Sofi Chavez, Immigrant Protector

Sofi Chavez, 22, is actively working for the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City, N, which places undocumented immigrants in safe situations.

Interviewed by Erin McNally

I have always been an activist, since I was a kid. Being a fourth-generation Mexican American, I further wanted to understand and solidify my own identity, with each one seeing exclusive and pulling me in either direction. But here I was, senior year of college and still not sure what to do with my life. At age 22, who does?

I thought back to my college career and was reminded of a course I took, Borderlines and Immigration my senior year. It was different than any other class that I took. I loved it because it wasn’t your traditional class, sitting at a desk for an hour and a half, blankly staring about the whiteboard and trying your hardest to stay awake. It had an experiential learning aspect, taking me outside of the dull, white walls and down to the American Southwest, making stops in Tucson, AZ, San Diego, CA and Tijuana, Mexico.

In Tijuana, I spoke with migrants from all over Latin America who had been recently deported back to Mexico. I remember one moment where that little voice in your head tells you, This is wrong– the moment I witnessed Operation Streamline. For those not well versed in the egregious immigration policy that is Operation Streamline, the picture is terrifying. Shackled in chains, immigrants line up in front of judges. Reading off names and charges, they seal the fate of those risking their lives for a better life. It was one of those times that you stand back and think, This is going on in my home, in my backyard, in my neighborhood. I need to do something about this. I found the need to marry my work with my activism. Interested in pursuing literature, I graduated college with the plan to take a year off and apply to graduate school.

However, with nothing planned in the meantime, I moved in with my parents in New York City. My mom, Linda, had been volunteering with an organization for a little under a year and I still did not have any summer plans. So, when my mom asked if I had wanted an internship with the organization that she had been volunteering for, I thought, Why not? Little did I know that this was going to change my life forever

Interning at New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) opened the door to narrowing my activist work and to meet some amazing people that were so passionate, driven and inspiring. But I was still an intern, doing work around the office, filing paperwork, and getting documents ready for my superiors. I did not feel true belonging to the organization until one ordinary afternoon, a woman called saying that she was having difficulty navigating the area and finding the office before a community meeting. Stepping up, I left NSC and went after the woman, ultimately finding her by the West 4 subway station. It felt like I was part of something greater than myself, that I was the first face this woman saw from the organization and being seen as NSC.After my internship, Sara, my boss, asked me to take on a full-time position in the fall. I happily obliged. I had found community with this organization and people. It was a new position that was created for myself and another summer intern.

NSC is a smaller organization with only 3 full-time, paid staff. Everyone else is a volunteer or intern. I wear many hats for NSC, prepping documents for the Pro Se Legal Clinic and work on final steps for their paperwork. Usually, there are 60 to 70 Friends that come in to Vanderbilt Hall at NYU every Tuesday. However, there have been 150-200 Friends coming in weekly for the past few months. The huge overflow has made my job increasingly difficult, not only with getting through the paperwork but also making sure Friends are comfortable with their team and lawyer helping them. I also sit down with Friends, on the phone with the federal courts, serving as a mediator for Friends and the immigration system. My job comes down to making sure Friends came back. I make sure that NSC’s values are being actualized, in never turning anyone away and making sure Friends know that they are always welcome.

It has proved more difficult than I had anticipated. No longer was I an unpaid intern, a mere helper. I had become a paid staffer and a support system for the organization. It’s hard to be a young person in an organization that helps so many people. I am expected to have more energy and be more optimistic, which can be difficult because I have to take care of myself too. I am at a different point in my life than some of the other paid staffers. That doesn’t mean that I can give 300%. I have to remind myself that I am not losing value in my work if I have to take a step back. My friends keep me in check which I love them for. They validate me and teach me how to validate myself when I feel like I’m drowning. When I first started, I thought This is all resting on me, which became toxic and unhealthy. My friends, though, helped me learn that it isn’t all on me and that, although I am important piece of this organization, I am no less valued if I take time for myself. I’m somebody that is always wanting to do something, be involved but I’ve learned to tell myself that it’s got to stop somewhere. But I love this work and I love activism. And my inspiration is looking around at all of the different projects NSC is involved in and see that everyone is doing their life’s mission.

Even more so, every day I come to work and am reminded that these amazing people recognize that same injustice that I see. All of us are in this together and that the values of solidarity and collective organization are exemplified in the love that I have for my Friends and volunteers. Lately, I have been so overwhelmed with all of the work that we are doing, consistently working 15- or 16-hour days. Clocking out early these past few weeks to apply to graduate school, I physically hurt when I am not able to go to legal clinic or communities; I just feel sad. But then I remind myself of why I do this. I think of the word Friend. NSC uses this term for the undocumented immigrants that come, use our service and find sanctuary within our walls. As trained in English literature, I find the word “Friend” so powerful and so beautiful. It rejects the stigma of “illegal” or “alien” and states that you belong to me and I to you. It takes away the power of borders that separate people and create differences.

Working at NSC, I have not only met amazing people but inspiration with what my mission, my vocation: my job is to love. Mary Oliver says it best in her poem, “My Work is Loving the World”.

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

These interviews are by Fordham University students in Prof. Chris Rhomberg’s Urban Poverty Fall, 2018 class on behalf of Labor Arts and the National Writers United Service Organization.

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