Meet Our Staff: Philippe Weisz
“As a Jew and as somebody who brings both my personal history and my family background to the work, working at HIAS PA is very special to me.”
-Philippe Weisz, Co-Director of Legal Services
We spoke with Philippe Weisz, Co-Director of Legal Services, about what his role at HIAS PA means to him. Read the extended interview below!
What is your name and what is your role at HIAS PA?
My name is Philippe Weisz, and I’m the Co-Director of Legal Services at HIAS PA. As Co-Director, I have the opportunity to handle my own cases as well as work with the diverse staff of the Legal team throughout the agency. I like to say that I get to have the best of both worlds—I do what I came to do this work for, and that’s work individually with clients, but also work with amazing advocates, attorneys, accredited representatives, and case managers who provide the amazing service that HIAS Pennsylvania does.
What brought you to HIAS PA?
I went to law school knowing that I wanted to work in immigration. Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors, born in Hungary. My father survived the war in Hungary, and my mother was in hiding in France during the war. I was born in Colombia. As the child of parents who were both refugees and immigrants who subsequently immigrated to the United States, the issues of immigration, human rights, and the rights of immigrants and refugees is something that’s very close to me. Were it not for countries or individuals who were willing to protect others, I myself would not be here, nor would my siblings, so the cause of immigration is close to me and is the reason why I entered this field.
As a Jew and as somebody who brings both my personal history and my family background to the work, working at HIAS PA is very special to me. A couple of years back, my father passed away, and in looking through his paperwork I discovered this old diary which says “HIAS” on one page. I unfortunately only discovered this after he passed away. I knew that after the war he had fled Hungary with his wife and young son, and they were in Paris trying to get to Colombia where he had a family member, and it was the national HIAS, Inc. who helped facilitate that transport. Eventually, he was able to get on a boat from Marseilles to Colombia. So this is very personal to me.
Why do you do what you do?
There are several reasons—first and foremost is the honor of working with immigrants and asylum-seekers whose stories and trust in me and in the organization help us facilitate and advocate so that their stories can be heard, and so that their lives can be made a little bit easier through representation. I fully recognize that immigration status is one just small part of a much larger issue of greater systemic challenges which our clients face, but I do hope that by taking on their immigration case, that myself and the agency can help clients partially as they are living here in the United States. So that’s why I do what I do on that very individual, one-on-one level.
The other part is that it’s a cause that I care deeply for; at HIAS Pennsylvania everyone is here because we recognize very deeply that this is mission-driven work. To be part of a team that can do that work as a collective is really empowering and certainly makes it a lot easier, especially with cases that are difficult or the cases we lose. Being able to rely upon the support of colleagues who are committed to the mission helps make it easier to get up in the morning after a difficult case.
What languages do you speak, and how does this help you while working with your clients?
I speak four languages in different capacities and abilities, so in addition to English, Spanish is my next language, followed by French, and then Hungarian. Obviously French and Spanish come in handy in my work, and I use them regularly with clients. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to use Hungarian. Speaking other languages means you’re able to connect in a way that is much more difficult with an interpreter. Now, obviously I’ve had many cases where I’ve had to use an interpreter, but being able to connect with clients in their own language facilitates that trust which is so critical in order to be able to do the work that we do.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day in the pandemic world is different, certainly, than it was in the past. I joke with my colleagues that none of us could have anticipated doing the work that we do remotely, but we pivoted and we’ve been able to do it quite successfully in most cases. It’s a lot of time spent on calls and video calls, working with colleagues in terms of supervising their work, helping strategize with the individual teams that I supervise and help supervise, along with spending a lot of time on the phone with clients as well as other community partners. That’s one thing that HIAS Pennsylvania really does emphasize is that we are not in this work alone—we do this work with community partners across the city, across the region, and across the state, and truly nationally as well, and without that partnership our work would not be nearly as successful. I might find myself being on a phone call with one of our partners up in Bucks County figuring out how to do outreach to the communities they serve. I might be working with a mutual aid organization dedicated to working with Venezuelans to figure out how to get the message out, how to educate that community in terms of their rights and responsibilities regarding Temporary Protected Status (TPS). So my days have a lot of that.
In terms of individual representation, there’s going to court for representation matters from asylum, to cancellation of removal, to interviews at USCIS and immigration, be it for a green card case, a naturalization case, or an asylum case. It’s an exciting mix of different opportunities.
It’s been interesting how the different agencies have been working—the Philadelphia Court for Non-Detained, for example: although the court cases have started back up again, it’s not nearly at the same level as they were in pre-pandemic times, so what we call “Master” or “Preliminary” hearings have not restarted since the shutdown, at least here in Philadelphia, although the “merits” (individual hearings) have restarted, and that’s been going on for months. In that case, we—most attorneys including myself who are representing people who are in removal proceedings—are deciding to appear in person just because telephonic representation in court is very challenging and puts our clients at a disadvantage. So that’s been in person, although the court has set up a system where different participants are in different courtrooms, so there’s some social spacing there. In terms of immigration representation, USCIS provides an opportunity for remote representation, so we can call in to represent our clients there, but certainly staff have opted to go in person in certain situations where clients have needed that representation in person. It’s happening in both ways.
How has your work changed since the start of the pandemic?
In terms of case preparation when working with clients, it’s been really fascinating to see how much work we can get done either by phone or by videoconferencing, and quite successfully. Pre-March 2020 I couldn’t imagine doing our work remotely, but we really have learned that, in many instances for clients, it’s a better situation. It’s a better way to work. They don’t need to find their way into the city, worry about parking or about getting someone to take them or trying to find the office. Certainly for people coming from outside of Philadelphia and trying to find the office, this has always been a stressful situation. There’s that piece. The other piece is that clients can meet us where they’re comfortable. They can be in their home, in a place where it’s not a formal lawyer’s office across a desk, so I think we have been successful for the most part in maintaining and garnering the trust of our clients through this medium.
The one obvious exception, I would have to say, is with our clients who are survivors of domestic violence. Especially where our clients are not in a safe place or in a place where they can openly talk about their case or their situation, that’s a big exception and that’s an area where our Domestic Violence team has worked hard in order to extend their services during the pandemic, so that’s been a challenge, but I would have to say that, overall, there is that silver lining. And the other piece that I didn’t mention is that for our work outside of Philadelphia and the five county region—we have clients up in Scranton and in Adams County—being able to connect with them remotely makes it so much easier both for the clients and for the agency.
What is one interaction that you’ll remember for the rest of your life?
I have lots of pictures running through my head. When I lost my mother, I was returning from her funeral and I got a phone call from a client who I had not spoken to in years. I had actually represented him and his family when I was at another nonprofit organization. He reached out to share his condolences, and I was shocked to hear from him. It’s those connections that we have the honor of making in our work, which stick with you.
What is the most meaningful part of your position at HIAS PA?
That’s impossible to say—I can’t pinpoint one meaningful one. I can reiterate what I said—I couldn’t do the work that I do if I didn’t have the opportunity to work with clients on a one-on-one basis. That’s what drives me, but all of the other aspects of my work are also critical. It’s connecting with other community organizations and strategizing and hearing from other organizations in terms of how best to advocate for clients, both on an individual as well as on a systemic level. It’s working with colleagues who are so impassioned about this issue, and who are brilliant, and who are so sharing in terms of their knowledge and their dedication. There’s a lot there.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who wants to work in your position?
I often get this question from college students or from recent graduates who are looking at the law, and at immigration law, specifically. My advice for those looking at law school in general is always to take some time in between college and law school and get an opportunity to work, whether at a legal services organization such as ours or at a law firm, to really get an idea of what it means to be a lawyer. Law is a trade, and it’s important that we understand that. Do you want to exercise that trade as a career?
What recommendations do I have for someone who wants to work at a place like HIAS PA? First and foremost you need a demonstrated commitment to immigrant and refugee rights and to advocating with similar communities. That’s the one thing that I look for in law school applicants who are seeking to work with us during the summer or during the school year—volunteering, not yet in the legal capacity, but I look for students who have volunteered as ESL teachers to immigrants, or who have volunteered in a refugee program to help mentor or housing issues that we do with our refugee team. That sort of commitment. Everything else, you can learn, but it’s that commitment to working in these communities that is the key.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to your clients, coworkers, or HIAS PA supporters?
What I’d like to say is just thank you. Thank you to clients for trusting us with their stories, to colleagues for supporting me in my daily struggles, and, at times when I need it, reminding me why I’m here, and certainly to our supporters—we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. Thank you for thinking of us, and more importantly, for thinking of our clients when supporting our agency. There’s a lot to be grateful for, even in these difficult times.
What is your favorite thing to eat in Philly?
I’m always a big fan—if I can get up to the Northeast or a couple of new places that have popped up—of Venezuelan and Colombian food, especially arepas. If I can get a hand on some of those, I’m always happy. There’s a good place for arepas by our new office called Puyero.
Also, we are so lucky here in Philadelphia, especially in the past 10 to 15 years with the blossoming of so many restaurants coming up from our immigrant communities that we serve, so all of the great Mexican eateries in South Philly, such as El Jarrocho. We’re so lucky—across the gamut, from Colombian to Mexican to Salvadoran to Thai to Burmese restaurants—we have a lot to be thankful for from our immigrant communities.