Overcoming the challenges of being stateless
Tenzin Wangyal and his partners specialize in immigration law and work primarily with the Himalayan community in Queens, New York, in bustling neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Woodside that have become home to immigrants from Nepal, Tibet, and India. They help their clients navigate the legal process of transitioning from being undocumented to hopefully gaining status in the United States. Tenzin and his team act like guides, helping those who are new to the country understand how it works. While the lawyers educatetheir clients on the ins and outs of becoming a citizen, they are also able to show the judges and government agencies what it’s like to be a person without a country, to be stateless.
“What’s most gratifying about the job is that we’re difference makers,” Tenzin says. “And we’re kind of indispensable in the lives of our clients. It’s often a fraught journey filled with a high degree of randomness and uncertainty.” Two people could file together, and one person will get approved within five months while the other person’s case will remain pending for five years. Even if both cases were filed on the same day, it could go in different directions, because they get assigned to different offices and different judges. This long process often takes a toll on people physically and mentally. There are also cultural differences. In Asia, they may have been taught to be soft spoken and respectful, but these qualities could be mistaken for a lack of confidence when standing before a judge.
Years after helping someone, Tenzin often runs into them in the Tibetan Hall, a community center in Woodside, or at an event. Former clients will bring their children to meet Tenzin and introduce him as the attorney who worked on their case, telling them “because of his work, you’re here in the United States.” For Tenzin, the most gratifying part of the process is sitting down with a client once they’ve been given permanent status in the country. “At that moment, everything changes for the better. They can reunify with their families. It’s the best moment.”
One memorable case involved a young man and his mother, both refugees from Tibet, who were referred to Tenzin’s firm by a nonprofit. The young man was a musician with a severe disability. Tenzin and his colleagues took on their case pro bono. After several years, both mother and son were granted status. The young man even performed a song at Tenzin’s daughter’s first birthday party, singing for a grateful audience of hundreds. Perhaps no one was more grateful than the overjoyed lawyer sitting close to the stage, who was able to help the man singing become an American permanent resident.
Tenzin Wangyal is an immigration lawyer serving Himalayan communities in Queens, New York.
About the Contributor
Howard Kaplan is an editor and writer who helped found Spiral magazine in 2017. He currently works at the Smithsonian and divides his time between Washington, DC, and New York City.
Artwork by Henk Loorbach