Meet Our Staff: Gabriela Rodriguez
“We’re able to provide a little light at the end of the tunnel or hope that their life might not be as tumultuous as it seems.”
-Gabriela Rodriguez, Receptionist
We spoke with Gabriela Rodriguez, HIAS Pennsylvania’s Receptionist, about what her role at HIAS PA means to her. Read the extended interview below!
What is your name and what is your role at HIAS PA?
My name is Gabriela Rodriguez. As the receptionist at HIAS Pennsylvania, I’m the first person people speak to when they call the organization. My main role is to answer the phones and answer questions for clients and supporters. With clients, I answer their questions about HIAS PA, take down their information in order to put them on our intake list, transfer them to attorneys, make sure that they’re calling the right place in order to get the right help, and more. A lot of people will call us asking for a plethora of different services and assistance that we don’t always provide, so it’s my job to sort that out and make sure that people understand what we do, and the limits of what we can do as well.
What brought you to HIAS Pennsylvania?
I’ve always had a passion for helping others, and that’s always been something I’ve wanted to focus on, work-wise. I’d like to eventually go to law school to learn about immigration law, or refugee law, which is something I’ve gained more interest in since getting this job.
I grew up in Puerto Rico, but my father’s side of the family is from Ecuador, and my grandmother still lives there, so although I don’t identify with the stories of undocumented immigrants because that’s not my family’s experience, I understand what it is to be a “such-and-such”-generation immigrant. Even though I grew up in a very Puerto Rican-centered environment, I can see how my father’s upbringing as a first-generation American citizen has affected his life and how he has passed those values and ways of seeing the world down to me. I’ve always felt like the immigrant topic is a difficult topic to address, and a lot of people are very careful around it, but for me it’s always been that if immigrants weren’t able to enter the US, then I probably wouldn’t exist. So I’m very grateful for the fact that my grandparents were able to come to the United States in order for me to have a better life. I also appreciate the work that my grandparents did, and they lived here in Philadelphia, so I like the fact that I’m able to help other people in the immigrant community here in Philadelphia. My grandma was a preschool teacher, and my grandpa worked at Temple University, and all of my family on my dad’s side is still here, and I want to be able to pay it forward and help other immigrants get that opportunity that my family had and that I have now.
Why do you do what you do?
I really love my job. I’m not a lawyer or a case manager, but I’m still able to provide a service. It’s very gratifying, even if it’s just answering the phone, that fact that I can answer the phone. I do, up to a certain point, get to know and learn about clients—I get to listen to their experiences, and I’m the first person that they speak to at HIAS PA; sometimes clients call and they’re distraught, and it’s my job to help calm them down and feel reassured, and it’s gratifying to know that I’m able to provide that service. I like to joke that I play receptionist-slash-therapist, because sometimes clients really need to vent, and I have to be understanding and empathetic. I’m very open to listening to their stories, and it helps me determine whether or not we’ll be able to help them.
So I do get to learn about our clients, and there are some clients who I do occasionally get to know even more, because I end up speaking to them more often than I do other clients, and I feel invested in their cases and I want their cases to have a positive outcome because I’m getting to know these people’s stories. I really love that, and it seems like such a small thing that I do, I just answer the phone, but I really love what I do. I really enjoy it.
What languages do you speak, and how does this help you when working with your callers?
I speak English and Spanish fluently, you could say they’re both my first languages because I learned them at the same time, but I feel that Spanish is my first language. I’m learning a bit of Russian on the side, but I don’t speak it confidently enough to have a conversation. I understand and speak a little bit of Portuguese, and can communicate a little bit with clients during that first initial call when I’ll get an interpreter or somebody who speaks the language, but Spanish is the language that I use the most. Say I get 100 calls per day, 75 of those calls will be in Spanish, so it’s very necessary that I speak Spanish.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I sign in for work at 9AM and check my email, but usually as soon as I sign into work I’m already getting calls—sometimes people start calling at 8AM. When working from home, I focus mostly on answering the phones, handling intake lists, and putting people on our potential client lists for citizenship, green card, asylum applications, and work permit applications.
We also now have a list for people who are in detention, which means I take calls from people in detention, and I really enjoy taking those calls. Some of the detention calls are the ones where I get to become a little more invested in the cases, because they’re only allowed to call the organization’s main number, even if they already have a lawyer assigned to them with us. Every time they call I already know who they are and who they’re trying to speak with, and I get to ask them how their day has been going.
Occasionally I talk to people who are trying to donate or volunteer, or sign up for internships, or communicate with other people on staff. I get to handle referrals from other organizations. When I’m at the office, I answer phones but also help with mail and administrative office tasks.
What is one interaction that you’ll remember for the rest of your life?
I’ll never forget—there was one time when a client came over to pick up their green card, and the attorney wasn’t in the office and asked if I could give the green card to the client. He opened it in front of me and said, “I have a green card now, finally!”, and I found out that this was someone who had been trying to get a green card for so many years. It was a very emotional experience because I had never given a green card to someone in person—it’s usually by mail or calling them to let them know that their green card is ready for them to pick up—I felt really happy. He was so full of joy and it seemed like this weight was off his shoulders. I will never forget that experience.
There’s also one client who was a detainee client, and he used to call so often back when he was in detention—he’s not in detention anymore and I’m so happy about that—that I became so invested in his case, and I used to ask the paralegal who was assigned to his case for updates, because I wanted to know if he was doing well. I was like a background cheerleader. He’s one client who I’ll probably never forget just because of how invested I was in wanting to know if his case would succeed.
What is the most meaningful part of your position at HIAS PA, and what advice would you give someone who wants to work in your position?
It’s all meaningful, it’s all important! If I were ever to leave this position to work in another position, I’d want to make sure that the person who takes over really has a passion and understanding of what it means to do this job, because it is a really important job, and I know sometimes it can get a little mentally and emotionally exhausting, but it’s so important and at the end of the day it’s really gratifying. There are clients who call and tell me how excited they are that someone here actually answered the phone. There are people who are desperately trying to find information, and the fact that I’m able to provide even a little bit of that is really meaningful because there’s a lot of people out there in the immigrant community who are scared, they’re frightened, they’re not being reassured, they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. The future, to them, looks really grim, and we’re able to provide a little light at the end of the tunnel or hope that their life might not be as tumultuous as it seems. This job can feel like it’s just answering the phones, but it’s really so much more than that.
You’ve got to make sure you really feel it, and that you love it! You’ve got to be emotionally prepared, and also empathetic and understanding. It’s not simply about being able to take the emotional hits—sometimes you’ll want to cry with your callers—but it’s also about whether or not you are able to help them calm down and feel assured. You have to be sensitive to their situation. If someone else were to fill in my shoes, it couldn’t just be someone who has experience answering phones—anyone can answer phones. It has to be someone who’s sensitive enough to answer these phone calls and handle them in a way that won’t make clients feel worse than they already feel.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to HIAS PA clients, staff, or supporters?
My coworkers all know that I love working here and I want everyone to succeed and have the best experience. Same with clients—I hope they know that I’m doing my best for them.
For supporters, this is a really important job that we’re doing. It’s necessary. There’s only a handful of organizations who are doing the work that we’re doing in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania in general. We get calls from people in other states whose states don’t provide the services we provide. I’ve gotten calls from people in Louisiana, West Virginia, Maine, etc., states that are nowhere near us, from people who are desperately looking for assistance that’s not available to them, so it’s really important to continue supporting the work HIAS PA does here, and if there are organizations that are getting started in other states, it’s really important to support that work as well and to encourage the growth and startup of other organizations to continue the work.
We do a lot of work, but it’s not enough, it’s never going to be enough. We need more people, we need more immigration lawyers, public policy writers, more people focused on this issue and on these topics. We need to continue working harder and do more. And I’m glad I’m able to do just a little bit by answering the phones.
What is your favorite thing to eat in Philly?
There’s this Mexican place in the Italian Market on 9th Street and Washington called Taqueria La Prima, it’s just this little hallway, and it’s only cash, and they’re open 24 hours. My boyfriend and I go there all the time—he gets off work at 10PM and we’ll be hungry, and it’s the only thing that’s open. I like to order their tortas, especially their vegetarian tortas, which are so delicious.