Last month, the IRC in Missoula welcomed Ashley Connell Melwani to our growing immigration team. Ashley, who will serve as a Managing Attorney, joins Monica Quesada, the DOJ Accredited Immigration Representative for the IRC since April of 2022. The team also receives support from DOJ Accredited Representative Jess Litman, who is based in Bozeman.
Monica, a Colombian immigrant herself, worked as a paralegal for many years in family and criminal law offices in Missoula and Miami, Florida with Latino immigrants. She received her law degree form the University Externado de Colombia, in Bogota and will soon recieve her bachelor's in business administration from the University of Florida!
Ashley, a Missoula native, has spent much of her career representing immigrant children and youth in the Bay Area. She returned to Missoula two years ago to work for River Mountain Immigration, Missoula's first immigration law firm, and is eager to continue her legal career at the IRC.
Currently, the IRC's immigration program focuses on providing legal services to refugees and recipients of humanitarian parole in Missoula. From the moment of their arrival, until they apply for citizenship, the immigration team guides individuals through a complicated legal process. This includes applications for work authorization and travel documents, family reunification petitions, applications for green cards, and eventually the citizenship/naturalization process.
For Monica, watching refugees become citizens is an especially gratifying aspect of her work.
"If I had to choose one process to do repeatedly, it would be citizenship applications. I love witnessing the entire process, from the initial meeting where we collect the information to the naturalization ceremony. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing my clients become citizens. From the IRC’s perspective, we feel like we have accomplished our mission, and they feel like now they truly belong to the place that welcomed them. Their beaming smiles are memories that stay with me, no matter how challenging the rest of my day may be.”
Both Monica and Ashley bring many years of personal and professional experience to their work, but for them, connecting with individuals from all over the world is most rewarding.
Ashley: “My favorite part of the work is connecting with people across different cultures and lived experiences. I went to law school with a plan to work in the field of international human rights, and quickly discovered there is plenty of that work to do right here in our backyard. My life experience has shown me that our communities are stronger and more beautiful when we embrace difference, seeking to understand and learn from each other, and I’m grateful that my work grants me this opportunity every day.”
Monica: “As an immigrant myself, I understand how tough it is for immigrants and refugees to navigate their journey. I was fortunate enough to know the language and come from a culture that always had the American Culture as a point of reference. Still, there was so much to learn, and fear was always present until I fully understood my surroundings. My journey was hard, but rewarding, and I chose it for myself. However, the many refugees and immigrants we serve had no choice but to flee their home country to save their lives and families from violence, wars, or natural disasters. They need our help! I believe that I have received so much from the country and community I am part of, and naturally, the next step for me is to give back to my community and the refugees and immigrants who need it. What motivates me to work at IRC is the enormous number of things I learn from working with people from different cultures and backgrounds. It’s inspiring to see their strong desire to learn and own their future, and it makes me happy to be part of that process.”
Looking ahead, Ashley and Monica hope to expand the legal program to provide services to more immigrants throughout Montana.
"We will continue offering our core legal services to the refugee community, and also hope to begin addressing other significant needs we're seeing throughout the state. As the only immigration non-profit providing legal services in Montana, we know the need is huge, and the resources are scarce. We are currently working on a proposal to serve unaccompanied children, who are youth that have typically arrived at the border without a legal guardian, seeking relief from harrowing situations in their home country. We hope to have more to share on that soon!"