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At a time when migrant families remain separated as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, Avatar actor Stephen Lang and the New York-based Eugene M. Lang Foundation are taking action.
Lang and his family foundation — established in 1963 by his late father, Eugene, a self-made businessman and active philanthropist who made headlines in 1981 when he promised full four-year college scholarships to a graduating class of East Harlem sixth graders at his own childhood alma mater — recently committed a $100,000 grant to a partnership with Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC), whose focus is to send legal representation to the border and help detained immigrant families stay together. That grant was later matched by an anonymous donor for a total of $200,000 — all going toward specialized training and funding for IJC lawyers.
Eugene’s grandfather came to the U.S. after fleeing political persecution in Hungary, so the American dream is more than just a hazy ideal for his descendants. “It’s a cliche, but it’s still absolutely a fact that this country was built on the back and sweat of immigrants,” says Lang, who is currently in production on the Avatar sequels, with the second film of the franchise expected to premiere in 2020. “It seems to me that the current administration has chosen to ignore that, completely in the name of some kind of privileged view…. This nation belongs to all of us.”
IJC’s immigration fellowship program pairs post-graduate and experienced lawyers with community-based organizations; cases are assigned based upon each lawyer’s experiential level, with veteran practicers handling the most complex. Under the leadership of executive director Jojo Annobil, IJC has provided specialized legal assistance to immigrants in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. Lawyers have also been sent to Texas and Kansas, with plans to expand to Florida and Maryland by September 2018.
“Detained immigrants who have no representation have a 3 percent chance of successfully representing themselves,” explains Lang. “Whereas if you are represented by a competent attorney, an immigration lawyer, you have somewhere over a 75 percent chance of success if the case is to be made for you to stay.”
IJC is also in talks to set up community-based locations in Atlanta, California and Houston, says Annobil. That’s expected to happen by 2019.
“Our end game is universal representation, and we can only get there through our work to show representation makes a difference,” says Annobil of the 44,000-plus cases with which IJC has assisted in the past three years. “The humanitarian crisis we are seeing has no borders or boundaries; it crosses every sphere of life. What we do is changing the trajectory of immigrant stories coming to light.”
As lawyers working with IJC, Ryan Clough and Claudine-Annick Murphy witness this trajectory firsthand every day — along with the obstacles of language and lack of proper representation and education — as immigrants are “quickly shepherded toward deportation,” according to Clough.
“Ninety-nine percent of these families are fleeing for their lives,” adds Clough, who’s currently stationed in Karnes, Texas. “Every one of us in the U.S. would do the same thing, given the circumstances. I think people fail to acknowledge what it is that these families are up against.”
One case that stands out for Murphy involved a woman experiencing domestic abuse from her partner in the United States. The woman was initially reluctant to report him, not wanting to bear responsibility for his possible deportation, but she soon gathered enough courage to speak up.
“For this woman, who was experiencing severe trauma in El Salvador and then abuse here at the hands of this man…it took the ultimate amount of strength,” Murphy recalls. “She tried to hide it from me as much as she could, but for her to say ‘I’m ready now’ showed me that I had given her the tools and assets to be able to take advantage of her legal options.”
The partnership between the Lang Family Foundation and IJC comes on the heels of the nationwide Families Belong Together rally on June 30, a protest aimed at highlighting the challenges currently faced by immigrants at the U.S. border, where thousands of children have been separated from their parents. President Donald Trump issued an executive order designed to keep detained immigrant families together while simultaneously retaining his “zero-tolerance” policy, but reunification has proven complicated and slow going — even as a July 10 deadline imposed by a federal judge for those younger than 5 to be reunited with their families arrives.
“This is a time of catastrophe right now, and what [IJC is] doing is absolutely vital,” says Lang. “[The current policies] are repudiating the fundamental principles this nation was founded on. I think that they are anti-life, anti-liberty, and they are certainly, most definitely, anti the pursuit of happiness…and they are having a direct effect on the lives of thousands and thousands of people.”
Aside from the immediate impact of the legal assistance, Lang’s daughter Lucy — an attorney who serves as vice chair of the Lang Foundation’s board — expects that IJC’s investment into these cases will have long-lasting effects.
“IJC is training the bench of the future of immigration lawyers in the country,” she says. “[It’s] beyond just ‘Let’s bring a bunch of lawyers down to stem the tide of disaster right now,’ but what will this look like for the next generation of immigrants in this country?”
For her father, the ability to tell stories as an actor with historical context and humanist themes amid a “globally tough time” lets him reach beyond “preaching to the converted,” he says. “We need to approach this in a humane and a compassionate way, a way that understands that people’s anger comes out of fear,” Lang adds. “We need to somehow educate people, illuminate the fact that we’re a better, better country for being as absolutely diverse as we possibly can.”
Adds Lucy of her father, who also has starred in such films as Gettysburg and performed on USO tours, “A huge part of his mission as an actor, talking about American history and illuminating meaningful moments in American history, [is to] tell stories to people who wouldn’t otherwise hear, and encourage them to participate in ways they might not otherwise participate.”
And while the father-daughter duo acknowledges that their foundation may not be the largest or most powerful, they want others to know that the strength of a single dollar or vote can go a long way.
“If an investment of $50,000 can fund a lawyer’s salary, and they’re able to touch that many people who otherwise would be unrepresented and would likely have a negative outcome — that is something that changes the world, for a comparatively small investment,” Lucy says.
“We must not be complacent about this,” her father urges. “Whether it’s money, or activism, letters and certainly the vote, we really have to remain mobilized and remain vigilant … as far as my dad was concerned, it’s just a basic human responsibility to do that.”
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