Full interview available here

Dorothy Hwang is a staff attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC). Dorothy is a WCL Alumna who has extensive experience representing victims of domestic violence and human trafficking in the Asian-American community.  During her time at WCL, Dorothy was in the International Human Rights Law Clinic where she represented clients before immigration court and in front of international fora. On November 7, 2014 Ms. Hwang sat down with Pious Ahuja of the Human Rights Brief to discuss her career path.

Pious Ahuja [PA]: Thank you for meeting with me today. Can you tell us a little about what type of clients you work with at the APALRC?

Dorothy Hwang [DH]:  Our organization mainly works with the local immigrant population in the DC Metro, Maryland, and Virginia areas. Most of our clients are of the South Asian, South-east Asian and Asian Pacific Islander descent, which include Chinese, Korean, and Asian ethnicities. Though we do have some non-Asian clients, all of our clients are low-income. A large number of cases involve domestic violence or some other forms of abuse, such as sexual assault, human trafficking, child abuse, or other forms of random violence. Each case is complex; though initially it might seem like just a domestic violence case, once we dig deeper into the case, typically there are several issues that emerge such as housing issues or immigrant issues. Generally, the clients that we work with come with a variety of issues and can have five, six, or seven issues at a time. Not all of them are recent immigrants. Though many have been here for ten to twenty years, they are very isolated in their communities so they do not know how to access to the legal system or the social services.

PA: So you mentioned that your clients may have some issues in accessing services. What are some other hurdles your clients face and how does APALRC help rectify those deficiencies?

DH: Language access is a huge issue for our clients when it comes to accessing the justice system or any government agency. This issue is about ensuring implementation of a law that already exists. Although Washington DC is a fairly progressive district when it comes to providing language access and following the language access program, many other jurisdictions in the country are very behind as they fail to provide interpreters for people with limited English proficiency skills. In other instances, the language act is not enforced. For example, police officers may refuse to use an interpreter in emergency situations or when someone calls 911, there won’t be an interpreter available. This is a critical moment for many clients. APALRC was created on the principles of providing equal access to justice, focusing on language access to our clients. By providing bilingual language access, APALRC works to overcome this issue. Our clients don’t need just a lawyer, but an advocate with whom they feel comfortable. Thus, the core founding value of our organization is to provide a helping ear to our clients.

Another hurdle that our clients often face is geographic isolation. Many of our immigrant populations are so isolated that they are unable to reach out for services.  To overcome our clients’ isolation, lawyers from APALRC go out to the immigrant communities where we build a relationship with them so they know to reach [out to] us when they need us. Some of these outreach efforts include going door to door, talking to small businesses, conducting workshops, providing legal and educational workshops, and making presentations for relevant legal issues at different community centers, among others. For instance, in one of our outreach efforts we spoke about issues [concerning the elderly] at a senior community center whereas in another effort, we spoke to immigrants about naturalization applications and how to avoid being defrauded.

PA: What kind of caseload do you have at APALRC?

DH: Most of my cases are domestic violence cases that involve immigration law as well as family law. Most of our clients have precarious immigration statuses: they could have a conditional green card that is about to expire or have no status whatsoever because the abuser will refuse to file for their petition. The victim is [often] one hundred percent dependent for her legal status on her abuser. Also, many of the cases involve children with different statuses so we have to take individualized steps to help each person involved in the case. Our immigration cases generally involve U-Visa cases, VAWA cases,  battered spouse waivers, and T-Visas. For T-Visas, we work [on] trafficking cases with law enforcement to identify trafficking victims. Social workers or law enforcement [agencies] often contact us to work with trafficking victims. As victims of human trafficking often suffer from cultural and language barriers, APALRC can provide advocates with language skills to overcome those barriers.

PA: There are several criticisms of present policies particularly surrounding the requirements for U-Visa. What policy recommendations would you make to improve the immigration process for immigrant women in domestic violence relationships?

DH: I have thought about this extensively and I don’t think a policy would particularly help. In these cases, extensive training of officials and… would greatly improve conditions for immigrant women. To qualify for U-Visas, victims need law enforcement officials to sign a certification [of eligibility]. Many clients that come to APALRC suffer abuse for decades, but they are afraid to report [the abuse] to law enforcement because of language issues. Another issue with U-Visas is that to get a visa, one has to cite to a specific incident of criminal activity and show that the victim has suffered substantial physical or mental abuse. In many cases, what ultimately leads the victim to contact the law enforcement is not the most horrific form of abuse. Victims could have been raped and abused with other weapons many times, yet the one incident that tipped the client to contact the law enforcement could be a push where the victim suffered minimal injury.

In most cases, the law enforcement agent or the prosecutor investigating the case can provide history to provide context, but we can’t always convince law enforcement agencies to investigate past abuse as part of the ongoing criminal activity (abuse) that instigated the U-Visa.   If they only choose to certify for the one isolated and most recent incident of abuse which is described in the police report, then that is the crime that immigration officers see and use to assess whether the victim “sufficiently” suffered and is therefore eligible for a U-Visa.  I just really hope that the immigration officers are informed and educated enough to really understand that the applicants of U-Visa suffer more than just the one isolated crime cited in the application.

Lastly, the [limit on the number of visas] needs to increase. There is a rumor that adjudicators are starting to just reject U-Visa applications instead of putting them on a waitlist. This is truly tragic for victims of abuse who summoned up the courage to report the violence and go through the process of applying for U-Visas only to be rejected. When the victims of severe abuse are pushed aside and ignored, it causes a lot of discouragement for the victim while affirming the notion that the victim is worthless and lacks value as a human being.

PA: What inspired you to provide direct legal and social services to survivors of domestic violence?

DH: As long as I can remember I’ve always had an interest and passion for social justice. I think it was in law school that I made the choice to dedicate my life to it. I spent a lot of time before law school working on social justice, domestic violence, juvenile justice, and rehabilitation work. I think it was in law school that I really came to realize I had to dedicate my life doing this work because I don’t think I could live with myself and not do this work. I knew if I had gone a different route and completely turned away from public interest work then I would know something would be lacking. In every sense for me it was practical to follow my passion as I am built and wired to work in this field.

PA: You often work with clients who underwent severe trauma, what kind of advice would you offer other lawyers who are also interested in working with victims of gender violence.

DH: One thing that helps in this field is having a support system. It is great to have others who are also passionate about the issues so you can really commiserate with and be encouraged by them. Another important element is to understand there is always more to learn within the field. The field of gender violence is huge, but also very narrow. There is always another dimension of the abuse that yet to be fully grasped either by yourself, the legal community, or by the public interest community.

PA: What has been the most rewarding moment so far in your career?

DH: I can’t say it is the most rewarding moment, but there is one conversation that is really burned into my mind. I was working with this one woman who was a victim of domestic violence. She was in a very difficult situation with respect to her immigration status. This woman had suffered years of horrendous [violence] at the hands of her abuser. While I told her that I would still explore all of the options for her, I told her it is going to be difficult to win the battle. After hearing this, she said to me, “that’s okay, I understand it is a difficult case, and I understand I have a few options because one day I’m going to show that he didn’t kill me and that I am still here.” She really meant that her abuser had not destroyed her. She further stated, “it’s not about the money, the nice clothes, or the jewelry, I am going to show him that I am happy without him and that is what makes me feel alive and what makes me.”

After she said this, I realized then even if we couldn’t get anything for her and we had lost all of her options, she had already won.  Sentiments she expressed to me should have been the advice that I should have given her. The fact that she was emotionally strong already there on her own made me realize that she had won and she would be alright.

This really encouraged me as there are so many cases where the clients were in much better shape [legally], but mentally, emotionally, and physically they were in a much unhealthier place in respect to recovering from their trauma.  This conversation was rewarding for me because it had nothing to do with me.  It really reminded me that what I can do is nothing compared what these men and women can do on their own to move past the abuse and trauma.  My role is to empower my clients. I am just a lawyer and I’m privileged enough to have this profession to be able to provide this service. For me it is an honor and privilege to give these services. It is a sacrifice my parents made, and I am going to take advantage by choosing to live this life and serve my community. As much as I like my job, I tell my clients that I am an instrument and to use me to obtain their own goals.

PA: Dorothy, thank you for your time and your hard work on these challenging issues. We hope you continue your inspiring work.

For more information on APALRC, please see their website at http://www.apalrc.org/dp/.