My Summer Internship at RILA

By Jamie Harvie

It was April, and I was panicking. I knew that I needed to do something over the summer, but I had no idea what opportunities were open to me. My parents wanted me to get a paying job, but that wasn’t really what I wanted. I wanted to do something that involved immigration or human rights. Over the course of the school year I got incredibly invested in human rights in Central America due to an essay that I did on the “Effects of Agribusiness and American Intervention on the Peasant Class of Guatemala and the Country’s Politics as a Whole.” I remember spending dozens of hours pouring over research for my paper, and I remember being so proud of my finished product. I was talking to my principal, Casey, about my paper and what I wanted to do for the summer. She told me that the assistant principal, Kate, has helped several students through a local immigration law firm, and that I should talk to her about it. 

Later that week I talked to Kate about my hopes of working for the immigration law firm. I still didn’t know the name — I just knew that I wanted to do it. Kate asked me what kind of work I would like to do there, and I remember telling her that I would love to have a research position. After our conversation, Kate reached out to RILA, and soon after, I started the process of applying for the position of an intern. I spent hours upon hours trying to work on my cover letter and resume. I went through several drafts with my parents and then several more drafts with Kate. 

I remember when I found out that RILA had decided to hire me as an intern. My teacher, who had been one of my references, told me that after she had talked with RILA that they said they were going to hire me. I remember being so excited. I remember texting my friends telling them that I had gotten the internship. I remember calling my mom and hearing her being so happy for me.

But I also remember being nervous. I was nervous that I was going to mess something up — that some mistake I made would cause someone to be denied asylum or that I would completely fail at my job. However, after working at RILA for two months, I realized that those thoughts that I had were completely unfounded. I was never given the opportunity to mess up, and that wasn’t because I was doing stereotypical intern tasks like getting coffee. No, instead it was because of how supportive and helpful the staff at RILA was. Whenever I had a question, they were always willing to answer. Whenever I needed something clarified, they were always there to clarify it. And whenever I was worried that this all becoming too much and I can’t handle it, I would take a breath, look around the room and see these people putting their heart and soul into this work. I would realize that if they can do it, then I can do it. 

At times it was depressing. I remember at one of the clinics I heard an awful story from a client who was fleeing El Salvador. Two of her family members were murdered by gangs there within two months of them being deported from the United States. Her mother had been shot five times, and her cousins were also beaten in El Salvador … and there she was, sitting in the room retelling her story. I remember being filled with so many emotions. I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot for 15 minutes trying to process what I heard. I remember driving to a nearby park and sitting there for another 30 minutes, still trying to process it. I remember texting my friend. I remember hanging out with my friends later that night but still having that story creep up in the back of my mind. Finally, when I got home and was lying in bed, I realized why I had been so affected by her story: I wanted to do more to help her, but there wasn’t anything else I could do. The only thing that I could do to help her was to take notes on her interview, and to me that wasn’t enough. 

That night was the night that I realized what I want to do later on in life: I want to continue to help people like the client from the clinic. I want to be a human rights researcher. I loved doing research for RILA. I loved finding the perfect article for a case. That feeling of accomplishment has been unmatched. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity that RILA gave me. It was hard work — it could be depressing, anger-inducing and at times all too much. But it is work that I love and will continue to do. 

Jamie is a student at The H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington.

Mel Changinternship, clinic