Q & A with Jennifer Smith, RFL Academy 2008 Alum
Jennifer Smith has worked as an immigration lawyer in the Roaring Fork Valley for 17 years. In that time, she’s helped people navigate the U.S.’s often challenging and bewildering immigration system through her Glenwood Springs-based law firm, Smith Immigration, and through numerous free legal aid workshops and clinics she’s hosted throughout the valley. Jennifer credits RFL with helping instill many of the core values she brings to her work — empathy, understanding, and a desire to serve her community.
Roaring Fork Leadership: How did you end up in the Roaring Fork Valley practicing law?
Jennifer Smith: I went to law school at CU Boulder and graduated in 2000. I actually didn’t go to law school with the intention of becoming an immigration lawyer — my passion for going to law school was to help people. I didn’t know anything about the immigration system. My family didn’t have any stories or direct experience with it. My friend who was up in the Roaring Fork Valley working as a lawyer told me the immigration law class was taught by a great professor and that I would love it. I took the class and I was appalled. I was like, “wait, this is our immigration system? It’s so racist, and prejudiced and awful.”
So, I started volunteering at the immigration detention center in Aurora, CO. After I graduated, I clerked for a judge, and worked at the Attorney General’s office, and then worked at a firm for a while. I was still trying to stay connected to the immigration world by volunteering. It was something I kept going back to.
My husband was also a lawyer at that time, and he was looking for a new job. There were several openings in the valley, so he applied to those, and my friends who lived in the valley said, “you should come up here and do immigration law. We need more immigration lawyers.” So, that’s what we ended up doing.
RFL: What inspired you to do RFL Academy?
JS: At that time, I worked at a local law firm and I was the only person doing immigration law. I was still pretty new to the valley and I was looking for a way to get better connected with my new home. I wanted to help as many people as possible and understand how all the different leaders in this valley related to each other. It came down to wanting to just know the world I was in — who was here, what were they doing, what employers were facing etc. I was a relatively young lawyer then, so I thought it would be a great way for me to build up my own skills.
RFL: How did your RFL experience shape you as a leader?
JS: One of the things that has always stuck with me from RFL is the distinction that one of the faculty made about the types of information in our lives. There are facts about each of our lives. And then there are judgments or opinions about those facts. We have to learn to distinguish between those facts and the stories our brain makes up about the information. I never really thought about that — that we’re always trying to tell stories about the facts of our lives. And some of the stories our brain has told us are just not true. I don’t think I’d ever thought about that or learned that before.
I think it’s really helpful, especially when you’re a leader, to understand that everyone has these different stories they tell about themselves — and we often don’t really know what those stories are. I felt like that was really helpful for me. In my work as an immigration lawyer, I have to be really empathetic and in touch with people. Some of our clients come to us with all of these stories — they’re not sure whether they can trust lawyers, or the government, or a piece of paper. And so we really have to get down to the facts to help them adjust that story a little bit so they can learn to trust us.
I think the other part of my RFL experience that was really helpful was the community project. I felt like that opportunity to do something in the community was a way to identify what’s going on in the community and what the community needs. One of our ideas for the project was an immigrant stories type event. I don’t remember how that ended up in the final version, but now in our valley we have an immigrant stories night (organized by English in Action) and the local radio station has a show featuring immigrants telling their stories. I think that opportunity through RFL to do a community project really helped me get in touch with what was going on in the community, especially around those that are disenfranchised, and to make more connections. As a lawyer, it’s helped me serve more people.
RFL: Speaking of serving people, you’ve been involved with offering legal aid to the group of Venezuelan migrants who came to Carbondale last fall. Tell us about that work?
I wanted to be able to provide free immigration services to anyone in the community, and luckily, I and several other immigration attorneys have been able to set up different legal clinics where we can help them apply for certain types of immigration benefits, answer questions, and try to help them understand the paperwork that they’ve been given. We’ve done one session already, where people have come in and met with attorneys who helped them apply for something called TPS [Temporary Protected Status allows migrants from certain countries with unsafe conditions to reside and work legally in the United States.] We’re going to do another one of those in February.
It was similar to other immigration workshops I’ve done over the years around applying for citizenship, where we would work with volunteers to help people who were lawful permanent residents in the U.S. apply for citizenship. For me, I really feel a strong obligation to educate people about immigration and the U.S. immigration system. It’s a priority for me anytime there’s an opportunity to, for instance, host a free legal aid night or community meeting. There’s a lot of information out there now with the internet, and social media, and it can be very confusing. People hear a lot of conflicting things. I want people to be able to make good choices about where they spend their money for the immigration process.
RFL: Anything else you want to mention?
JS: When I did RFL, I was working at a firm, but not long after, I ended up starting my own law firm. At the beginning of the Academy program, we had to write a letter to like our future selves about what we expected to accomplish. I remember reading that letter later and thinking, “I’ve done some of these things.” I think RFL helped me believe in myself — that can run my own business and do the legal work that I enjoy. And so I do credit RFL with helping me feel like that was a possibility.