Hastings College senior Laurel Teal was sitting in her Aurora, Colorado office on the phone with a very scared and alone college student stranded in Eastern Europe. The student had flown to Bulgaria for an internship with the U.S. Department of State, but hadn’t waited for his security clearance to go through.
“The State Department couldn’t hire him, he couldn’t receive his stipend and he was essentially trapped in Bulgaria,” said Teal. “I could hear him tearing up over the phone, telling me how he goes to a small liberal arts college and isn’t even 21 yet, and how he shouldn’t have to deal with government agencies like this.
“And I just remember thinking, me too, man, me too.”
Serving her neighbors
Also before reaching the age of 21, Teal was spending her summer working as an immigration caseworker in the district office of Congressman Mike Coffman, who represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District. In this capacity she was able to roll up her sleeves and help constituents obtain visas to travel abroad, expedite the visas of foreign nationals visiting family in the United States and everything in-between.
“My job was basically to keep our immigration system in check, if something went wrong with the process, constituents could contact their member of Congress for help dealing with federal agencies,” Teal said. “I looked at why files were not being processed by the due dates, or if papers were somehow lost along the way. More often than not, especially with cases involving immigration into the U.S., the embassies involved were just swamped and thus falling behind.”
Teal’s most common case involved the I-130, the Petition for an Alien Relative, predominantly used by immigrants living in the U.S. to bring their family into the country and obtain a visa. According to Teal, helping people start a new life in the U.S. was the bulk of her work, and was immensely rewarding.
Helping to make the system work
Among the highlights of her experience working as a caseworker were attending citizenship ceremonies. Teal was able to go to an informal one at the Asian Community Center, and an official one with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). At the USCIS ceremony, the new citizens made their formal pledge of disavowment, which relinquished their legal ties to their former nations. Despite sounding intimidating, according to Teal it was actually a very emotional ceremony.
“Many of the people were hugging and crying tears of joy because after years and years of going through the immigration process they were finally Americans,” said Teal. “83 people from 63 different countries became citizens, and many of them were from our district. Congressman Coffman was there and he made a nice speech.”
Of all the cases that Teal worked through over the summer, her first Congressional expedite stands out among the rest. If a caseworker can provide ample evidence of need for a case to be expedited, federal immigration agencies will grant an expedited visa for entrance into the United States. In Teal’s case, a young woman from Colombia had applied to visit family in Laurel’s district after hearing that her grandmother was dying. Teal compiled the necessary evidence such as doctor’s notes for an expedited visa on humanitarian grounds, and the request was granted.
“She was able to make it to the United States and be with her grandmother when she passed,” Teal said. “Despite it being a less than cheery reason for her visit, I am still so glad she was able to see her grandmother in time. It is definitely one of my proudest accomplishments.”
Trading the District of Columbia for Colorado’s 6th
Though this was Teal’s first time working as a paid staffer, it was not her first experience working in Congress. Teal had previously interned in Coffman’s Washington, D.C. office, where she established the reputation for diligence and intellect that led to her job in the district office.
“After working on the Hill in 2015, I was invited back to work as a paid intern in the district office, but then the immigration caseworker took a policy job in D.C. and I was asked to take their place for the summer,” said Teal. “I fit the bill.”
According to Teal, her past experience working in politics helped land her the job as a caseworker, but it was her Hastings College education that prepared her for success in that role. As a student majoring in both history and political science, Teal learned how to think critically, solve problems and handle a full workload.
“My professors in history and political science have been incredibly valuable,” Teal said. “My training as both a political scientist and a historian made me confident in my ability hold my own even against someone who graduated from an Ivy League school.”
A future of Public Service
As for the future, Teal has her eyes set on graduate school with the intention of returning back to her home state of Colorado.
“Spending this summer working in the district and helping my neighbors came with a real sense of purpose,” said Teal. “I’m looking to continue my work in public service and immigration policy… maybe even running for public office someday.”
Keep an ear tuned to the airwaves on the Front Range. You may hear a political advertisement for Laurel Teal in the near future: a positive one, of course.
“I’m always going to have a tie to Colorado politics, however that manifests,” said Teal. That might mean working as a policy wonk, or even seeking office myself. But for right now, I’m just focused on my senior year at Hastings.”