My Immigration Story

by Matthew Bray

A series of posts by Daryanani Law Group staff sharing their own “immigration” stories—how they (or their families) came to America and/or how they came to work in the immigration law field.

My immigration story begins when I discovered my grandfather had an accent. As a child, I never recognized his Irish “brogue” (the word supposedly comes from the idea that the Irish sounded as if they spoke with a shoe in their mouths—“bróg” is the word for shoe in Irish), distinctive after more than fifty years of life in the US. I heard no difference at all in how he spoke compared to how my parents or grandmother (native “noo yawkahs”) spoke.

My grandfather was born in the Lanes of Limerick, Ireland in 1912. These same Lanes were made famous in Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and there has long been speculation in my family that the hearse driver mentioned in the book was my own great-grandfather. Who knows—people love a good yarn! And perhaps it was great-granduncle instead! Certainly Summer Street in Limerick—where my grandfather grew up—is a short walk from the home described in McCourt’s book. My grandfather had a 6th grade education but was among the most intellectual and well-read people I ever met. As a child during the Irish Civil War, he ran across enemy lines to deliver messages to the Irish Republican Army fighting the Provisional Government over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Following the war—as before it—he and his family struggled to survive in the urban slums, and it was no surprise that he would follow in the footsteps of millions of his countrymen and women and take the boat to America. He arrived in New York City at age sixteen in 1928. His name was Jack Bray.

Jack assimilated quickly into the Irish and Irish-American communities of the city, married an Irish-American (herself the granddaughter of Great Famine immigrants), and they settled in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, where my father was born. To the chagrin of most Irish I meet, I have always romanticized Ireland. But I also always romanticized the immigrant experience in America. I saw Jack’s 1928 cross-Atlantic voyage as part of a story that started with the Mayflower hundreds of years before.  

Jack’s story made me very sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and their motivations for uprooting themselves. While a romantic notion of coming to the land of opportunity is certainly a part of the story, more often people uproot themselves and their families, leaving behind loved ones, heritage, and the history of their native lands, out of pure necessity. My decision to pursue immigration law is rooted in a deep admiration for those who strive for opportunity as well as compassion for those whose lives have been uprooted by injustice and violence.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) became law when I was in college, and I began to educate myself about the effects that our increasingly global economy had on the lives of the rural poor in Latin America as well as on the natural environment. I learned about how the major structural changes to the agricultural economy were forcing traditional farmers to compete with subsidized agribusiness, how entire villages were emptied when their rural poor were forced to move to the cities, and later, “al norte” (up north—to the US).

In 1996, I became more politically aware when several bills passed Congress that severely diminished the rights of immigrants (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996), prisoners (Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996), welfare recipients (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996) and LGBT people (Defense of Marriage Act). That was when I really began to focus on immigrant rights, volunteering with activist groups in New York to promote the rights of undocumented workers as well as the rights of detainees held in private detention facilities in the New York City area.

While living—as a (privileged) immigrant!—in Germany in 1998 and 1999, I became involved with a refugee rights group that was confronting the treatment of refugees from the former Yugoslavia and the influx of immigrants across the ever-changing European Union border. I decided to return to the US to work at our US-Mexico border, which I did in early 2000 with the US-Mexico Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a pacifist Quaker organization. This work brought me to the border in the San Diego region on a regular basis, and I had the tremendous opportunity to work with detainees, deportees, as well as numerous religious groups who ministered to these marginalized communities.

Back in New York City, I continued with human rights activism, working for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) as well as other groups that supported immigrant detainees held at the (now closed) Wackenhut facility near JFK airport. I found it very inspiring: the willingness of undocumented workers to fight for safe working conditions and fair pay; and the resilience and hope of detained asylum seekers in the face of prolonged detention and on the heels of their own traumas.

Following 9/11, the work of defending Muslim immigrants in particular became especially important. Every week we heard of people taken from their homes in the middle of the night and secreted away to undisclosed detention facilities. I increasingly perceived the value of working to advocate on behalf of individual immigrants to try to bring about more systemic changes in favor of human rights. By the time I applied to law school, I knew I wanted to do both international human rights and immigrant rights work, and used every opportunity as a student at Northeastern University School of Law to do so. Now as an immigration attorney, I derive tremendous satisfaction from being able to help people in need, particularly when those people have experienced suffering and persecution.

There is another reason I love immigration law—I’m a bit nerdy. I like the idea of doing legal research and coming up with unique (and admittedly sometimes convoluted) arguments to help individual immigrants who may otherwise have no options whatsoever. I like to tackle a complicated fact pattern and find nuggets of possibility and hope, and pursue them until victory! I enjoy reading case law and interpreting regulations. I may not be an ideal community organizer or political leader, but I believe that I can use my legal skills and training to be part of a broader movement to promote and protect immigrant rights. I’m confident I made the right decision to pursue immigration law, particularly in today’s climate which can be hostile to immigrants. It’s not easy, but I feel I’m doing good. And I’d like to think that my grandfather Jack would be proud.