Goodbyes are always hard, but in this case, it seems almost impossible.
Jeanne Atkinson, who has been the steady hand guiding Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services (ILS) program for more than 20 years, is moving on as the new Executive Director of CLINIC (Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc). Today is her last day at Catholic Charities.
Of course, this is a wonderful opportunity for Jeanne that speaks volumes for her work here at Catholic Charities, but it hasn’t helped us keep our eyes dry!
Throughout the immigration legal community, Jeanne is widely respected. Internally, she’s been an incredible manager, helping to grow a program that helps thousands of refugees, asylees and immigrants to gain legal status every single year. It is life-saving work. And, like most legal work, extremely tedious.
The true challenges in providing this kind of help aren’t readily obvious. For immigrants, asylees and refugees, there’s a lot to learn in a new country. They often have only a basic grasp of English, and often are unfamiliar with employment norms, public transportation, housing, local customs and more. Their documents and papers are scattered as they fled a war-torn country, making it difficult to legally prove the hardships they’ve endured. Most of the clients who come to ILS do so via word-of-mouth from the immigrant community.
Into this world step immigration attorneys. Every day, they meet new clients who struggle to tell their story about fleeing violence or trying to reunite with family after years apart. Together, they begin to walk a complex immigration system to apply for legal status. Often, attorneys race against deadlines to get the right papers filed, knowing it can be the difference between a deportation back to a dangerous country and starting a new life here.
During her time working at Catholic Charities, Jeanne helped expand the program to the largest it’s ever been – 11 attorneys, five paralegals, one administrative support staff and many volunteers. She was a key part of establishing the Family Justice Center in Montgomery County and empowered her attorneys to educate the community as often as possible on domestic violence, human trafficking and many more issues that exist in the shadows of immigration. As a manager, she often took on extra tasks to avoid overburdening her attorneys working on heavy case loads.
Jeanne first came to Catholic Charities as an intern in 1987 not knowing anything about immigration law, or if it was what she wanted to do. But she returned to law school from that experience knowing the direction her life would take. After graduation, she accepted a job with Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Program, where she remained for the next 20-plus years, leading the program since 1997.
She recalls fondly memories of sitting in dirt fields with migrant workers on the eastern shore of Maryland and helping them apply to have their families join them here through permanent residency. Another time, she nearly was locked inside of a convent in Mexico City while spending two weeks learning Spanish to deepen her ability to connect with clients.
She stepped in to fill the shoes of the late Jane Strom and lead our Refugee Center as well. That program will be led now by Seme Ayane, once a refugee himself and now a great manager and leader in his own right who learned by working closely with Jeanne for more than two years.
Our Immigration Legal Services team has a rock solid foundation now, thanks in no short amount, to the work Jeanne has selflessly performed. Jackie Rishty, who has worked one year longer than Jeanne at ILS, will take over as interim-director. And though we’ll miss her, we know our loss is the gain of CLINIC.
Good luck Jeanne!