From Zamora-Chinchipe to Memphis

by Stacie Hammond

I challenge you to find a less diverse place than Yankton, South Dakota. As a kid growing up in America’s heartland, I was not exposed to many people that were not Caucasian, Christian, and United States citizens. I definitely did not have a personal story of having fled a war-torn country for the safety of the United States or leaving my home searching for the American Dream. I am not even sure I knew the extent of the challenges people in other countries faced. Despite this, I always had an interest in other cultures and people that were different than me. This interest led me to join the Peace Corps and go to Ecuador after I graduated college in 2007. Little did I know that this experience would send me on a journey that would lead me to my life’s passion and my future career.

In addition to my “official” Peace Corps duties in my new community in the province of Zamora-Chinchipe, Ecuador, I focused on fulfilling the second and third goals of the Peace Corps, which focus on the promotion of cultural awareness between persons in the host country and those in the United States. I spent much of my non-work time speaking with my neighbors about the community and Ecuadorian and United States cultures.

Many of the community members to whom I spoke had family members living in other countries, primarily the United States or Spain. I learned about the difficulties that families face as a result of the migration of one or more family members, whether that migration is legal or illegal. The husband of one woman I spoke to had left for the United States when the woman was pregnant with their daughter, and because the husband was living in the United States without authorization, he was unable to leave or return without running the risk of getting caught crossing the border. As a result, he had yet to meet his daughter, who at the time was eight years old. It was stories such as this one that led me to consider a career in immigration law. I began learning how broken the United States immigration system is and I wanted to be able to do something to improve the system, or at the very least, help people navigate the process of living or visiting the United States legally.

When I returned to the United States, I did everything I could to make my dream of helping immigrants become a reality. The first step was to find a law school that a strong immigration program — that’s what led me to Penn State Dickinson. With Professor Shoba Wadhia leading a “Center for Immigrants’ Rights” and the school’s location near an immigration court, I knew that this was the place for me. I never regretted that decision. In addition to the traditional classes that focused on immigration law generally and asylum law specifically, I was fortunate enough to participate in Professor Wadhia’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights. During my semester with the Clinic, I helped draft a report entitled Leveling the Playing Field: Reforming the H-2B Program to Protect Guestworkers and U.S. Workers for the National Guestworker Alliance.[i] This report highlighted the problems with the current H-2B visa program and the reforms that could be implemented to make the program work better not only for the guestworkers, but also for U.S. workers.

During the summer after my first year of law school, even before I had any formal education in immigration law, I was fortunate enough to get an internship with Hogar Immigrant Services in Falls Church, Virginia. After a half-day overview of immigration law, I was handed a list of twenty clients and told to get to work. I helped a woman petition to legalize her husband’s immigration status. I researched “alien smuggling.” I tracked down the “certifying official” for a U visa law enforcement certification in a small New Jersey town in a time that few people even knew what a U visa was. A U visa is a type of protection available to victims of crime who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of a crime.[ii] That summer was the first time that I woke up every day excited to go to work and to help people. I loved that feeling and knew that I had found my calling.

In my second year of law school, I learned the ins-and-outs of asylum law from Professor Wadhia, studying cases of people fleeing persecution in their home countries. That summer I put the knowledge I had gained to work, interning at the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center.[iii] Among other cases, I assisted an attorney representing a Pakistani man seeking asylum. This man feared returning to his home not only because his family and community had found out that he is gay, but also because his life had been threatened for educating girls in his community. Because this man was in immigration detention and fearful of anyone within the detention center learning that he is gay, he had no one other than me and the attorney working on his case that he could truly be himself with. As Professor Wadhia had taught me, asylum cases are complex and take a considerable amount of time. While this case worked its way through the immigration court, the Board of Appeals, and back to the immigration court, I graduated law school, was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, and began working on the case as a full-fledged lawyer. While the case ultimately did not work out in our favor, it taught me a lot about myself and about what I wanted my career as an immigration lawyer to look like.

This man had nothing. He had no money to hire an attorney, and because he was in immigration detention, he had no way of earning any. He had been cut off completely from his family, other than a single cousin living on the opposite side of the United States who could only help so much. He had no way of obtaining evidence that could help his asylum case from inside the detention center. He had no idea of how United States immigration law and the immigration system worked. He needed someone to have his back and to fight for him. Even after the immigration judge had ordered him removed back to Pakistan, he expressed his gratitude for my work over the two years and how he could not have done it without me. And he is right. It is unlikely that another attorney would have been able to take his case on a pro bono basis. As much as attorneys may be willing to help, there are only so many hours in the day and a lot of people that need help.

I knew from that point that I wanted to work for a non-profit organization, helping asylum seekers and others who do not have the resources to hire a private attorney, but who have cases that need to be fought. After a year-long detour to clerk for a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge and then serving for two years as Attorney Advisor to the Immigration Judges at the Memphis Immigration Court, I began working in my dream job at the Immigrant Rights Defense Center of Latino Memphis, in Memphis, Tennessee in September 2015. During my time at the Immigrant Rights Defense Center, I have had a number of clients who have reminded me exactly why I chose this career in the first place.

One of my first clients was a 15-year-old boy who had fled Central America due to gang violence and attempts by the local gangs to recruit him into their criminal activity. He had been reunited with his mom here in the United States, but because his father had abandoned him when he was a toddler, he was eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and the lawful permanent residency that comes with that status. The day that we received his green card and he and his mom came to pick it up from my office is a day I will never forget. The joy — and relief — on his and his mom’s faces was worth more than any amount of money. I have received a lot of hugs in my life, but theirs were some of the best. That night and every night after, a mother has slept better, knowing her son is no longer at risk of being deported back to the gangs and violence of their home country. A teen can now finish high school, knowing that he can go to college, he can work, he can reach for his dreams — without his immigration status standing in the way.

More recently, I had a more hard-fought win that will stay with me throughout my career. When Maria[iv] first came into my office, she told me about how she had been raped in her home country and got pregnant as a result of that rape. When her rapist found out that she had given birth, he began harassing her to be with him, to live with him, to marry him, so they could be a family. Maria was not having it — she told me that she could never be with her rapist. Over the next three years, he continually threatened her, he kidnapped her daughter, and he kidnapped her and her daughter. Maria had tears streaming down her face as she told me the awful things this man had done to her. But Maria had another issue — she could not afford to hire an attorney. When I accepted Maria’s case on a pro bono basis, I told her that I did not know whether we could win a case for Asylum. I explained that her case was different than other domestic violence–type cases I had seen, primarily because she and her rapist had never actually been in a relationship. But I told her that she deserved to have someone fight on her behalf. I truly believed that, even if we lost the case, at least Maria had someone beside her in court making the best legal argument that could be made. Over the next months, I struggled to figure out what exactly that legal argument would be. I researched and researched and could not find precedent for a grant of asylum for a case like Maria’s. Nearly at the last minute, I put together a legal argument that — at the very least — would not get us laughed out of the courtroom. Walking into the courtroom that day, I still had no idea whether this was a winnable case. Maria got on the stand and told the Judge about all the awful things she had experienced. During my closing argument, I outlined the legal argument that I had concocted. And then it happened. Not only did the judge not laugh us out of his courtroom, but he granted Maria and her daughter asylum without challenging the legal argument I had made. I had convinced him that this legal argument that had no straight-forward precedent to support it was valid. I try to keep a professional demeanor when I am in court and with clients — but that day it was particularly difficult. A case I had fought so hard to win — had won. This woman and her daughter would be protected from this man who had terrorized her for so many years. And it was because I had taken a chance — given her case a chance — even though we very probably were going to lose. Because she deserved someone to stand in her corner and fight for her — even if she had no money to spare — I was proud, that day, to have been that person.

I know that most people do not find their dream careers ever — much less so early in life. I am so grateful that I wake up each day knowing I get to help others improve their legal situation and — as a result — their lives.

[i] Leveling the Playing Field: Reforming the H-2B Program to Protect Guestworkers and U.S. Workers, Penn State Law and National Guestworker Alliance (Jun. 2016),

[ii] Victims of Criminal Activity: U Nonimmigrant status, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, (Aug. 25, 2017)

[iii] Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center, (last visited October 31, 2017).

[iv] Not her real name


Citation: Stacie Hammond, From Zamora-Chinchipe to Memphis, in Back Into the Future of Immigration: Personal Stories by the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic (Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia ed., 2018).

Stacie Hammond

Stacie currently serves as the Co-Legal Director at Latino Memphis’ Immigrant Rights Defense Center. She is married to Christopher and they have a one-year old son, Benjamin. In her free time, she loves baking cookies and other sweet treats.

Class of 2012
Stacie Hunhoff