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"I have an obligation to help others."
One Volunteer's Faith in "Impacting Large"
About 1.6 million immigrants are deported from the United States each year. Millions of others endure poor living conditions and civil rights abuses to avoid joining this statistic. Moved to compassion by their plight, Sergio Diaz volunteers with Opening Doors to help immigrants gain legal status. With every case, Sergio brings hope and healing to the immigrant community.
Understanding Their Point of View
The threat of deportation looms over undocumented immigrants, restricting their daily activities and damaging their physical and psychological well-being. Lacking documentation puts immigrants in constant fear of being torn from their families and returned to their native countries, where they reencounter unsafe living conditions and limited economic opportunities.
Volunteer attorney Sergio Diaz believes this practice supports marginalization by hiding immigrant lives from the public sphere. “The work they do is underpaid, seasonal, unappreciated, and lasts from sun up to sun down,” he says, giving an example of immigrants who perform manual labor for affluent California communities. “This is a person who is willing to take any job, live in that fear, and be a nobody just to get a paycheck.”
Sergio works to improve the prospects of undocumented immigrants by helping them gain legal status through Opening Doors’ Immigration Legal Services Program. He helps process U and T Visa cases, usually working with survivors of trafficking. Sergio’s bilingual ability, knowledge of the culture, and personable demeanor make him an approachable confidant for our clients who have been through painful experiences.
He recalls a particularly serious case where the need for legal status forced an immigrant woman to tolerate her boyfriend’s abuse for years. “She had children with him, put up with his violent ways, helped him start his business, and put up with his extramarital affairs with other women,” Sergio says. “In the end, he didn’t do any of those things [he had promised].” The client found support and healing at Opening Doors, where Sergio helped her apply for a visa and report her boyfriend’s crimes at no cost.
According to Sergio, the stigma of illegal status makes the immigrant population especially vulnerable to exploitation. “This is a person who, other than having no proper documentation, hasn’t really done anything wrong,” he says. The culture of silence surrounding undocumented labor compounds immigrants’ limited access to resources, grasp of the English language, and patchy knowledge of American customs. “Here are people who are undocumented, uneducated [about their rights], and frightened,” he says. “They are sometimes at the mercy of an employer, boyfriend, or spouse. They have children who they are afraid of being torn away from.”
Responding to His Calling
Given his extensive legal knowledge and experience, Sergio believes he has a duty to alleviate some of his clients’ suffering. “God gives us talents and we make use of those talents,” he says. Sergio’s history of volunteer work and civil rights cases reflect his philosophy of applying his skills to benefit those in need. “[A] way to impact large is to make a significant impact on one person’s life,” he says. “If I can do that much, then I think I’m using whatever talents I have in a positive way, even if it’s just to help them get through the day.” Now retired, he dedicates his free time towards Opening Doors and other organizations such as Lawyers in the Library, Singing Nations Church, My Sister’s House, and Gang Awareness Program.
Despite his many commitments, Sergio continues to volunteer with Opening Doors in recognition of the ILS program’s ability to “impact large” on the community. “If [an immigrant] can now gain permanent residency, then that person is significantly impacted, and all people in connection with that person are impacted,” he says. Volunteers gain new perspective on client lives and benefit from this ripple effect. “Here, by the nature of what this organization does and what they help, you’re transported into [the immigrant’s] experience.” Sergio says. Knowledge of their experience generates a sense of compassion. “There’s probably no more rewarding experience or better experience than… meeting the adversity, tragedy, the plight of the underclass,” he says.
Confident in the value of his volunteer work at Opening Doors, Sergio reaches out to other attorneys to consider volunteering. “I know that [in] the practice of law, particularly the private practice, [y]ou have to be both a businessman and a lawyer and a salesman,” he says. “You have to be a very giving person who would be willing to do all of that and volunteer.” Even so, he encourages those who have the time to volunteer. “I can’t think of a more meaningful way to use my time,” he says.
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