Complexity and Heartbreak

Headshot of Rosa Elvira Arias

Rosa Elvira Arias, RWU Class of 2009

Juris DoctorAlumni

As a working immigration attorney in Providence and the daughter of immigrants herself, Rosa Elvira Arias ’09 knows that serious hurdles exist for newcomers arriving in the United States. But nothing prepared her for what she encountered while volunteering as a pro bono attorney at the temporary immigration detention center in Artesia, N.M, a few years ago.

 “It really opened my eyes,” Arias said. “I was representing women and children from Central America: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They were fleeing horrible circumstances in their native countries – violence, sexual assault, murder, gang threats, extortion. They had come to the United States for refuge.”

 But something, she soon realized, was very wrong. “These individuals were being deprived of even the most basic due process there, very basic human rights,” Arias said. “The Artesia facility’s purpose was not to review any asylum applications, which everyone I met there was eligible for. The goal was to expedite removal and just send them back to their home countries.”

 So the Spanish-fluent Arias spent days in a makeshift interview room in a trailer, completing applications for as many of these women as possible. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “They had to tell their stories in front of their children, in front of the other detainees. Stories of rape and violence, very personal experiences. But they were so desperate, they had no other choice. Before we had arrived, they had no access to any attorneys – and hundreds of women had already been deported without ever even talking to an attorney or a judge.”

 Coming from a family of immigrants, Arias feels a personal stake in the U.S. immigrants’ struggles. Born in New York City to Dominican parents, Arias – the eldest of four children – spent her

childhood in Virginia, before moving to Rhode Island as a teen. After attending Hope High School, Arias went on to the University of Rhode Island, graduating cum laude with a major in psychology and a minor in “Justice, Law, & Society” – then she headed straight to RWU Law.

During her 2L year, a “very close family member” faced immigration removal proceedings, and Arias offered to assist. “I wanted to at least research the case and provide some kind of help,”

she said. “But that’s when I realized just how complex immigration law is.” There was nothing she could do – her relative was deported.

“I was sad, confused and disappointed,” Arias recalled. “I was in denial, in shock; it really hurt a lot. But that pain sparked in me a lifelong passion for helping others, particularly those facing immigration proceedings. I wanted to help people who were at a disadvantage; people who were poor.”

She took an Immigration Law course with Professor Peter Margulies, applied and got into the school’s Immigration Law Clinic in its inaugural year, and did an internship at Gonzalez Law Office in East Providence, R.I. She also completed a judicial internship with the Honorable O. Rogeriee Thompson, then at the Rhode Island Superior Court. Today, Arias has achieved her dream of helping the neediest.

“Being an immigration attorney is very challenging,” she said, “partially because we have a system that’s broken. There’s only so much I can do, so I try not to be too hard on myself. But I’m also a very emotional person, and I haven’t become jaded. So it is still very difficult.”