April 6, 2018 — For some students, senior year is a time to wrap up remaining core requirements, enroll in fun courses, and focus on the job search. For Leonard Olsen (C’14), one senior-year class helped shape his career — and this year, he paid back the favor.
In the fall of 2013, Prof. Adam Lifshey’s “Modern Mexico” course helped Olsen realize his passion for Latin American culture and immigrants’ rights activism. Since graduating, he has worked in immigration law, helped families navigate the dangerous journey to the American border, and helped bring the struggle of immigrant families to the attention of both houses of Congress.
Four years after he left Lifshey’s classroom for the last time, Olsen returned to the Hilltop as a guest lecturer in two of his former professor’s courses.
A PASSION FOR IMMIGRATION
Olsen began researching immigration issues as an intern in the office of U.S. Representative Jim Gerlach in 2013. He got a real-life perspective on the immigrant experience while working alongside primarily Salvadoran employees in his part-time job, as well as while volunteering with Cameroonian high school students in the Strive for College program.
Still, Olsen wasn’t expecting to get a lot out of Lifshey’s class. As a senior with other things on his mind, he coasted through the beginning of the semester — that is, until Lifshey intervened.
“[Lifshey] took me aside midway through the semester and said, ‘You’ve got to take class more seriously.’ So I started to pay more attention, and I really started to enjoy the content,” Olsen said. “One day later in the semester, he took the class out on a field trip to a Mexican museum and out for Mexican food, and we really bonded."
The Modern Mexico course helped solidify Olsen’s burgeoning interest in immigration issues. After graduating with a major in American studies and a minor in Spanish, he began working as a paralegal at a law firm near his hometown of Philadelphia, specializing on immigration law. He took a job teaching English in Bogota, Colombia for a year, then worked as a legal assistant at La Casa del Migrante, a shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico.
At the shelter, Olsen learned about the harrowing journey many Central Americans take in their attempts to escape drug-fueled violence and begin a new life in the United States. Soon, he knew he wanted to do more to help them.
Through contacts in Tijuana, Olsen got involved in the planning process for a “caravan,” an organized group that would help refugees travel from the southern border city of Tapachula to Mexico City and eventually Tijuana. Organized by the political activism group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the project had dual political and humanitarian aims.
“It was about helping people, but also giving them the tools and helping them realize they have a right to migrate, the right to apply for asylum,” Olsen said. “By the end, these people were really involved in the political fight.”
The group traveled to Mexico City via donated buses, then those who sought to travel further north boarded the infamous freight train colloquially known as “La Bestia.”
The journey through Mexico via La Bestia, during which refugees stow away within or atop freight cars, is illegal and highly dangerous. But tens of thousands of people — predominantly Central American immigrants — nonetheless attempt it each year, risking injury or death in search of a new life.
This reality prompted Pueblo Sin Fronteras to organize the caravans, which unify immigrants in their journey north and aim to make that journey a safer one through a support network and simple strength in numbers.
For first-time organizers like Olsen, the trip was a jarring firsthand experience with the conditions many refugees experience before even arriving in the United States.
“The first night on the train, I was freezing and had one piece of bread the whole day,” he said. “It was so physically and mentally taxing. It really takes a toll.”
Upon arriving in Tijuana, the Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan had 37 members who turned themselves into border control authorities to seek asylum in the United States.
Among the asylum-seekers were a young El Salvadoran father, Jose, and his infant son Mateo. At the processing station in San Diego, Jose was pressured by ICE agents into giving up custody of Mateo, ostensibly due to lack of proof of relationship.
According to Olsen, their paperwork was sound, and the separation of families is an increasingly common scare tactic used by border agents. Mateo and three older children separated from their fathers were taken to foster care, and Olsen was the first to see the fathers afterward.
“It was a really emotional moment,” Olsen said. “Whenever you hear about things like this, it’s meant as a deterrent for immigrant communities.”
Since the separation, Olsen has helped launch a viral campaign to reunite Mateo and Jose that has drawn the attention of major advocacy groups and lawmakers.
Using the hashtag #GiveMateoBack, Olsen has recruited allies at Amnesty International, immigration law nonprofit Al Otro Lado, Change.org, and from within Congress — most notably Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (C’86) of Washington, and members of the Congressional Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform.
Thus far, the movement has secured pro bono counsel for Jose, and another father has been released on bond. The families likely face a long legal battle, but Olsen is optimistic that the public attention garnered by #GiveMateoBack will help their cause.
"While we are happy to see the amount of public attention the issue of family separation has garnered, we are appalled that the Department of Homeland Security has done nothing to address or denounce the practice,” Olsen said. “#GiveMateoBack won't end until Mateo, Jose, and all unlawfully-separated families are reunited."
RETURN TO THE HILLTOP
Olsen got back in touch with Lifshey after returning to Philadelphia last fall. Upon hearing his former student’s story, Lifshey invited him to guest lecture in two classes on the literature, film and music of Central America and Mexico.
“This is what education has to be about — what true education is,” Lifshey said. “When Lenny returned to Georgetown and shared his narratives and his knowledge with us, he taught me as well as my current students, and a professor could hope for nothing more than that. I am extremely proud of him.”
Olsen was grateful for the opportunity to share his story with students.
“It was a huge honor to be there, especially because the students were so curious about my experience,” he said. “I hope some of them are motivated to get out and make a difference.”
Olsen plans to assist on another caravan before attending Northeastern University School of Law on a public interest scholarship in the fall. His experiences over the last year helped solidify his interest in applying legal knowledge to policy change.
"I want to motivate and rally people to change the system towards one that doesn't victimize migrants." Olsen said.
— Patrick Curran