Photos by Douglas Merriam
Ana* walks into the office of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, which is buzzing with lawyers and clients, all speaking English, a language she does not understand. A young law student — Mirna Torres (L99) — spots her.
The two women are the same age, 24. Both were born in Mexico. But as a U.S. citizen, Torres has emerged from her struggles as an immigrant. Ana has not.
Torres senses Ana’s fear. The young attorney-to-be knows the woman is nervous that an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent could be lingering around a corner, waiting to deport her.
But Ana has reached her breaking point after suffering severe physical abuse by her husband. Torres, the only person on duty who speaks Spanish, listens to Ana’s story, which the young woman delivers in tears. What she learns shocks Torres with its violence, and it changes the course of her own life.
Ana, an undocumented immigrant, tells Torres that her son, a U.S. citizen, is ill, and that her husband, who is a legal resident, has threatened to keep the boy and deport her if she tries to leave him.
Torres feels helpless. She can’t even guarantee Ana safety in a shelter because of her legal status.
“I was totally shocked that she would come to the office,” recalls Torres, at the time a student at Northwestern’s School of Law and an intern at the foundation. “Think of how much courage it took for her to come forward.
“I was trying to help her get out of the abusive relationship, but I kept running into barriers,” she continues. “At first I felt so frustrated, as if there was nothing I could do.”
*Not her real name
Torres remembers noting the many similarities between herself and Ana.
“She reminded me a lot of me — without having the opportunities I had,” she says.
Eventually, Torres contacted an immigration attorney and found a way out for Ana — and a mission for herself — through the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA, passed in 1994, allows undocumented immigrant women married to abusive men who are legal residents to obtain work permits and to petition for legal residency. The immigration attorney helped Ana leave her husband.
“I saw the difference this made in her life,” says Torres, now director of the immigration program for Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Ana became the first of hundreds of immigrant women Torres would help to escape domestic violence using VAWA.
North to the Future
Torres grew up in a tiny farming community called Torreón de Cañas, in the Mexican state of Durango. As a child she often cleaned homes or helped her mother, Maria, sell tamales in the plaza to make ends meet. Her father, Juan, was absent nine months a year, working in the oil fields of West Texas.
From Torres’ childhood on, her mother instilled a love of literature in her, often reciting verse by such poets as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a famed 17th-century Mexican nun. Torres can recite many of Sor Juana’s poems by heart, and her mother often writes letters and leaves voice-mail messages filled with poetry. One recent sample by Mexican poet Amado Nervo: “Eres la architecta de tu propio destino” (“You are the architect of your own destiny”).
When Torres was 11, she and her mother and four younger siblings left Mexico far behind and entered the United States illegally to join her father. First her mother left. Then Torres and her siblings departed, bringing with them no more than the clothes on their backs.
“The people who helped us cross the border actually made us change our clothes so we would look more American,” says Torres, who prefers not to discuss how she entered the country. “I ended up wearing other people’s clothes — shorts and a T-shirt.”
Settling with her family in Lovington, N.M., Torres felt alone and afraid at first. “I didn’t get my residency until I was 16 years old,” she says. “I had to go through the immigration process, and I realized how challenging it was. The process is difficult to navigate, especially for someone unfamiliar with the law, the language and the immigration regulations. Also, many people prey on immigrants and promise to help them, charge them a lot of money, but ultimately they do more harm than good.”
Torres struggled to learn English and read Peanuts comic strips to help her progress; however, she received A’s in math classes before speaking English.
Torres’ father never attended school and can neither read nor write. Her mother, a seamstress, attended school until the eighth grade but had dreamed of becoming a doctor. She often reminded Torres to live life to the fullest and to value a good education. “Lo bailado nadie te lo quita,” she told her daughter — “Once you’ve danced, no one can take the memory from you.”
“To them, college was the key to success,” Torres says. “My parents are a big influence on me. They’re hardworking people. I try to treat my clients the way I want my parents to be treated. Because a lot of times, we were taken advantage of.”
Torres realized her parents’ goal first by attending the University of New Mexico, where she majored in political science and Spanish. She paid her way through school by working as a waitress and running the classified section of the school newspaper.
Accepted by Northwestern’s law school in 1996, Torres arrived on the Chicago campus a bit intimidated. The law school was far from the Southwest and the University of New Mexico, with its heavy Latino influence. Then she met professor Len Rubinowitz, who teaches public interest law, during the first week of classes.
“I feel like I don’t belong here,” Torres told him. “I feel like any moment someone’s going to say they made a mistake and I have to leave.”
“You belong here,” Rubinowitz assured her. And from that point on, Torres charged ahead.
Although her favorite class was business law, Torres always knew she wanted to aid people in need. Throughout her years at Northwestern, she worked at several places offering legal services to the poor, including the law school’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, directed by professor and associate dean Tom Geraghty (L69).
“We still talk about her as ‘Ms. Public Interest,’” Rubinowitz says. “The other people who were involved in the type of activities she was involved in all looked to her as a leader and role model. She’s a tiny person, but she fills a room with her energy and enormous enthusiasm.”
In part, pursuing immigration law was again a reflection of her parents’ influence. “I thought, if I can’t answer an immigration question from my parents, they’ll never think I went to law school,” Torres says. Now they proudly refer friends — “every comadre, compadre” — to her for legal advice.
Among many of her classmates, her long-term career interests were a bit unusual. “A lot of my friends wanted to work at firms, but I realized that it wasn’t for me,” Torres says. “I remember when I graduated from law school and realized how little I was going to make in public interest law, but this has been my choice. We all learned the same things — it just so happens that what I do doesn’t pay as much.”
Torres’ fondest memories at Northwestern are of working with the professors and volunteer lawyers at the Bluhm Clinic, where she feels she learned the most valuable lessons for life after law school. “They were really role models about how to be attorneys who care about issues and who work hard on behalf of others,” she says.
In spring 1999 Torres extended her service beyond the United States after enrolling in the International Team Project, headed by Geraghty. Students worked in teams of five, studying a human rights issue in a particular country and then traveling there to do hands-on research. Torres’ team wrote a 100-page paper about the refugee crisis in Tanzania.
“I was struck by Mirna’s interest in human rights and her concern for people who need a voice,” Geraghty says. “She has a real sense of mission, and she’s charted her own course.
“Mirna’s not the typical student who comes to school with the view that she’s going to work at a large law firm. She’s decided that her life should be dedicated to the public interest.”
Beneath a dark winter sky Torres stands hunched over to protect herself from the cold on Evanston’s Davis Street el platform and waits for the train’s doors to slide open. She has pulled herself out of bed at 5 a.m. to recruit clients for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, where she interns.
As the first wave of immigrant women commuting from Chicago to work in North Shore homes disembarks, Torres begins her chase.
“We’re trying to get a class going to teach you your rights,” she says in Spanish to the bewildered women. They pass her by.
“Why do you want my phone number?” a woman asks.
But Torres is undeterred, and she returns several times. “After two weeks or so, they began to trust me,” she later recalls. “So they started giving me their numbers.”
Torres’ unusual approach led to results: A group of women participated in a workshop on their legal rights. “It was a great outside-of-the-box way of reaching people,” she says.
Torres’ law school friend Richard Bernstein (L99) recalls her working “seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
“The only way to define Mirna is to say she is the kind of person who makes you realize how noble an attorney can be,” says Bernstein, now a trial lawyer in Farmington Hills, Mich. [“An Attorney with Perspective,” Northwestern, fall 2002]. “Everybody always writes in their personal statements [in law school applications] how they want to change this and change that in the world, but Mirna actually does it.”
Bernstein and Torres remember a challenging course load at Northwestern. Bernstein recalls one freezing, miserable morning around 2 a.m. when they were studying in the Lake Shore Center, their residence hall. Even in the depths of their shared misery they were still able to joke about their situation.
The pair made a pact: If they were to fail or drop out of law school, Bernstein would become a rabbi and Torres would become a nun. “But ultimately that didn’t happen,” Bernstein says. “We both went on to graduate. That certainly was a low point, but it was part of the process.”
In the Public Interest
The chance encounter with Ana, the undocumented immigrant, prompted Torres to apply during her last year in law school for an Equal Justice Works fellowship, provided by a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit group of the same name that supports students who want to work for the public interest.
Although Torres’ goal was ambitious — to spread awareness about VAWA’s protections for immigrant women throughout New Mexico — when she arrived at the Catholic Charities office in Albuquerque as a VAWA staff attorney, she was nervous about implementing it.
“Am I doing this correctly?” Torres asked constantly, always checking in with the other lawyers.
“I was very green. I thought I was committing malpractice every day,” she says.
Nevertheless, at the first training session she gave on VAWA at Albuquerque’s Legal Aid Society, Torres was stunned to find that experienced attorneys were unaware of the the law’s fine points. “It shocked me that I knew more about it than they did,” she says.
So Torres began to spread the word throughout the state, calling homeless shelters and women’s centers to offer her expertise for free.
“We don’t actually have any immigrants here,” administrators often told her. Battered immigrant women weren’t seeking services for domestic violence, including the safety of shelters, because they were afraid of being deported and losing custody of their children.
“How could they not have any immigrants?” Torres remembers asking. “We live in a border state. When these immigrant women asked what would happen to them if the INS came looking for them at the shelters and women’s centers, the social service workers told them they’d have to reveal their legal status as undocumented.”
Many women, Torres says, were told they would be deported if they left their husbands, so they chose to endure continued abuse instead.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, people think they can’t help battered immigrant women,’” Torres says. “So I started doing training.”
Spreading the Word
Work rarely ends for Torres on Friday. She often spends her weekends in her car, navigating the rural highways of New Mexico so she can deliver lectures about immigrant rights. She has driven more than 180,000 miles, which has led to many long-distance clients.
Within the span of a month last winter, Torres traveled to Farmington, Santa Rosa and Portales, all at different ends of the state, to present seminars about VAWA and offer free consultations on immigration issues.
“She goes out to places that people don’t care about, that are forgotten places,” says Melissa Ewer, now Catholic Charities’ VAWA attorney.
Torres, Ewer and four accredited representatives from the Board of Immigration at Catholic Charities currently carry a load of 148 VAWA and more than 300 general immigration cases. All told, the VAWA Immigration Project has provided legal services to 268 battered women. The number does not include these women’s children, for whom Catholic Charities also provides legal immigration services once their mothers’ VAWA self-petition has been approved.
“Mirna’s impact on the state of New Mexico has been tremendous,” says Greg Kepferle, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico. “She’s such a dynamo. Her passion for her work is contagious.”
Torres’ efforts to educate her entire state earned her the 2002 Fighting for Justice Award from the UNM Mexican American Law Student Association. The annual distinction honors the lawyer who makes the biggest difference statewide.
“She is known by almost the whole world in New Mexico,” says Maria Alvarez, whom Torres assisted in obtaining a work permit. “Especially in the Hispanic community.
“Mirna helps ‘sin pensar,’” Alvarez adds, “without even thinking about it. She helped me economically and certainly boosted my morale when I needed it.”
Sometimes, Ewer says, it seems Torres serves a double function as a legal advocate and social worker. Torres often accompanies clients to the welfare office or other social service agencies and sits for hours alongside them as their advocate.
“‘The worst is behind you, you survived this much. Now it is time to move forward,’” Torres always says to the women. “I tell them, ‘You’re responsible for your case. You are going to be responsible for your life. I can’t do this alone.’ That encourages them to take ownership of their success.”
Torres maintains contact with her clients, even attending their weddings if they choose to remarry and setting up support groups for them. “I try to put my clients at ease,” she says. “I’m a very touchy-feely type of person. When someone comes into my office, I usually put my hands on their arms. I talk to them in Spanish and try not to use any legal jargon.
“I talk to them like I’m talking to a friend.”
Guadalupe Ochoa knows the difference Torres’ help can make. Ochoa struggled with depression and her husband’s abuse until Torres helped her obtain a work visa so she could leave him. She now lives with her two children and works at a clothing store, Gracias a Mirna.
“When I first met Mirna, I was a person who was trembling all the time; I was very afraid,” Ochoa says. “She told me I didn’t have to worry, that what I was doing was correct. ‘No voltear atrás, solo adelante.’ ‘Don’t turn back, only continue ahead,’ she said.
“Mirna is like esperanza — hope,” Ochoa adds. “Hope for all of us.”
Katherine Leal Unmuth of Lisle, Ill., a senior in the Medill School of Journalism, begins a feature-writing internship with the Dallas Morning News after graduation this June.
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