Growing up in Westport, Kerry McGrath had 2 main influences.
There was her Catholic faith. Assumption Church, she says, provided a strong foundation in social justice.
And there was also Jewish culture. “Tikkun olam,” she explains easily, embodies the concept of repairing the world, and doing good for others.
“My family and I had so many Jewish friends,” she says. “That was instilled in me as well.”
McGrath had the “good fortune” to spend plenty of time with Manny and Estelle Margolis. He was a lifelong civil rights and civil liberties advocate who died in 2011. She continues to crusade for social justice — including maintaining vigils on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge.
“Their focus and passion made a big impression on a very impressionable teenager,” McGrath recalls.
Though she went through the Westport school system, she did not graduate from Staples High School. Her parents moved to New Jersey when she was in 10th grade (and “thankfully moved back 4 years later”).
After graduating from Duke University and New York University Law School, McGrath has focused on immigrants. Fourteen years ago, she opened her own firm. She continues to work on immigration law.
McGrath’s first job gave her her first exposure to the special needs of immigrants. Working with teenagers and young people at Covenant House, she realized that many ended up on the streets of New York after fleeing violence in Central America. Others were sent to the US by their parents from around the world, in hopes of making money.
That experience opened her eyes to the many complex layers of teen homelessness and world affairs. She moved to Guatemala, to work and learn Spanish.
Then, at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, she started an immigration rights project. At her next job — Amnesty International — McGrath looked at the biggest picture: “the world forces causing oppression, and violations of human rights.”
After working in Washington, she returned to Atlanta and joined Catholic Charities. Her clients were all detainees.
“That was so hard emotionally,” she says. But it inspired her, when she opened her solo office, to concentration on immigration issues.
Many clients are landscapers, roofers and house cleaners. She works with them on family petitions and Dreamer status. Some are victims of crimes, including domestic violence.
Since President Trump’s inauguration, she says, things have changed dramatically. In the past, someone who overstayed a visa, married a US citizen and was put in removal proceedings could have the case terminated by Homeland Security, in order to pursue a green card.
Now, McGrath says, “discretion has been eliminated.”
She understand that this is a controversial issue. “Violating the law is wrong,” she says. “But the consequences far exceed what’s been done. The effects can be felt on children and spouses. And often these are people who are contributing a lot to this country.
“It’s very complicated. Immigration issues are not black and white.”
She also knows that some Americans think immigrants get “special treatment.” However, she notes, “you can’t just come to the US and apply for citizenship right away. Even children of legal residents have to wait a long time.”
One client fled civil war in El Salvador in 1990. She received her green card a couple of months ago — 28 years later.
The president, she fears, is “trying to minimize both illegal and legal immigration. This is not just about a wall to keep people out. It’s about preventing permanent residents from becoming citizens. And preventing others from coming here legally, on temporary status.”
McGrath points to another often-overlooked aspect of immigration.
“I don’t think people realize why Central Americans come to the US. Our illegal drug use fuels violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. If we stop consuming, gangs would not have the money or power to conduct all that violence. We’ve created the push out of those countries to the US.’
She connects her work back to Westport. The schools and town gave her the education and skills for her work.
Westport also taught her “how lucky and privileged” she is. It was here — from her church, and her Jewish friends — that she first heard the saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
And where, she says, she also learned: “There but for the grace of God go I.”