It was the hug that came at the end of an award acceptance speech that may have said more about the event itself than any of the speeches combined. Juan Belman, a young man in his 20s had just been honored with the Social Justice Award by American Gateways, a nonprofit that works to provide pro bono and low cost legal services to immigrants and refugees. Belman is what is known as a “Dreamer.” He is an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States as a minor and today has an uncertain legal status. As Master of Ceremonies, State Representative Gina Hinojosa, said of him, he’s “as American as any of us except for paperwork.” Yet it was that off-stage, post-award hug, that really tells the heart of the story.
But first, a little bit about American Gateways and what brought Belman and a room full of over 200 people together last Thursday. The evening—which raised close to $100,000—marked the 30th anniversary of American Gateways and their second annual “Awards Honoring Immigrants of Achievement.” Joining Juan Belman in his Social Justice honor were Valerie Barker of Baker Botts, LLP, named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year and Jae Kim who was named Immigrant of Achievement. You may better recognize Kim by the name Chi’Lantro. That’s what the entrepreneur calls his group of Korean BBQ-inspired restaurants and food truck. Kim also made an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank. He was 12 years old when he immigrated to the United States from Seoul, South Korea. And, again, there was Belman, the Dreamer.
By the numbers, in 2016 alone, American Gateways volunteers and staff helped 1065 people with legal cases. There are staff attorneys at their offices in Austin, San Antonio and Waco. They also however depend on over 1600 hours of volunteer attorney time. Folks like Valerie Barker, who in her day job focuses on patent law. She offered 300 pro bono legal hours herself. According to American Gateways, over 15,000 people were offered aid and information through the “Know Your Rights” program and other legal orientations. We are talking about people from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Turkey, Uganda, China, Peru, Bulgaria and many more. American Gateways touches folks from as many as 50 countries. Some have found themselves in one of four detention centers in Central Texas, others are dealing with domestic violence, or immigration issues. Most have left their home country, according to American Gateways, as “refugee and immigrant survivors of persecution, torture, conflict, and human trafficking.” According to Representative Hinojosa, an immigrant who has received legal services is five times more likely to have a positive resolution to their case than one that hasn’t.
The event was held at Austin Film Society’s AFS Cinema, an interesting location itself, just off I-35 near the ACC Highland campus. Guests got in the spirit with the help of the New Generation Children’s choir. The young performers, dressed in jeans and bright red embroidered tunics, are mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They sang tunes in English while impressing the crowd with more traditional African dance. As the music began, one performer stepped to the microphone to say she was a “Katuma survivor,” born in a refugee camp. The moment underscores what some who’ve fled to the U.S., to Texas, have overcome. Musical entertainment was also provided by Mariachi Las Coronelas, an all-female mariachia group (pictured above, Cecile Fusco Photography).
Back to Juan Belman and that hug. Belman came to the United States “alongside” his mother and 4-year-old brother, from Mexico. They hoped to join their father in Texas. Belman didn’t offer much detail, rather pointed to a moment during his freshman year at the University of Texas to underscore the pain of his status. That year, his father was placed in detention, for weeks, after a simple traffic stop. As Belman walked from the stage, the applause was steady and strong. Few may have noticed he headed straight to a table to the left of the stage and into the arms of a man believed to be his dad. The moment spoke volumes about the strength and struggle of families trying to make a life in a new country. The staff and volunteers at American Gateways work to make that struggle, at least in the legal arena, a little less daunting.