with families collaboratively to build their cases. I'm always exploring ways to be the best ally I can be,” she adds. “I'm not the leader of an immigrants’ rights movement and I'm not some kind of hero. The real heroes here are the families that carry on trying to be happy in their normal lives when being disparaged on all fronts every day. I see my role as stewardship—using my educational, financial, linguistic and positional privilege to work collaboratively with my clients to raise their voices and to make sure they’re heard. I stand next to them, hand-in-hand.”

Now in her 3L year, Cordovilla is enjoying her studies at Wayne Law.

“The best thing is the people from the loyal friends to the staff to the professors—shout out to Professors Lund, Ortman, and Balgamwalla,” she says.

“I also couldn't rave more about the Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic—my experiences there have been formative.”

A 2019 Levin Center intern, Cordovilla spent this past summer clerking with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee—Minority Office.

“It was a great experience that allowed me to write recommendations to Senator Gary Peters on how he should develop his opinion about a bill, to meet with stakeholders and organizations on the ground at the border to learn the personal stories of what's going on in the U.S. and Mexico alike, to assist with policy development on all things immigration and border security, and to assist on a legislative oversight investigation,” she says.

“I really do believe I was able to contribute meaningfully to the work of my team and learned I’ve been prepared for such important work. Due credit to my parents, universities, and the privileges I have.”

While in D.C. Cordovilla was able to met several high-profile politicians, including Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, Elizabeth Warren, John Boehner, Gary Peters, and Mazie Hirono.

“Everyone was so kind, but I most enjoyed meeting Ilhan Omar's teenage daughter—she's a powerful young lady herself. More people should know about her work,” she says.

Cordovilla found that life in the nation’s capital, where she lived in a row house a little more than a mile from the National Mall, was “surreal.”

“During the day it was like walking around in a postcard,” she says. ”I didn't get used to it. It felt like my feet weren't actually on the ground sometimes.”

A native of New Albany, Indiana, and self-termed “military brat,” Cordovilla now makes her home in Ann Arbor, where her leisure time hobbies mostly center around food.

“I love to watch food channels, to read recipes, to cook, grocery shop, garden. I don’t eat to live—I live to eat!  I also love adventures....whether it's a day trip to a lake or a month in Ecuador, I love to explore new places and challenge myself.”

Her husband, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan in Applied Physics, is from Ecuador and last year his mother moved to the United States to live with the couple.

“Our household is mostly Spanish-speaking now,” Cordovilla says. “Before, I was fluent in professional and educational settings, but now I'm much more comfortable with day-to-day words like kitchen tools and other vocabulary that I lacked.

“My family is a huge part of my life,” she adds. “My mom, dad, husband, brother, mother-in-law and dog are always there for me. My job can be really emotional...and sometimes we lose really hard cases. It's my job to be stronger at work, but when I get home, my family is there to let me process, be more vulnerable, and to sit with me in all of that. There are no words to describe how grateful I am to have a support system like them. My friends too—I have a handful of friends who’ve been through it all with me.”

She also has great memories of undergrad study abroad programs in the U.K and Peru.

“My experiences prepared me for my career, but also just made me a better person all around,” she says. “I was able to make connections with host families in South America and Europe, to understand their joys and sorrows, and to experience their cultures. It just opens your mind to meet and live with people from completely different life experiences.”



 

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