Fellow Story

Fellow feature: James Lopez Olvera

James Lopez Olvera, a 2023 Justice Fellow, shares what led him to become an immigration lawyer, how he works to prioritize his mental health and what he is most of proud of from the first six months of his Fellowship. James works at Make the Road – New York and is based in New York City.

How did you become interested in immigration law?

I knew I was going to be a part of the immigration clinic the moment I knew I was going to apply for law school. I told myself whatever law school I end up going to, I will be in an immigration clinic my 2L year, and that’s exactly what I did. I knew I was interested in immigrant justice ever since I was a kid. My parents are immigrants, I worked alongside immigrants, and I’ve seen all types of injustices against them. It pushed me to ask myself questions: Why does this happen? Why are they treated like they are less deserving of the dignity I receive? Why is that fair? It wasn’t fair to me, and it didn’t make sense.

When I was in the clinic, I worked on two cases – one was an asylum case and one was a Convention Against Torture case. I won the CAT case, but unfortunately, I didn’t win the asylum case. Both the win and loss taught me a lot of things about human dignity and the privilege I hold as a practitioner. I’m in a position where I can help my clients, and they’re in a position where they need my help. It really puts so many things into perspective. It affirmed my interest that I want to be not just an immigration lawyer, but a human rights lawyer. And I don’t see myself just as an immigration lawyer. I see myself as a human rights lawyer, because that’s what we’re fighting for.

What strategies have you used for coping with work stress?

Because this is still my first year, I’m still learning how to cope with my thoughts and my emotions regarding the work. I do love the work. I love the diversity of it, every day feels different, every day feels new. I’m learning so much, and I’m helping a lot of people. But the stress is real, and it comes at a price. It’s hard. Sometimes I punish myself. I feel like I should be doing work on a Saturday or Sunday, because I know people need to get their employment authorizations and that kind of depends on me moving the case along. There’s this never ending work, but I can’t be a never ending worker. I need rest, I’m a human being. I can’t work myself to death or else I wouldn’t be able to do this job in the long run. So there’s that balance that I’m still looking for, that I’m working actively towards.

I like to have boundaries on the weekend, definitely trying to avoid non-urgent messages from my clients. I try to destress by journaling, I write my thoughts. I ask myself questions, I ask other people questions. My wife hears everything I have to say, I hear from her and that helps me out a lot. I spend time with my friends, and do simple human things, like going to the park and looking at the water, breathing in and being conscious of how I’m breathing. All of those things have helped me regain inner balance. But sometimes it’s just temporary, and five hours after I meditate in the park, I’m stressed again. It’s a never ending thing, finding balance.

What are you most proud of so far during your Fellowship?

The first thing that came to mind was getting my clients work permits. Employment is obviously huge – everybody depends on working and making an income and providing for their families or providing for themselves. So getting the employment cards in the mail is such a high. And it’s such a relief, especially for a lot of our clients living in shelters. Now they can work, and they can work anywhere. They don’t have to worry about working under the books or immigration retaliation or being afraid of asking for the minimum wage. They can make money, they can provide for their kids, they can get out of the shelter. It really feels like that first step, that they have some sort of autonomy over their lives. That’s something I’m proud of, because I’ve gotten a few of those so far, and it doesn’t get old. And the cards look cool, they have the Statue of Liberty in the background and the US flag. My clients probably feel like they’re starting the American dream.