Eissa Villaseñor says of her time at Webb that it gave her “the confidence to try new things, even if they were hard.”
She certainly takes on the world as a Refugee Officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, D.C. where she works to help protect the United States and ensure that deserving and eligible people take the limited refugee resettlement spots available on an annual basis.
Though based in the capital, Villaseñor has typically been on the move 50% of the year, each trip requiring 4 to 6 weeks of travel depending on the location and case load. A fluent Spanish speaker, she’s traveled frequently to Cuba and Ecuador, but also to locations in Kenya and Lebanon.
The purpose of her travel is to interview applicants seeking refugee status and to determine whether those individuals are eligible to be resettled in the United States. Villaseñor explained:
“The interview is to determine if the person has been persecuted or will likely suffer persecution on account of 5 protected grounds – race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. I’m looking to see if they meet that definition.”
Villaseñor must also determine if the applicant has committed certain crimes, or if he/she will be a threat to national security.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s the best job I will have ever done,” she said of her numerous trips to refugee camps and other locations, and encounters with people in difficult circumstances. Nowadays, she works at headquarters with the policy branch.
“I’ve always been interested in service to others,” said Villasenor. “My family is a family of immigrants.”
After graduating from Mount Holyoke College with a B.A. in Political Science and Spanish, Villaseñor attended law school at the University of Minnesota. In the year between undergraduate and graduate studies, she volunteered in South Africa with a non-profit working with refugees. “That’s how that became my focus in law school,” she said.
At times her work is equally harrowing and gratifying.
“When you do these interviews [with refugees], you’re working with vulnerable individuals and families and they’re sharing the most intimate details of their lives, describing why they can’t return to their home countries. These are difficult stories to hear – tragic things have happened to cause them to flee their homes,” she said.
And yet, on the upside, being an officer is “a great way to represent the United States,” she said. “It’s gratifying to know you can help someone come to the United States – to be protected, to let them resume their lives – to go back to work, to have their children go to school.”
Though it can be an exhausting job, Villaseñor said it helps her realize that “we have more in common with these people than we think we do – they want their kids to be safe, they want to do something with their lives. No one chooses to be a refugee.”
Villaseñor says she “recharges” with family and friends. “It’s hard to do this job for a long time because you’re in and out of the United States,” she said.
But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is where my heart is – in this work,” she made clear. “I appreciate and believe in the mission of our office.”