Speaking their language: Bilingual comm student helps immigrants as a legal assistant

In one of his communication classes at UWM, his professor showed Jesus Velarde-Moctezuma and his classmates a photo of a banana leaf.

“Each one of us saw the same exact object but interpreted it very differently,” he recalled. “Some people said it was a leaf. The Latinos said that it was a type of plant used specifically for making a type of cuisine, a tamale. A few from the Middle East said it was something that they use for weddings, where they place food.”

He learned the lesson: People of different backgrounds and cultural experiences can perceive the exact same thing in totally different ways.

Now, Velarde-Moctezuma is bringing that lesson to his new job. He was just hired as a bilingual legal assistant at the Odrcic Law Group, a firm that specializes in immigration law. As a person who shares a language and a culture with many of his clients, he’s able to see a banana leaf from their perspective in a way that others might not.

“I understand that, especially as a Latino, I have status. I’m a U.S. citizen. But I have family members who aren’t, and I understand the struggle,” Velarde-Moctezuma said.

As a legal assistant, he is responsible for preparing legal forms and documents on behalf of clients, submitting forms or cover letters to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and interpreting English legalese for Spanish-speaking clients. The firm assists immigrants and others with obtaining visas and green cards, pursuing legal status, seeking asylum, fighting deportation, and more.

Of course the attorneys do the heavy lifting, but Velarde- Moctezuma thinks of himself and the other legal assistants as “side-kicks” with their own hefty set of responsibilities. If a form is filed incorrectly or there is a mistake in a document that he prepared, he would be at fault.

It’s part of what inspires him to work so hard for his clients. Velarde-Moctezuma has seen both triumphs and heartbreaks in the course of his work.

“Our clients didn’t ask where to be born. Some of these people who I speak with genuinely just want an opportunity,” he said. He can’t share specific information, but Velarde-Moctezuma noted his frustration when USCIS sends back a rejection notice, or denies his clients’ claims.

“Some of the clients that I’ve been assigned have stories that break my heart. But we make progress,” he said. “I call clients personally sometimes instead of emailing just to let them know that we’re still working on their cases. My experience with my clients so far is really heartwarming. It gives me the drive and the motivation to keep advocating for them as much as I can with the little power that I have.”

Even after he graduates, he’d like to keep working to help immigrants. Velarde-Moctezuma plans to obtain graduate certificates in Translation and Interpreting Studies from UWM with a focus on legal interpretation. He also hopes to become an immigration attorney himself one day.

In the meantime, Velarde-Moctezuma is still working on his communication major. He was born and raised in Milwaukee and attended UWM because it was close to home and because he liked the resources for Latinx students on campus. He chose communication because he enjoyed his introductory classes in the subject, and because he wasn’t good at it.

“I used to not be very good at communication, and I wanted to enhance (my skills),” he said. “Learning those skills and abilities so I can enhance my speech and my credibility can really give me leverage.”

In the four months that Velarde-Moctezuma has worked at the law firm, he’s found those skills invaluable – particularly the “banana leaf” lesson where he learned to view things from different points of view. He finds himself empathizing with his clients, and they appreciate it.

“A lot of clients call the firm, and if I’m not there, they’ll leave a message or tell the other legal assistants that I should call them back. They want to talk to me,” he said. “Obviously we’re not miracle workers, and the law is the law. But what we can do is do the best that we can to advocate for clients.”