Arielle, Washington, DC, September and October, 2020
I am a newly-licensed immigration attorney at a small nonprofit organization. I live with my boyfriend in a small, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Washington, DC. He and I have been working mostly from home, jockeying for space for our laptops and files on our small kitchen table and shushing each other when we need to take work calls. From our balcony, I have seen folks receive free hot meals from a nearby restaurant. I have seen Black Lives Matter protestors march against racial injustice and police brutality. And I watched a military helicopter fly dangerously close to our apartment in an attempt to scare those protesting below. I mourned when Justice Ginsburg died and attended a vigil at the Supreme Court. I anxiously approach Election Day while writing hundreds of letters to voters in swing states while thinking about my clients.
Despite the chaos and despair, I try to promote access to justice by providing immigration legal services to mostly low-income immigrants in the DC area. For nearly 40 years, my employer, a small nonprofit organization, has been a community hub that serves mostly Salvadoran immigrants in the region. We have always been a walk-in organization; if you need information or have legal or housing questions, you just come in and someone will assist you or point you in the right direction. With COVID, this has all changed. You can no longer just walk in without an appointment to speak with someone directly. And in-person meetings are limited to briefly signing forms or dropping off documents. For the first time in many years, our doors are locked.
Providing legal services strictly over the phone is quite difficult. I am used to being able to look directly at my clients, read their body language, and offer comfort when talking about difficult subjects. The lack of visual cues and physical proximity creates a wall, and it can sometimes be difficult to know if I am doing all that needs to be done to best serve the person on the other end of the call. The sudden switch to working from home has also impacted my work-life balance. Rather than reaching me on my office phone and leaving messages after hours, I now get calls and texts from clients on my personal cell phone. And since my work computer and files now reside in our living room, it's all too easy to go through emails or work on a case during evenings and weekends.
These have been the main struggles of my time during COVID: balancing my own well-being with the responsibilities I feel as both a legal advocate and a citizen of this world. It can be hard to pull myself away from a case or pass on signing up for a phone banking shift when I know how dire the adverse outcomes can be. But with November 3 rapidly approaching, I'm trying my best to take care of myself so that I can eventually be there for others.
The part of my facial expression that you can see in the picture pretty much sums up my immigration work over the past year: confused frowning. During his administration, Trump has rained incredible hardship on immigrants. The constant rule changes, the incessant cruelty, the black holes… it is exhausting. In addition to exacerbating the instability that many immigrants already feel, this administration rains disfunction on immigration attorneys and advocates. I can give a client a piece of information and the next day that information is outdated. Deciphering rule changes so that I can explain them to my client becomes impossible when the rules are intentionally vague. There are times when I can share good news with my clients, and I am so grateful for those days. But most of the time… just a bunch of frowning and confusion.
When Pennsylvania was called for Joe Biden on November 7, I started crying in my living room. I then heard it. I live in downtown Washington, DC and it had been a quiet morning up until that point. But then the honking. And the cheering. People poured out into the streets and folks in their cars honked their horns and blared music. I grabbed my mask and made the quick walk over to the White House. I haven’t seen DC so ecstatic in a long time. Crowds of people formed in front of the White House, which currently sits “protected” behind fencing. Over the summer, Black Lives Matter protestors began hanging signs and pictures on the fences calling for justice for victims of police violence. Over time, protestors and activists added more signs. Now, the White House is barely visible behind the collage of signs that hang on the fencing. Included is an "eviction notice" to Trump, which I signed along with hundreds of other Americans. We joined the party at the White House and celebrated Biden’s electoral victory. This celebration was not planned; it was completely spontaneous. It felt like a cloud had been lifted off the city.
I know that the porta potty picture doesn’t quite fit in with the tone of the rest of them, but I couldn’t help but send it along. This city takes its politics very seriously… until it doesn’t!
Arielle, January, 2021
The past few weeks have been… a lot. January 4 was my first day back working since taking four weeks off to recover from surgery. I was in the middle of taking on a variety of new clients when January 6 happened. I live in downtown D.C., about a 10 minute walk from the White House and a 15 minute walk from the Capitol. As with the other right-wing protests over the past few months, we have made sure that we had enough groceries and did not need to leave our apartment. This was due to both the violent nature of these pro-Trumps groups and their aggressive flouting of the city’s mask requirements. We expected to ride out the day’s protests the same we had the prior ones: getting playing music and getting through another day working from home. Though that day we decided to put on the news instead. While on the phone with clients, I watched in horror as hoards of Trump-supporting insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. I started to get calls and texts from relatives who knew that I lived near the crowds. Not long after, I received an emergency notification that the mayor had ordered a 6:00 PM curfew. Luckily, we were already prepared with ingredients to make dinner so we were able to cook for ourselves and bring a meal down to the concierge who suddenly found herself stuck without a way to get dinner. I got pictures of protestors the only ways that I could: from my balcony and from behind the doors to my building lobby.
As I watched the violence unfold on the news, I felt angry. Over the summer, I had watched the DC police and National Guard respond with force and violence to peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors who spoke up against the true epidemic of racial injustice. But when angry white men screamed and committed acts of violence over lies and conspiracy theories, I did not see the mass arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets, or low-flying helicopter that had buzzed above my balcony. I remember shouting at my TV: “Did they forget how to arrest people? Did they use up all their zip ties and tear gas over the summer?” When Black D.C. residents called attention to injustice, they were treated as dangerous. But it looked like the actually dangerous terrorists who prevented me from safely leaving my apartment were treated with kid gloves.
I also thought about my clients past and present. So many people who I have worked with have told me that they came to America because it was a stable country and a country of laws. It’s embarrassing to think that people risk so much to come to this country and this is what we have. And when my clients apply for green cards and citizenship and I help them fill out the forms, I have to ask them if they ever plan on overthrowing the U.S. government by force. They look at my like I’m crazy. In fact, as I watched the mob storm the Capitol on TV, I was on the phone with a client conducting a screening for an immigration application. As part of the screening I asked her if she could be considered a threat to public safety or national security. She couldn’t believe that was a real question.
The Sunday after the attack, I took an early evening walk to the Capitol. The first thing I noticed was the short fencing near the building. Even though most D.C. residents stayed away from the area during the attack, plenty came out after to stand up for our city’s values with signs. In normal times, we walk easily through the Capitol grounds and can get pretty close to the building itself. But I saw tall fencing closing off the entire compound to the public with the National Guard standing watch. At the circle in the parking lot, there was a memorial to Officer Sicknick, the Capitol Police Officer who was killed in the attack.
Over the next few days, my boyfriend and I debate whether to stay in the city for the inauguration less than two weeks later. The downtown area appeared to return to it’s normal pandemic-era state, but we were still wary of what was to come. And there were always reminders of what had just happened, from the new fencing to the FBI ads at bus stops asking for information on the terrorists. But as travel restrictions downtown began to tighten and we heard of continued threats on the city starting the weekend before the Inauguration, we decided that we would feel safer if we left for a while. All the restrictions that are typically put in place the night before a regular inauguration were suddenly initiated nearly a full week before this one. Luckily, a cousin who lives 45 minutes into the suburbs offered to take us in. We left the city five days before the Inauguration. When my boyfriend drove the rental car to our apartment, a normally eight minute trip took forty-five minutes due to the traffic and road closures. In order to get to our building, he had to go through three checkpoints (two manned by DC police and one manned by the National Guard) and present his license to prove that he lived within the restricted zone. The garage attached to our building was blocked off by a concrete blockage. Once we finally got into the car, it was like a maze trying to leave downtown. So many roads were blocked off by concrete or fencing that we had to circle around trying to find the exit to the highway. We finally made it out and arrived safely at my cousin’s house. Our plan is to stay here at least until the day after the Inauguration. But we are unsure exactly when we can return. Access to downtown is now even more restricted than we we left (even pedestrians are subject to security checkpoints), so we will need to wait and see when we can finally go home to our adopted city that we love so much.
Arielle February, 2021
After the inauguration, DC slowly started to return to normal, though the Capitol complex is still blocked off by fencing and you randomly see members of the National Guard roaming around the city.
Over the past month, my work has gone into overdrive. I frequently work until 8 or 9 PM, and I put in hours on the weekend. Due to the long work hours and general unpleasant weather, I haven’t had as much time to walk around the city. But during the few times I have been outside my apartment, I found remnants of the last month of unrest, people who were upset with the Mayor, and new art depicting our Vice President.
I was on the fence about whether to submit the last picture. I took this picture while leaving my apartment to get lunch one day last week. It seems like a regular car, but I noticed one thing about it immediately as we walked by. The sticker on the bottom right corner of the window is for the “Three Percenters,” which is a right-wing militia group. Even though we had seen racist extremists in our city several times over the past couple of months, I was startled to see a car so cavalierly displaying that sticker only a month after terrorists stormed the Capitol building. I wound up texting the picture and the car’s location to the DC police department tip line, but I truly don’t know if there is anything that could be done. I still wonder who parked that car near my apartment and why they were in DC.
One of the most exciting that happened was that I got my first COVID vaccine! The DC Government reached out to my organization and told us that we qualified because we are still providing some in-person services to our clients. With both of our laptops open, my boyfriend helped me register and secure an appointment. I received my first shot on February 24 and will receive my second later in March. My organization wanted to share our vaccine pictures on social media to encourage our clients to register as well. While I did not take a vaccine selfie (I do NOT do well with needles and a picture of me getting the vaccine would likely act as more of a vaccine deterrent), I was happy to pose with my vaccine card.
Now that the DC area is finally edging into spring, I’ve been able to take advantage of the nice weather and actually get together with some friends outside. We took a trip to the National Arboretum and enjoyed both nature and spending some time with friends. Between the cold winter weather and my surgery in December, I haven’t been able to see many friends and was feeling a bit isolated. So I really enjoyed the opportunity to go on a nice long walk and feel a little more normal.
One of the most surreal things that happened was that I celebrated my 29th birthday on March 13, which is basically the day that everything shut down last year. My boyfriend and I had originally had plans for a really nice dinner for my birthday last year, but we wound up cancelling with the intent of delaying it just a few weeks. That delayed birthday celebration never happened. And here we are again. It almost doesn’t feel like the past year really happened. It’s almost like I turned 28 just a month ago and now I’m right back at my birthday again. I was lucky that this time I was able to do something that felt special. Since I had worked so many extra hours in February, I was able to flex a workday on Friday so my boyfriend and I both spent the day walking to Georgetown and eating lunch by the river. I’m really happy that I got to do something for my birthday and the vaccine rollout makes me feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But when I turn 30, I hope that I don’t look back on the prior year and regret all that I missed.