As a young law school grad in 1981, I prayed to the Lord for guidance on what area of law He would have me practice. His response was a bit of a shock to my system because as I prayed, I knew that He was calling me to practice Immigration Law. This was so unexpected; it wasn’t even a course that I had taken in law school. But, as I pondered this direction for my life, it all made so much sense.
You see, I’m a child of immigrants. My dad came to this country from Cuba. He was a minor league baseball player who met my mom in Miami. She was a French-Canadian who came to this country as a teenager, on her own, searching for the American Dream. After I was born we lived in Cuba for a while and finally all of our extended family had to flee the country because of the Cuban revolution. I have been surrounded by immigrants my entire life and have witnessed the benefits that immigrants bring to our communities and to our nation as a whole.
I moved from Florida to Orange County, CA after I graduated from Florida State University. It was 1977, and I was planning to work for a year and then attend UCLA law school. That year was literally the beginning of a new life for me. It was the year that turned my world upside down. For starters, that was the year that I met my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in a personal way. Although I had attended Catholic school for twelve years, I had not made the connection between the teaching and my life. But, once I did, my life took a hundred and eighty degree turn. That year was also the year that I met my husband, Jim, whom I married four months later! Jim was born and raised in Santa Ana, CA, a community which is now over eighty percent Hispanic. When we met, he was living in Newport Beach, CA, which is where we raised our family and I practiced immigration law for almost twenty years.
As an immigration attorney, I had the privilege of working with people from all over the world. Many came to this country in search of opportunity, some in search of safety, some in search of freedom. It was inspiring to see young families fleeing persecution who were able to start a new life. I worked with some immigrants who earned their way up to owning small businesses, and some with just a grammar school education, whose children ended up earning Master’s degrees and PhDs.
Over the years, I represented hundreds of families and I also experienced an immigration system that was becoming increasingly restrictive and punitive. It’s disgraceful that in a country where we believe in due process of law, we have about 400,000 persons, including legal permanent residents with family ties in the US, asylum seekers, and even victims of human trafficking, detained in largely for-profit prisons. This is quite a jump from the 1980’s, when there were only about thirty people in immigration detention each day.
I left my law practice in 1999, and started working with the immigrant community in Santa Ana, CA. This is where I have a community of friends that care about me and I care about them. My heart’s desire is to see a just immigration system in this country- a system that will acknowledge the value of people from all nationalities, ethnicities, and religions that want to come to this country to contribute, and to live their lives in peace.
My experience working with the immigration system has led me to embark on this journey, El Camino del Inmigrante. In walking 150 miles, I will be remembering the sacrifices that immigrants have made to come to this country in search of freedom, security and stability. My hope is that we as walkers, coming from many different backgrounds, can bring to light the contributions and value that immigrants bring to our country.
Ava Steaffens is a Cuban-American woman who practiced immigration law for 18 years and am committed to following Jesus’ example in the work of community development.