Problem, Challenge, or Focus:

Access to Legal Help for LGBT Immigrant Youth

Listen to Dustin Saldarriaga's Story

  • Type of Experience:
    Legal Fellow, Public Interest Legal Fellowship
  • Organization:
    Community Legal Services and Counselling Center
  • Length of Experience:
    2 years
  • Location of Experience:
    Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Home Institution:
    Harvard College, Harvard Law School
  • Website:
  • Twitter:
  • Song Credit:
    Nightlife by Amon Tobin
  • Possibility Fellow:
    Jason L. Outlaw

Please say your name, where you are from, and introduce your Realm of Possibility Experience.

My name is Dustin Saldarriaga. I am 29 years old. I grew up in Austin, Texas, and moved to Boston for college in 2002. I graduated from Harvard College in 2006 and from Harvard Law School in 2011. I have been practicing law in Boston since.

Please describe the path that led you to where you are now.

As a child, the immigrant experience was a regular topic of conversation in my family. My family immigrated to the United States from Colombia in 1968, and I grew up in Texas, where I frequently interacted with immigrants from Latin America.

I worked with immigrants in college through both the Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment Program, and through a program in East Boston. In law school, I enrolled in a clinic that served refugees and immigrants, which directly led me to my current work with immigrant youth. I have done this work through a Skadden Fellowship, which is funded by the Skadden Foundation. The Foundation supports recent law school graduates and clerks who perform legal services for indigent clients.

Over the past two years I have focused on representing young people who experienced violence either in the United States or abroad due to their perceived sexual orientation, and consequently are in need of protection in the U.S. The two forms of protection that I usually sought were asylum and special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS). An individual found eligible for either protection is also eligible for work authorization and stability, and is given a pathway to citizenship. These protections are critical for a young person who has just fled, for example, gangs in El Salvador or the Ugandan government, both of which are unfortunately growing common.

What problem or challenge did you address during your role?

What it really came down to was access to legal services. Massachusetts has a number of organizations that strive to offer support to immigrant youth. That being said, the population of LGBT immigrant youth is, to a substantial degree, extralegal. These are kids who, by their very experience and identity, hide. They hide because of their immigration status and are further isolated as a result of their sexual orientation. Invisibility and voicelessness leads to a range of other challenges. My work asked how these young people can be brought back under the umbrella of services and representation.

Why is this problem or challenge important?

Every person has value and dignity, regardless of legal status, age, or sexual orientation. I believe very strongly in our system of justice. Nonetheless, there are people living in this country who are outside the protection of the law. We have committed ourselves to helping refugees and individuals who cannot return to their country of origin for fear of persecution, and we need to follow through on this commitment.

If you are in court on a criminal issue, you have a right to legal representation. That’s not the case for immigration cases. What we see is children, some eight years old or younger, navigating the legal system with no attorney. Oftentimes these children do have a valid claim to stay in the United States, but they are unable to share their story because they do not have a lawyer. A child being sent back to a place where his or her life is threatened – simply because the child could not share her story – is a situation that should not exist in this country.

Please suggest media or resources that will help people explore this problem or challenge.

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) is directly addressing this problem by aiming for no child to be without representation in immigration court.

The Vera Institute supports research on the topic of child migrants. PEW also has good data on unaccompanied children.

The Heartland Alliance’s Rainbow Welcome Initiative is a program focused on LGBT immigrants.
United We Dream is a grassroots student movement seeking empowerment for undocumented youth. UndocuQueer is a program that supports undocumented LGBTQ youth who share their stories on YouTube.

How did you create value for the organization where you worked?

The organization where I worked is called Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSACC), in Cambridge. The organization provides free legal services on issues around family law, housing law, disability law, and immigration law. They combine these legal services with counseling services. This combination of services is critical for many clients since the need for legal services is frequently accompanied by the need for counseling, and vice versa.

CLSACC represents individuals who have asylum claims based on a range of experiences, including their sexual orientation or gender identity. I traveled to homeless shelters and drop-in centers for LGBT youth to ensure that young people with valid asylum claims know that free legal help is available to them. I tried to think creatively about bridging organizations and building channels of communication between them.

Please give a sampling of what you did on a day-to-day basis.

My days were split fifty-fifty between providing direct legal representation and conducting outreach.

I represented young people as they applied for asylum or special immigrant juvenile status. This meant documenting their story, particularly why they fear returning to their country of origin. I worked to collect supporting documentation, including expert reports or correspondence from individuals who remain in the country of origin. Once the applicant’s story is sufficiently complete, the attorney must develop a legal theory and basically think about how this story fits into the requirements of the law. Asylum is only granted if persecution occurred on account of certain grounds – for example, one’s race or religion.

The outreach component of my work involved visiting shelters, drop-in centers, and schools, and trying to ensure that people were aware of protections available to them, and where they could find legal support.

What skills were most valuable to be successful in your role?

Oftentimes, being a good lawyer means being a good teacher. This means being able to explain concepts to your client, to the judge, and perhaps to the jury. But it also means being able to listen to and learn from your client. It is especially important for lawyers representing indigent clients to be able to communicate because this can be very empowering for the client. When a client understands that their issue is legitimate and what is at stake, this can be hugely empowering.

With whom did you collaborate to address the problem or challenge you worked on?

Community Legal Services and Counseling Center supported me most directly.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a shelter in downtown Boston, was very open to the idea of sharing with their young guests information on their rights.

Youth on Fire, a drop-in center for homeless youth, is located in Harvard Square. It is an exceptional organization that is thinking creatively about how to provide its young guests with holistic services.

I also collaborated with Kids in Need of Defense, Greater Boston Legal Services, and a number of state agencies and commissions, including the Massachusetts Commission for LGBT Youth and the Special Commission for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth.

How did you arrange your role?

I began by asking a lot of questions to learn who is doing what to address this issue, and to learn what they are seeing. When I spoke with organizations I would ask them what I could do that would be helpful. I built from there, allowing the true experts to guide me.

What was unexpected about your role?

In a way, a lot of it was unexpected because I remained open to seeing where people guided me, both the young people I represented and also the experts.

What are the big takeaways from your experience?

My experience highlights the need to constantly ask who is not being helped – who is invisible. It’s not always viable for an organization that is already overburdened to then begin asking, “well, but who else needs our services?” But it is an important question if you believe every individual in this country should have access to the legal system.

Also, it is important to ask, “who cares about these issues and might already be doing similar work?” Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes complicate a situation and risk causing more harm than good.

What advice do you have for people seeking a similar role?

For students, one of the first things to do is visit the Office of Career Services or a similar office and have an honest discussion about your interest and how to make it real. Working for a nonprofit is not always easy, particularly if you have student debt. Students should have an honest discussion about this with their advisers. The process takes determination, creativity, and a good amount of time invested in applying for grants and other sources of funding.

If you’re not a student, there are a number of funding opportunities, including Echoing Green, the Fulbright, and other foundations. It is very important to build relationships. On this note, keep in mind that there are many galas and other fundraisers for nonprofits, which can be great opportunities to meet people who do this work. There are also websites that list available opportunities, including Idealist and PSJD.

What is your vision for the problem or challenge you worked to address?

The young people we’ve been discussing, LGBT immigrant youth, might not be interacting with legal services and other organizations offering support, but they are interacting with their families, friends, teachers, perhaps people at their churches or place of worship, and others. They are also on the internet. It’s important to ask whether and to what extent technology might give a voice to these young people. UndocuQueer is a great example of how this might be done well. The Trevor Project is another example of how the internet might be used well in this context. The Trevor Project uses chat rooms, a 24/7 hotline, and other innovative tools to ensure that young people in need have a voice and are connected to others who might offer support.

In terms of thinking about funding this work in the future, an example I love is Aravind, a hospital in India that performs surgery on cataracts. The organization has found a way to focus its services on the poor while being financially sustainable and improving its own operations and efficiency. I think Aravind teaches valuable lessons for any legal services organization striving to provide services for indigent clients.

What are some of your personal interests?

Photography, running, motorcycles, international travel, reading, and movies.

Podcast: Click Play to Hear Interview Clips

2Dustin Saldarriaga 1 - Please describe who you are, where you are from, and your current role.
3Dustin Saldarriaga 2 - Please describe the path that led you to where you are now.
4Dustin Saldarriaga 4 - What problem or challenge did you address during your experience?
5Dustin Saldarriaga 5 - Why is this problem or challenge important?
6Dustin Saldarriaga 6 - Please suggest media or resources that will help people explore this problem or challenge.
7Dustin Saldarriaga 7 - How did you create value for the organization where you worked?
8Dustin Saldarriaga 8 - Please give a sampling of what you did on a day-to-day basis.
9Dustin Saldarriaga 9 - What skills were most valuable to be successful in your role?
10Dustin Saldarriaga 10 - With whom did you collaborate to address the problem or challenge you worked on?
11Dustin Saldarriaga 11 - How did you arrange your experience?
12Dustin Saldarriaga 12 - What was your living accommodation and how did you find it?
13Dustin Saldarriaga 13 - What was unexpected about your experience?
14Dustin Saldarriaga 14 - What were the big takeaways from your experience?
15Dustin Saldarriaga 15 - What advice do you have for people seeking a similar experience?
16Dustin Saldarriaga 16 - What is your vision for the problem or challenge you worked to address?

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