This is the transcript of the installation speech given by AILA President Jennifer Minear during AILA’s Virtual Annual Conference on July 20, 2020. You can also watch the speech, part of the free recording of the conference kick-off if you choose.

Thank you so much, Sarah.  Your friendship means the world to me, and I would never have met you without AILA. That is just one more thing I have to be grateful for as an AILA member!

And thank you also to the over 2,600 AILA members who registered for our very first virtual Annual Conference!

This number speaks volumes about your unwavering passion for our shared mission. While other organizations have canceled or been hit by precipitous drops in attendance for their key annual events, registration for AILA’s signature gathering far exceeded our expectations.

For that, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to The Annual Conference Committee, under the direction of the amazing Gayle Oshrin, and our equally amazing AILA national staff. They have worked very hard to convert this conference from an in-person event to a virtual one that will deliver content that is informative, inspiring, engaging, and hopefully also entertaining.

While I miss seeing all of you in person, I am also excited for us all to explore the possibilities and opportunities that technology offers us to connect and to learn remotely and safely until we can all be together in person again.

In whatever way you choose to participate – from the live tracks, to the  recordings of the sessions you can’t attend live, to the various virtual social events and exhibit hall – THANK YOU for being a part of our first ever virtual Annual Conference!

I am proud to practice employment-based immigration law with my firm, McCandlish Holton, in Richmond, VA.   My firm boasts an exceptional constellation of accomplished lawyers, past and present – including one of its former partners, Senator Tim Kaine, who has graciously agreed to deliver our keynote address today.

I am incredibly thankful to McCandlish Holton, and particularly to the firm’s Immigration Practice Group, for all of their support and encouragement of my involvement in AILA over the years.  Without them, there is no way I could do the work that I do for AILA while also representing my clients.

In some ways, my journey to a career in immigration law is probably similar to many of yours, yet in other ways is likely quite different.

Like many of you, I started with a well-rounded liberal arts undergraduate education –in my case, a bachelor’s degree in English and History. This qualified me simultaneously to do almost anything, as well as nothing in particular.

I thought I might want to go to law school, but I wanted to get some work experience before making that big decision.  I began interviewing for paralegal jobs, but it was an immigration boutique firm, Danziger & Mak in Washington, DC that decided to take a chance and hire me back in 1994.

There, under the direction of AILA members Pam Mak and Martin Danziger, I met a great group of people, who taught me the ropes of business and family-based immigration filings.  A few years later, I was privileged to work with AILA legends Jan Pederson and Roberta Freedman who taught me all about J-1 physicians and the Conrad J-1 waiver program.

To this day, my practice focuses on physician immigration because of the introduction Jan and Roberta gave me to that nuanced area of immigration law.  When I decided I needed to move to Boston to be closer to my mom, who had cancer at the time, Jan connected me with Steve Clark and his firm, Flynn & Clark.

Steve was about to become AILA’s president-elect and he graciously hired me as a paralegal and then sent his entire staff to the AILA Annual Conference that year in Orlando.  Little did I know then as I attended my first AILA Annual Conference that I would become the AILA president myself 23 years later.  After only a year of working for and learning from Steve, I finally decided it was time to go to law school.

To my lasting shame, I did not take the Immigration Law course at Cornell which was taught by yet another AILA rock star, Professor Steve Yale Loehr.  But I did learn how to think like a lawyer and, of course, how to pass the bar exam!  After graduating, I joined the firm of Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Virginia as a civil litigator.

I certainly learned a lot as a litigator – mainly that I did not like being a litigator. Working in franchise litigation, I felt strangely disenfranchised from the privilege of making a difference in people lives that I thought a career in law would give me.

In search of that greater meaning I pursued pro bono work and signed up to represent victims at a domestic violence shelter. I was expecting to help people with things like securing protective orders and filing divorce actions.

But then I met my first client: a desperate immigrant from Kenya. She had met her American husband online, and after visiting him in U.S., she wound up staying and marrying him.

Their relationship would soon sour. He was a serial abuser and would eventually pull every trick in the book – including trying to leverage her immigration status against her and threatening to get her deported.

Here I was – a disgruntled litigator – thinking that I wouldn’t know how to help the residents of this shelter. Yet thanks to my prior immigration experience, I knew exactly what to do to help my first pro bono client!

We filed an I-360 immigrant petition under the Violence Against Women Act and got her a green card independent of her abusive spouse.

This enabled her to get out of the shelter, work, and support herself.

Three years later, I was able to help her apply for U.S. citizenship.

I quickly realized two things in reflecting on my young legal career: For the first time I felt professionally fulfilled and knew what I wanted to do going forward…

…But I had not chosen immigration law. Rather, immigration law had chosen me.

At that time, Richmond did not have a very large immigration bar and no immigration attorneys in town were advertising for an associate.  But I didn’t let that stop me!  I proactively sent my CV to every immigration lawyer in the city anyway.

I will be forever grateful to my (now) law partners, Mark Rhoads and Helen Konrad, for agreeing to hire a green civil litigator into their business immigration practice.  Like every successful immigration attorney I know, they were AILA members and recognized the names of the other AILA lawyers I had worked for as a paralegal before law school.  That was a big part of what made them decide to hire me.  So, in a sense, my association with AILA lawyers was helping me advance my career even before I became a member!

Immediately upon joining my firm, Mark and Helen strongly encouraged me to get involved in AILA.  They knew that being engaged with AILA – attending conferences, reading publications, making connections – was an indispensable part of practicing immigration law.

In short order, I was again sent to the AILA Annual Conference, this time as a licensed attorney.  From the very beginning, the AILA community welcomed and supported me in my practice.  I found that AILA members were incredibly collegial, willing to give of their time, and committed to a common purpose—even in uncommon times.

I have made some of my deepest and most lasting friendships through AILA, whose family of members is truly a second home for me. AILA is a community of power that taught me the power of community.

So, it only made sense for me to want to help strengthen and support AILA in whatever way I could.  I first got involved in committee work, and later writing for publications and speaking at conferences.

I served for 3 years on the Board of Governors before running for the Executive Committee in 2015.  Serving on the Executive Committee has been one of the most challenging but also one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.

Everything that I have ever done with AILA – whether it’s attending conferences, committee work, or serving in elected leadership positions – has confirmed my conviction that AILA membership is an essential part of being a prepared and informed immigration attorney.

So that is my immigration law “origin story.”   AILA’s origin story mirrors mine in some key ways because that extraordinary sense of community, collegiality, and common purpose that first drew me to AILA has been at the heart of what we’ve been about from the very beginning.

AILA was founded in 1946 by a group of about 20 immigration lawyers in New York City, many of whom were former employees of INS – the Immigration & Naturalization Service – and some of whom were immigrants themselves.

In the wake of the tremendous displacement of people all over the world caused by World War II, this group of immigration lawyers realized the need to band together and be a stronger voice for immigrants and to create a liaison function between government agencies and the immigration bar—especially given the amorphous and arcane nature of immigration law and its application.  Sound familiar?

At the time of AILA’s founding – there was no national office; there was no staff; there were no chapters.  AILA wasn’t even called AILA.  It was called the Association of Immigration & Nationality Lawyers – that’s right, AINL.

In the beginning, “AINL” was limited to a group of attorneys practicing primarily on the east coast in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.  They met in person at regular meetings, shared information, practice tips, and updates in law and practice with each other.

Then, as now, these lawyers came together as a community to share ideas and strategies about how to improve and enhance the practice of immigration law for the benefit of their clients and the profession.

Over time, the organization grew and began developing chapters across the country.  In the early 1980s, AINL became AILA and opened a national office in Washington, D.C. with its first Executive Director, Warren Leiden.  You may also know him for a little firm he later started called Berry, Appelman and Leiden.

In addition to expanding chapters all over the country and – now – all over the world, AILA’s influence and reputation as a respected voice on Capitol Hill and with the national media has grown over the years – as has its numbers: We are now 15,000 members strong.

AILA now works with lawmakers to draft legislation and regulations; our leaders regularly testify before Congress and are quoted numerous times in the press concerning major immigration-related developments.

AILA’s national staff has grown to 69 people.

We now have 39 chapters, including 4 international chapters.  We have sections members can join for removal defense, global migration and federal court litigation.  We publish over 30 immigration law compilations and practice resource materials, including Kurzban’s Immigration Law Sourcebook, which is considered the essential practice resource for immigration practitioners.

Each year, hundreds of our members descend on Capitol Hill to advocate for fair and reasonable immigration reform.  Each day thousands of our members  – all of you – make a difference, just by doing your jobs.

Next year, AILA will celebrate its 75th anniversary. As I now become the 74th president of this association – and its 21st female president – I am humbled to stand on the shoulders of all who came before me.

I think of all of the past AILA presidents I have been privileged to know personally. And I think of the past presidents whom I have seen contributing so much to the board with their quiet confidence and wealth of historical knowledge. In particular, I think of the past president I might just know the best, our immediate past president, Marketa Lindt.  Marketa – your leadership over the past extraordinarily challenging year has been both inspired and inspiring.  I am so grateful that the Executive Committee will have the continued benefit of your counsel in the coming year as an advisor.

When I think of our current leaders, I also think of Allen Orr, who next year will become AILA’s first black President.  It will have taken far too long for us to break that barrier, but I hope and believe that  our future will be more equitable and inclusive than our past.  Everyone in AILA’s national leadership is fully committed to and invested in the work of our Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

As for my other Ex Comm colleagues:  Jeremy, Farshad, Kelli and Jeff – I couldn’t ask for a better or more dedicated team to tackle this next year with.

Each leader of this association, each employee of this association, each member of this association who has come before us has helped to build and strengthen its fabric. Each has left a mark that has made AILA better.

I am humbled when I think about the countless hours that hundreds of AILA members volunteer each year to help their fellow attorneys and to get answers for our clients.

And I am consistently awed by the determination and hard work of the AILA national staff who are driven every day to deliver the content and services that we need to represent our clients, maintain our practices, and stay sane in this time of economic, social, and political upheaval.

I truly know of no harder working group of people anywhere and I am so appreciative for what they do.

It is through them that AILA will be able to offer you the tools and strategies you need to weather this challenging storm we find ourselves in.  For example:

We will continue to provide you with guidance and resources on how to run your business remotely; how to market and collect fees in these difficult times; and how to take advantage of SBA and PPP loans and forgiveness; and even how to maintain personal wellness and psychic balance in such stressful times.

AILA’s volunteer committees are working harder than ever before to identify adjudications trends, get answers from government agencies, and address your case specific questions.  This year, we’ve established a new Case Assistance Liaison Committee to field specific case questions from members; as well as a new Client Resources Committee that will develop client-facing materials that members can adapt and share with their clients to explain breaking news and developments.

AILA continues to pursue impact litigation that will challenge unlawfully restrictive immigration policies.  Earlier this month, AILA teamed up with the National Immigration Law Center, and the law firms of Jenner & Block, and Morgan Lewis & Bockhius in filing a complaint challenging the wealth test otherwise known as the “public charge” rule.  And on Friday, AILA filed the first legal challenge to the entirety of the June 22 presidential proclamation that seeks to severely curtail the U.S. entry of foreign nationals on immigrant and nonimmigrant visas.

AILA is constantly developing new educational content for our members to stay informed about the latest trends and developments.  AILA’s offerings include free online tutorials and roundtables through AILA University; as well as a series of online courses for both attorneys and paralegals; and, as always, a number of free CLE offerings.

All this, and so much more.

My colleagues, today I am humbled before you for another reason.

We find ourselves in an extraordinary moment in the history of our country – a time when a global health crisis threatens our very lives; when an economic downturn threatens our practices and financial stability; and when a series of devastating events have laid bare the systemic racism and injustice that still plagues our country.

And as we know too well, we are laboring tirelessly in an environment that is uniquely hostile to the proposition we all know to be true: that immigrants are irrevocably entwined in the American experiment and its unparalleled success.

For too long, we have felt the bitter sting of restriction, refusal, and rejection.

We are embattled. We are frustrated. We are bewildered.

But we are also AILA.

We do what we do because – from the time of our founding – this is who we have always been and what we have always fought for.

And we will be successful because there is so much more that unites us than divides us. Just as there is more that unites than divides Americans on the issue of immigration, from their growing rejection of the false narrative that immigrants steal their jobs to their increasing understanding that immigration is a good thing for our country, including the Dreamers whose destinies across our nation cannot be denied.

We seek change for today’s immigration environment, and rightly so: Inclusion over exclusion…opportunity over obstructionism…and naturalization over nativism.

The change we pursue may not come swiftly and it certainly won’t come easily.  But it will come.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. has reminded us, “the moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”  We occupy only a small part of that long arc.  But we must do everything we can to accelerate its curvature, just as those who came before us have done, and those who will follow us must do.

And we will succeed, because know that as a nation, we founder when we forget how foundational immigration is to America.

I was reminded of this fact just recently when my children gathered around the TV to watch Hamilton on Disney+.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece is the quintessential immigrant story.

Alexander Hamilton came to this country from the British West Indies for a better life, and began his American dream by pursuing education—a good thing they didn’t have online classes back then, or he might have never been allowed into the country!

Hamilton left school to join America’s fight for freedom, acquitted himself brilliantly on the battlefield, and would eventually enter politics.

While many remember him for establishing the pillars of our nation’s financial system, he was also instrumental in ensuring the ratification of the Constitution.

Hamilton was also one of seven immigrants – out of a total of 39 individuals – who were signers of the Constitution – reaffirming one of the hit musical’s songs we appreciate well: “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done.”

Today, we have an administration that does not get the job done.

An administration that has done everything it can to delay, disrupt, and dismantle our immigration system.  Indeed, whenever I struggle to think what action the administration might take next, I can generally divine it by imagining what should happen, and then considering the opposite.  Because that is what this administration does consistently and systematically – the opposite of what it should.

Our nation now finds itself strangely alone. And as history has repeatedly shown, America does not prosper when it insulates, nor when the world isolates.

In responding to these times, AILA does and must get involved with political issueswe fight for the rights of those who lack power and seek integration into American society.

We are, however, not a partisan organization. And the reason is simple: immigration is a non-partisan issue. Perhaps one day, we will see it is a truly bipartisan issue.

Nevertheless, these times are starkly different, compelling actions not previously contemplated. And for the first time in AILA’s history, we as an organization are working to impact the next election.

For the coming year, a big part of that effort lies in doing everything in our power to ensure that Donald Trump is a one-term president.

Yes, we will take a side in this election—not the side of Democrats or of Republicans, but the side of America.

It’s not just that this president is against immigrants; he is also against ideas enshrined in the unique story of our nation’s success. And one of those ideas is that the world’s best and brightest should be able to come to our shores and help “Make America Great Again.”

We will make no endorsements, but we will make it clear that this president’s views on immigration are antithetical to the mission of this organization to promote justice, and to advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy.

This administration poses a clear and immediate threat to the rights and safety of our clients and of our practices.  They have demonstrated time and time again a willingness to completely disregard both U.S. and international law, as well as the bounds of human decency.

Eight years of the Trump administration would be devastating to our clients’ lives, and to our livelihoods.  We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening.

To help organize this effort, AILA has partnered with Immigrants’ List, a 501I(4) organization that is working to turn out the immigrant vote this November in key states like Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.

If you agree that our country needs a change, then I encourage you to get involved and contribute in whatever way you can – financially, or by giving of your time in organizing or participating in Get Out the Vote efforts in your communities to ensure that our electorate is fired up and ready to make a difference in November.

But what will we do if – despite our best efforts – Donald Trump is re-elected?  Here I think it’s important to keep in mind that no matter who is in the White House, AILA’s mission is the same, and it is not a partisan one.

Our goal is always to promote fair and reasonable immigration policy.  If the president is like-minded, then we can do that through robust liaison with government agencies, and by providing insight and assistance in crafting immigration policy and legislation.  If the president refuses to engage in good faith, the tools that we use to advance our agenda may lean more toward impact litigation, congressional oversight, and media attention.

But – either way – our work goes on.  Either way, AILA stands ready to work with any administration, regardless of political party, to advance our mission.  We’ll work with anyone who has good ideas; and we will challenge anyone who does not.

As we pursue these efforts, we must ask critical questions of ourselves.

  • What impact will we each make now?
  • What will each of us do now in this tumultuous time?
  • What will future AILA members say as they look back and contemplate the mark we have left?
  • And lastly, how will we meet this moment?
  • We will meet it by resisting the politics of hate that seeks to divide our country and that uses immigrants as pawns in a political chess game.
  • We will meet it by fighting lawlessness in the courts;
  • We will meet it by continuing to use the tools of congressional oversight to shine a spotlight on executive overreach regardless of party, and to support sensible reforms on Capitol Hill, including the establishment of a separate Article I court system for immigration courts.
  • We will meet it by calling out injustice against our clients in the media and within our social networks, fearlessly representing our clients every day, holding the administration accountable to the law, and telling our clients’ stories.
  • We will meet it by not sitting quietly by as immigrants are dehumanized and their contributions to our country overlooked and dismissed, but by opposing the fear-based scapegoating of immigrants by emphasizing our common humanity and shared values.

My colleagues, there is no doubt that these are incredibly difficult times.

But we must never lose sight that in every challenge there is an opportunity.

Through all the callousness, divisiveness, and lawlessness, there is yet a glimmer of hope.

It’s the same flicker of hope I first saw in the eyes of my client from Kenya in that domestic violence shelter nearly 20 years ago.

It’s the very spark of hope I wish each of you will take with you when this conference ends.

Always remember: We are AILA. Each of you is AILA. And this community will always stand by you.

We will never give up.  We will never give way. We will never give in.  And we will prevail.

Alexander Hamilton once noted, “I think the first duty of society is justice.”  Let us remember that the first duty of AILA is justice for immigrants.

On Friday, our country lost a great patriot who lived Hamilton’s credo,  the great legislator and Civil Rights activist, John Lewis.

I would now ask that we all observe a moment of silence to honor and respect Congressman Lewis.

And now, I want to leave you with some of John Lewis’ words of wisdom.  He said:

“You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before.”

Do not get lost in a sea of despair.  Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”

My fellow colleagues, I am proud to be with you as we push ahead, sure in our cause, guided by the strength of our convictions, and buoyed by the support of this AILA community, to get into some good and necessary trouble, and to make a way out of no way.

And I thank you for the honor of serving as your AILA president.