Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis

"My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."

BRETT STARK | Under One Roof

Brett always lamented not being able to hold his own in Spanish with his grandmother, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Chile early in her life. It had been his father’s first language as well. But after Brett’s summer as a Kathryn Davis Fellow, the three generations could finally have a conversation entirely in the language of their heritage. “In addition to being a social justice opportunity, this fellowship was an opportunity for me to connect with my roots,” Brett explains.

Most important, a summer at Middlebury gave him the fluency he needs to understand his clients. At Catholic Charities New York, Brett provides legal representation for the most vulnerable refugees and immigrants: unaccompanied children. 

These days most of his clients come from Central America. Out of fear, they flee their home countries without their parents, often riding north atop freight trains. If they are caught at the U.S. border, they can end up on Brett’s docket. “Many of these kids are approached at home by gang members who threaten to kill them if they don’t join,” he explains. “And these are not isolated incidents—it’s a phenomenon. Honduras and El Salvador are some of the most dangerous places in the world right now because of gang violence.”

The kids who get detained are placed in deportation proceedings and can be ordered deported back to their home countries without ever having been represented by a lawyer. Brett thinks this is wrong. “We can’t hold kids accountable for where they were born,” he says. “And when a kid makes it here, we have an opportunity as well as an obligation.” The cases Brett handles can be heartbreaking, and the stakes are always high. “One path has them deported back to a gang-controlled neighborhood in Honduras,” he says. “In another future, they go to college in America. Their immigration case will be the deciding factor between these two worlds.” 

Brett is particularly troubled by the fact that under immigration law, children who turn 18 while in government custody are transferred to adult detention centers. That means teenagers can end up in jail, out of school, and isolated from family for months at a time, while in the company of convicted criminals. “You feel the time pressure when kids are detained,” Brett says. “When you go home for the day and you know a kid is still sitting in a prison in New Jersey, that’s a frustrating feeling.” 

“Immigration law brings together people from all over the world and unites them under a common umbrella of democratic values.”

A year into his job with Catholic Charities, Brett cofounded Terra Firma, an innovative medical and legal partnership in New York City between Catholic Charities New York, Montefiore Medical Center, and The Children’s Health Fund. Terra Firma is the first medical-legal partnership in the U.S. specifically for unaccompanied children in the community, and it is designed to provide all of the services immigrant children need under one roof. There Brett meets with children, prepares their documents, helps them get ready for court, and coordinates any necessary care with doctors and psychologists. 

While often frustrated by the current limitations of immigration law, Brett sees it as an exciting area where he can work for positive change. And he connects his passion for social justice with the fellowship that brought him to Middlebury. “Kathryn Davis was a cosmopolitan person whose sense of improving the world had a global impulse,” he says. “Immigration law has that same impulse. It brings together people from all over the world and unites them under a common umbrella of democratic values. I like to think that helping to stem a tide of violence—by helping people who are fleeing that violence—promotes peace in the world in precisely the way that Kathryn Davis would have wanted.”