Q&A: HOPE Fellowship at FL Immigration Advocacy Center Leaves Lasting Impression


Many students dream of using their time in college in a way that helps them reach their fullest potential. One such student, Gracia Cuzzi, has approached each semester with vigor and a deep desire to learn and is currently working as a HOPE Fellow for the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center (FIAC).

This rising third-year says, "I feel a duty to give back to the community," and she's only just begun.

Miami Law decided to speak with Cuzzi to get a better understanding of how her public interest work has impacted her life. And how one client, named Lucy, has inspired Cuzzi to be more courageous.

Can you tell us about the work you have been doing this summer at FIAC?

I'm involved in a variety of projects with FIAC's Workplace Justice Project, ranging from representing clients in immigration and employment processes to community outreach and advocacy, and policy research. I'm paired with an intern from the University of Michigan, and together we are filing U and T visas – both are special visa categories for clients who are victims of human trafficking or are victims of certain serious crimes and who have cooperated with authorities.

Our clients have also suffered wage theft, often working for hotels as housekeepers, or doing domestic work. In most instances, the wage theft is what brought them to FIAC and through client interviews we uncover other traumatic experiences such as human trafficking, situations our clients bury away.

Community allies are crucial to our success in organizing, and I've had a lot of interaction with various local and national organizations. Recently we attended a National Domestic Worker Alliance conference in D.C. that brought together 700 domestic workers, advocates, organizers, and allies from faith, disability rights, senior, and philanthropic organizations. It was a truly inspiring demonstration of this movement.

There's a particular client that you have, Lucy, who was recently featured in the FIAC newsletter. If possible, can you tell us about the lessons you've learned about yourself while working with this client?

My client Lucy is an elderly Peruvian women brought to this country on a special domestic worker visa with the promise of finding work so that she could find her daughter who her family suspected was in danger. Instead, the family she came to live with kept her in the house to take care of their children and to clean without paying her wages. She eventually escaped and yet continued to suffer wage theft with subsequent employers.

One day, she fell on the job and was fired; she was left on the street with nowhere to live and a broken arm. She also suffered a violent and random attack at a bus stop in Miami. Her story is heartbreaking and unimaginable but her perseverance is inspiring.

What sort of work would you like to do after graduation?

My goal after graduation is to contribute to the advancement of human rights both locally and abroad. No matter where I find employment after graduation, I feel a duty to give back to the community and use my position as an attorney to tackle complex global problems, improve the living conditions for those who are in need and most of all to uphold and improve the justice system.

What opportunities have you been able to take advantage of at Miami Law, which will help you reach your goals after graduation?

I have taken advantage of many unique opportunities while at Miami Law to improve my advocacy skills and to gain a broader perspective of human rights law. Last summer I traveled to Namibia and participated in an innovative project to identify and interview local NGOs in Windhoek to see how their work touched upon reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals. What I really took from the experience was the knowledge that that I could go to any country in the world and network with local attorneys and activists and help to create lasting change for the community.

Next semester, I'm taking advantage of the externship program and heading to Mexico City to work for an innovative legal aid organization that addresses labor violations in the U.S. Not only do I expect to learn a tremendous amount from the attorneys there, it's also the perfect opportunity to feed my wanderlust and polish my Spanish language skills.

It's clear that you have been very active in pursuing your dreams. What adv ice can you give students who are interested in having a similar educational experience?

My advice to students is simple – above all, be yourself! Embrace all of the uncertainties we face as law students, take risks and use your time wisely. Trust your instincts to enroll in classes that excite you and find opportunities outside of the classroom to work on whatever it is you are passionate about, set goals and track your progress.