With the recent rising concerns about immigration and how it affects the women for whom we advocate and serve, Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation saw the need to address this issue in one of our editions of the newsletter. We were honored to sit down with Esquire Ayodele Gansallo to discuss some of the issues surrounding immigration.
Ms. Gansallo has served in England and Wales as a Solicitor and the New York Bar as well. She is currently a senior attorney at HIAS and Council in Pennsylvania.
GWPF: Ayodele, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on this topic. You are admitted as a Solicitor in England and Wales, as well as the New York Bar. Please give us an insight of your work in the U.K. as well as in New York.
Ayodele Gansallo: I have been practicing immigration and human rights law since 1992, both here and in the United Kingdom, the country where I grew up. My entire career in this field has been in the non-profit world. I believe that, a person’s financial status should not determine the quality of service she/he receives. I am committed to providing the best service that I can and I truly love the work that I do.
GWPF: What inspired you to take up Immigration Law?
Ayodele Gansallo: It really came from a desire to help people. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was twelve years old, although probably not mature enough to know exactly what area of law I wanted to focus on. I just knew I wanted to help people. That simple desire led me to work in various corporate legal fields very early on in my career without achieving the fulfilment I was seeking. Really, I stumbled into immigration and human rights work, applying for a new position with a non-profit organization based in Manchester, which is in the north of England. It was a huge change for me. We Londoners won’t readily move to another part of the country, but I’m glad I did. It was one of the best decisions and career moves I have made. My colleagues there were just incredibly supportive and dedicated to helping people. Within a few short months, I knew I had found my niche. I worked with people mainly from the Bengali, Indian and Pakistani communities initially and then with people fleeing the atrocities arising from the former Yugoslavia. It was incredibly intense yet immensely rewarding. Once you take on an asylum case, where the work you do matters in real life and death ways, there’s just no looking back, at least that was my experience.
GWPF: After many years of working in Immigration and Nationality issues, especially with nonprofits, what advice do you have for immigrants today?
Ayodele Gansallo: This is a really difficult time for immigrant communities, with so much negative rhetoric causing many to feel destabilized. I’m not sure what advice to give, to be honest and that uncertainty in itself destabilizes me. I want to be able to provide reassurance, an understanding of the landscape, but right now I cannot because there is so much confusion and demonizing. All I can really say is that I will work hard and do my best to achieve a positive outcome for my clients, if one is available. I believe in letting my clients know the truth, even if it is unpleasant. That way, they can better plan their next steps and futures, something that everyone has a right to.
GWPF: What universities have you been an Adjunct Law Lecturer?
Ayodele Gansallo: Currently, I am an Adjunct Lecturer in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I co-teach and supervise students in the Transnational Legal Clinic along with the Associate Professor, Sarah Paoletti. She is well known in the International Human Rights field. The clinic seeks to teach students the skills they will need to be strong advocates for their clients, in the context of immigration and human rights cases. They work in pairs and have their own live clients. For many, the clinic makes legal education come alive.
I was also an adjunct at the Community College of Philadelphia, where I taught a course on Basic Immigration Law to those seeking a paralegal education. The course was interesting, but also challenging because, at the time, there was no comprehensive textbook to use. It inspired me to write one, Understanding Immigration Law and Practice, with my good friend and former boss, Judith Bernstein Baker. It was arduous, but I learned so much. I’m proud of the finished product, a book that paralegals, law students and attorneys new to the field can use because it covers both substantive and procedural law in an accessible way.
GWPF: You do a lot of pro bono work. Why is that?
Ayodele Gansallo: It’s the nature of the work. Many of our clients have no money but need help. I am committed to making sure they receive that. One of the difficulties in our work is that there are often more clients than we can see. So, in order to manage the lack of resources, I provide training and mentorship to non-immigration attorneys who are interested in providing pro bono representation. I don’t think I have worked with one pro bono attorney who has not found this entrée into the field of immigration immensely rewarding.
GWPF: That is great to know. How does being a member of the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs affect your work during these challenging times for immigrants?
Ayodele Gansallo: I wouldn’t say that it affects my work, per se, more that it allows me to work directly with communities with which I identify. I was born in Nigeria and went to join my family in the United Kingdom when I was four and a half years old. So mine is an immigrant story in itself, although I am very aware that my experience of immigration is very different from that of many of my clients. Being on the Mayor’s Commission means that I can work with communities whose immigration issues can be very different from others and this gives me perspective. It keeps me connected to what is happening on the ground and also ensures that I can disseminate accurate information rather than allowing people to be preyed upon by less scrupulous providers in the community.
GWPF: And that brings us to this next question. Recently, you were one of the attorneys that rushed to the airport in Philadelphia to aid in the first travel ban that was imposed. Tell us about that experience.
Ayodele Gansallo: That experience was both surreal and incredibly uplifting. The day after the first travel ban was in place, there was incredible turmoil. We had heard that a flight had arrived from Qatar with people from the then seven banned countries. A good friend of mine, Jonathan Grode, called me when he learned that a Syrian Christian family had been denied permission to enter the United States, even though they had valid visas and had cleared the vetting process. We were not able to help them as they and others were turned back within hours of arrival.
Later that day, we heard that there were others being held at the airport, but we did not know how many, who they were or where they were from. Two of them, we later learned, were family members of people who had been given permission to enter because they had worked with the U.S. forces in Iraq and so they had special visas that are set aside for them. It is well known that those people risked their lives to help American units, so it made no sense to be denying them permission to enter or trying to send them back to near certain death.
Throughout the day, I was in touch with ACLU lawyers and those intent on ensuring the protections afforded by the Constitution were not eroded by the stroke of a pen. I and another good friend, Jonathan Feinberg, went to the Philadelphia Airport to see if we could get access to those who were being held, knowing that this would not be an easy feat because, under immigration law, anyone seeking to enter is not entitled to speak with a lawyer. We went anyway because this was a special circumstance and there were many people concerned about what was happening. The Mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, was there. He had tried to get information about what was happening in his jurisdiction, but Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers refused to divulge any information. We had Congressman Bob Brady and Senator Casey show up to try to end the impasse, but nothing. Ordinarily, government officers respond to Congressional representatives, but not this time. There was a total lack of information. CBP wouldn’t even confirm that they were detaining anyone, even though we knew from family members that they were. It was quite surreal.
Meanwhile, while all this was going on, we could hear these incredible chants in the airport arrivals hall that were getting louder and louder. We emerged dejected, but could see a sea of faces. People had gathered within moments, to protest the detentions and were making themselves heard, literally and figuratively. It was incredible to see that level of support seemingly materialize after just a few tweets and Facebook posts. Social Media is a wonderful thing, when used for good. The presence of every one of those protesters was energizing after the demoralizing efforts we had made to get information. Many of those same people came back the next day when there was an even larger protest. I was honored and proud to have been a part of that action.
GWPF: And we applaud you and your colleagues for doing what you did. As you are aware, Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation assists women who have experienced female genital mutilation or cutting. How do we ease the minds of our concerned immigrant women about the travel ban and how it might affect them?
Ayodele Gansallo: FGM/C is prevalent in many countries from which refugees come. I work with women who have experienced this practice to help them get asylum here so that they can begin to rebuild their lives. For now, there is a temporary restraining order which means the travel ban is not in place, but if it should ever revive, it will mean that women who have experienced FGM/C who come from any of the now six countries will find it much harder to come to the United States, and perhaps not just on a temporary basis. The ban is for 90 and 120 days respectively, but that’s just the time frame before people can begin to apply for new visas under whatever new process the administration plans to put in place. It will undoubtedly mean longer wait times for people who have already had to wait considerable periods under the old system. It could also result in more of these women being denied a visa under more stringent criteria, which will be a colossal shame. Really, I think the focus should be on the moment. The appeals process which has now been invoked, will take a long time to reach fruition. Until we know the outcome, I would suggest people try to go about their daily lives as normal. There really isn’t much more we can do until there is clarity one way or the other.
GWPF: Thank you for that advice and insight. Do you think progress has been made toward ending female genital mutilation and cutting in the world?
Ayodele Gansallo: I think efforts are being made, but at the same time, there are just as many efforts to thwart the eradication. More needs to be done to educate perpetrators about the harms that arise from the cutting, but also to find them other livelihoods so that they will not rely on the monetary benefits that accrue from maintaining a practice that serves very little purpose. The number of clients who I have worked with who have been harmed both physically and mentally is countless. Some have had their womanhood literally ripped from them, all in the name of trying to keep them chaste. But too many are left so that they can never enjoy intimate relationships. This is something that I cannot condone.
GPWF: We are glad that you pointed out the monetary benefits accrued from FGM/C. What do you say to those countries that still allow the practice of female genital mutilation and cutting without imposing a law against it?
Ayodele Gansallo: I understand that changing cultural norms can often be very difficult. There are things in my own Nigerian culture that are easy for me to rail against but which my mother adheres to strictly. I try to be respectful in my opposition. It really requires a delicate balance of education, cajoling and finding the appropriate carrot and stick. But the change must come from within. When it is a case of the more developed world seemingly chastising those who are different, heels are going to dig in and change will occur at a snail’s pace, if ever. The more women are able to have agency to determine their own lives, the more likely practices that are harmful to them will be exposed for what they are and what they do. Dialogue and education needs to continue on all spheres.
We hope that Ms. Gansallo’s explanation has helped answer some of your questions on immigration. If you have any additional questions, concerns or comments regarding this issue, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will respond as timely as we possibly can.