Between Restorative and Immigration Justice. Member Spotlight: Laura Roberts

In the last few years, immigration has been representing one of the most challenging and divisive issues throughout the US, partly due to a high politicization of the matter at the hands of some political representatives. Laura Roberts, attorney and immigration rights advocate, believes that a huge part of the problem is caused by a misrepresentation and negative stereotyping of immigrants, while significant flaws in the legal system prevent many immigrants from obtaining lawful status. She seems to have one special recipe to it: pragmatic fixes in the legal system from one side, and, above all, a significant awareness raising effort across the population on the other. Briefly, the key to move the whole system stands in eradicating social discrimination against the immigrants: “we need to go out and tell people the true stories whenever we are given the chance”.

Laura has been active with MBBI for several years, and she shows to be incredibly enthusiastic and grateful about her journey within the organization, seen as an opportunity to expand her network of connection as well as her knowledge on the world of mediation and other ADR practices. So far, she has taken part in numerous meetings and webinars from the various MBBI working groups. “I love meeting people from all over the world and being able to talk about the different things that we do and to hear other people’s voices and stories”, she tells. 

An early dedication to justice for immigrants. 

Laura has been dedicating her life to easing the difficult conditions of immigrants arriving to the US since she was inspired in college by a ‘border awareness experience’ she took part in at the University of Dayton. “We were given the opportunity to spend a week on the US-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez to understand first-hand all the different issues happening there, and of course immigration is one of the biggest. That experience was so eye-opening and touched my heart so deeply that I immediately realized I would love to dedicate myself to peace work or some kind of volunteer experience with immigrants after graduation.”. Laura recounts how impactful it was to hear the stories of the women and families that had crossed the border for desperate reasons, and how much those days in El Paso would impact her personal and professional trajectory. Guided by such a precious revelation, she took the year off after college to become a full-time volunteer at Casa Juan Diego, a shelter for immigrants and abused women in Houston, Texas.  She then pursued a law degree with a focus on Human Rights at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. No doubts Laura remained faithful to her early intents.

Currently, Laura actively practices as an immigration lawyer. For years, she lived and worked hundreds of cases in Santa Monica, California and spent the last few years in Boulder, Colorado. Recently, she moved to San Diego, which represents one of the hottest areas for immigration in the US. 

Embracing mediation and restorative justice.  

“When I was in law school, the ADR classes were my favorites!”, Laura enthusiastically continues. With a major in Sociology in college, she got passionate about understanding interpersonal and social dynamics. She proceeded with mediation trainings through the Los Angeles County Bar Association. This is how conflict resolution entered into her life, and was then fed by an enlightening 4-days mediation training from Ken Cloke, one of MBBI’s founders. “Ken was really amazing, he just opens your eyes to what is possible among human beings”, she says. Laura’s journey with mediation went on as she moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she got involved with the local mediation community and experienced the power of restorative justice processes. 

Laura became a restorative justice facilitator with the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office. “Boulder is very progressive with its diversion and restorative justice program and the program is so successful that it is often used as a model for other cities throughout the US” she mentions. Diversion allows people charged with first time offenses or minor crimes an opportunity to complete a set of requirements as an alternative to formal prosecution. Restorative justice is a voluntary part of the diversion program in Boulder County. As a matter of fact, diversion and restorative justice programs have proven to lead towards lower recidivism rates in Boulder County and many of the places where they have been preferred over traditional punitive measures. Laura explains she was immediately drawn to the transformative power of the restorative justice process. “The traditional criminal justice system is full of blame and shame. In restorative justice circles, the focus is on taking responsibility, respect, relationships, the impacts of the harm committed, and everyone in the circle collaboratively deciding how that harm can best be repaired to the extent possible. The harmed party has a true voice in deciding what repair will look like, as does the responsible party. This simply does not happen in the traditional criminal justice system. I have witnessed true healing take place in restorative justice circles”

Now that Laura moved to San Diego, she is eager to transfer the lessons learned from Boulder to her new living setting. “I am still not sure of what I am going to do in San Diego, but I see some vision in here for combining restorative justice and immigration justice, which are my specializations. There is a lot of room for bridging them,” she states. Along her career, she even learned Spanish to fulfill her desire to work closely with the communities of immigrants she wants to help so deeply. 

Some thoughts to restructure immigration in the US.  

Certainly, the social commitment to ‘fix’ the immigration system in the US, has not faded away in Laura’s words and deeds. In San Diego, she is confident to find fertile ground to put into practice the experience gained. “San Diego is a border city; therefore, you can see and work on the issues from both sides of the border, and there are tons of issues in our immigration system; it is broken”. Laura continues “US immigration law is extremely complex and this complexity is lost in most political debates. On the technical side, there are many small adjustments to the law that could have a huge beneficial impact for many immigrants. But these often never get mentioned in political debates.” On the practical side, Laura emphasizes the importance of compassion, an essential element towards understanding the tough condition of the migrants, and the cruciality of telling people’s stories to fight back negative stereotypes and stigma. “We need a huge effort in raising awareness across the population on the real conditions and background of immigrants, and in this mediators and peace workers can help tremendously. A change of heart in the American people can only come through conversations and fact-telling, because people do not know the real stories of immigrants as they are distracted by political slogans. All it takes is genuinely hearing people’s stories”

Interview by Matteo Piovacari: MBBI Writer