Client Stories

Client Stories

Our clients’ stories illuminate their resilience, tenacity, endurance, hope for the future and commitment to building a better life for themselves and their families. ILJ-MI donors and funders make it possible for our legal staff to walk beside our clients as they make their way through the U.S. immigration legal system.

Note: All clients’ names have been changed to protect their identity if requested.

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Valentina’s Story – Mexico

Immigration Law and Justice Michigan (ILJ-MI) is a respected resource for legal services and assists low-income immigrants with their immigration into the United States. But while many of our clients are seeking citizenship, there are other services that new clients or previous clients come to us for assistance with, including adjustment of status, DACA, and reuniting families. This story is a heartfelt example of the latter that portrays how ILJ-MI can be beneficial for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in more ways than just citizenship.

The story begins with a former client, Valentina who first came to the United States from Mexico when she was just 14 years old. Valentina is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (better known as DACA) recipient. After receiving assistance from ILJ-MI staff attorney Kourtney James, Valentina now calls Michigan her permanent home. Every two years, she works with James to renew her DACA and work authorization to remain in compliance with DACA requirements.

Near the end of 2022, Valentina learned that her sister Marianna, who still resided in Mexico, had been experiencing severe, lingering health issues after contracting Covid-19. Realizing that her sister’s illness was becoming worse, she desperately wanted to travel to her home country to comfort and care for Marianna.

Valentina had not seen her sister since she moved to the United States decades ago. She expressed her desire to see her sister to James, who explained that for her to leave the United States and be able to return with permission, she would need to apply for a travel document from United States Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS). 

If Valentina left the United States without a travel document, it is very unlikely that she would be allowed to reenter. This travel document would give her permission to leave the country and seek legal reentry upon her return, but the application process is rigorous.  

Valentina and James worked together on the travel document application by completing the paperwork and gathering the proper evidence, which included a letter from Marianna’s doctor outlining her condition. After several weeks of document sharing and communications with USCIS, the application was submitted in September of 2022. 

Typically, it takes an application like this approximately a year or even longer to receive approval from USCIS, so Valentina and James prepared for an extended waiting period. Shockingly, just a few months later, in January of 2023, Valentina’s travel document application was approved! She was granted permission to visit her sister! 

In February of 2023, Valentina, her husband, and their children all traveled to see Marianna. They spent a couple of weeks together bonding as a family. They were finally reunited after so many years and were overjoyed. 

After returning to the United States, Valentina shared how grateful she was for her attorney and ILJ-MI. “I felt comfortable with James because she doesn’t feel like a lawyer, she feels like someone who respects me, there’s no intimidation or seriousness, she is always friendly and smiling,” said Valentina. “Thank you very much for all of the support you’ve given to me and my family over these past 10 years. Blessings to all of you today, tomorrow, and forever!” 

It was truly our pleasure to assist Valentina. James and the rest of the ILJ-MI staff look forward to providing happy conclusions to other clients like Valentina and her family in the future. 

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Blessing’s Story – Nigeria

Many of ILJ-MI’s client stories are saddening, but the stories about our underage clients are especially heartbreaking.  We share the accounts of their lives not only to describe the hardships that children who are refugees and asylum seekers endure, but to also emphasize their remarkable strength, resilience and tenacity in the face of such adversity.  

Blessing’s story begins when she was just 11 years-old in Nigeria. After her mother was diagnosed with an illness, she had to return to their home village. Unfortunately, Blessing’s mother left her on the street with no place to go. Blessing was later picked up by individuals she did not know who promised her a pathway to Europe where they would get her on her feet with employment.  She believed she could then send funds back to help her mother.  

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Shum’s Story – Eritrea

Our client stories tell hard truths about the reasons people of all ages from around the world flee their home countries.  Although their circumstances can be quite different, their stories always have two common elements.  First and foremost, our clients are tremendously resilient and highly resolved.  Secondly, because they received expert immigration legal services, they’ve been able to pursue a legal pathway to remain in the United States.  

Shumdahan T. B. Saleh (“Shum”) is especially tenacious, and his immigration story has a happy ending.  Like many clients, however, the details are gritty.   

As a child living in the military dictatorship in Eritrea, Shum witnessed kidnapping and physical abuse. He also saw his father and sister be taken from their homes and forced to join the Eritrean military regime. Shum was heartbroken by the horrifying brutality, and he sought a way out.   

Shum fled Eritrea initially to the nearby country of Sudan, hoping for stability and safety.  There he was taken by individuals impersonating police who took him to a secluded location and restrained and beat him for three days. Shum was able to escape through a window in the house.  

A year later, Shum moved to Egypt and connected with the Eritrean community there. They helped Shum apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Throughout his time in Egypt, Shum became well known in his community for helping people navigate the refugee process with UNHCR, connecting people to resources and teaching people safety precautions to defend themselves. From this early age, Shum displayed a passion and desire to serve his community and peers.  

Shum entered the United States as an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) in September 2018. Enrolled in Bethany Christian Services’ URM foster care program, he was settled in Grand Rapids. Shum continued to serve his community by working with Bethany Christian Services as a Youth Specialist.  

Shum went to the ILJ-MI office in Grand Rapids to seek citizenship where DOJ Accredited Representative Sofia Cuidon was steadfast in her efforts to help him. “Sofie solved my problems! I was eager to be done with my citizenship. She was deeply passionate about assisting me. I really appreciate the work. [Once I got the interview with immigration services], I realized I forgot some documents. Sofie was very prepared and offered great support. If she were not there, I would not have had the interview, the officer would have turned me away.” 

Shum was finally able to take his oath of citizenship on November 8 of this year and was then able to visit family in Canada.  Additionally, Shum serves his community by interpreting for Bethany Christian Services clients in Tigrinya. He continues to support his siblings that are refugees in Canada and Uganda, and his family still in Eritrea. Recently, Shum has become a leader and mentor for students in the foster care system. He completed a “Circle of Change” leadership training and is also studying Social Work at Western Michigan University. Despite the tumultuous journey Shum has taken to achieve a sense of safety and security and to obtain citizenship, he sees the needs of others as a priority and continues his efforts to serve his community through his education.  

 

 
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Rosa Lopez’s Story – El Salvador

When Rosa moved to the U.S. and married her husband, she thought her dreams of love and family were coming true. Unfortunately, her life deteriorated into a cycle of violence and control. There were many tears during her immigration journey, but now they are tears of joy. Rosa recently became a U.S. Citizen with the help of ILJ-Michigan staff, especially Legal Co-Director Jenny Rosario.

Rosa and Jenny have been working together on Rosa’s immigration journey since 2015. When Rosa first arrived in Jenny’s office, she was battered and broken from enduring years of abuse. Rosa was terrified of reporting her husband to the police because her husband threatened to call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and have her deported. Despite ongoing physical threats, Rosa courageously supplied evidence of her abuse to the police and to the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). Rosa’s courage was rewarded when her self-petition for immigration relief under the Violence Against Women’s Act was granted.

After receiving her green card in 2018, Rosa was finally able to reunite with her family after nine years of separation! Rosa visited her father in her home country of El Salvador right before he died. Rosa returned with a special goal in mind – to improve her English and obtain citizenship. Rosa worked with multiple ILJ-MI staff members to prepare. DOJ Representative Yuwiska Alcantara served as Rosa’s touchpoint by helping her understand and navigate the immigration process. Former Legal Director (and social studies teacher!) Chris Schlegel helped Rosa with civics questions. When Rosa did not pass the English portion of her USCIS interview, Attorney Kourtney James provided Rosa with encouragement and support.

Rosa was discouraged, but she didn’t give up. “I prayed every day. My relationship with my dad helped me keep faith no matter good or bad,” she said. Rosa worked a factory job 12 hours a day and then went home and studied at night. After six months of training and exercises, Rosa was ready for her second try at the citizenship test.

Attorney Shawn Gillum prepped Rosa by doing mock interviews to prepare her for the intense atmosphere of the citizenship exam, an effort Rosa found extremely useful. “It was wonderful because it felt like a real interview! Your office prepared me very well. I am so thankful for your staff for always tending to me.”

After six months of training and exercises, Rosa was ready for her second try at the citizenship test. She was nervous, but well prepared. “I studied every day at work and at home; I tried to keep practicing. But on that day, everyone assured me everything would be okay.”

Rosa’s hard work paid off this past August when she passed her citizenship exam. “I’m thankful for ILJ-MI and the people they have around to help. Jenny was like an angel to me, she’s wonder woman.”

Jenny, Yuwiska and Rosa joyously celebrated the culmination of Rosa’s immigration journey together last week at the naturalization ceremony when Rosa took her Oath of Allegiance. Immediately following the ceremony, Rosa registered to vote and made an appointment with ILJ-MI to begin the petition process for her mother. “I’m thankful that I can help now, and that I can get her to be with me.”

Rosa is another wonderful example of the success that immigrants can achieve despite the many obstacles they face. She now contributes to ILJ-MI as a donor, hoping that others will be able to use the empathetic services and personalized legal aid that she was provided.

“I would recommend anyone to go to ILJ-MI. You can see some don’t have the information that they need; they should know that there are programs that can help and there are places they can go.”

ILJ-MI is honored to have played a part in Rosa’s success story. Our donors and funders make our work for hundreds of immigrants like Rosa possible.