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Law, Art, and Activism: An Interview with Carolina Rubio-MacWright

Photo Credit: Gieves Anderson

Carolina Rubio-MacWright is an artist, immigration lawyer and activist fighting for immigration justice. An immigrant herself, Rubio-MacWright moved to the United States from Bogotá, Colombia at 20 years old to escape violence in her community. She graduated from Florida International University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and moved to Oklahoma City where she received her JD. As an immigration attorney, she has taken notice of the racial inequities present in the American legal system. She has served as an attorney in Miami, Oklahoma, and New York City and currently works in Brooklyn. Through her organization, Touching Land, she has developed know-your-rights workshops that empower immigrants with legal knowledge and uses experimental arts mediums, like clay and cooking, to stimulate conversation. 

Anik Willig: What got you into the field of Immigration Law, and what did you witness as both an immigrant yourself and as a lawyer that made you want to start Touching Land?

Carolina Rubio MacWright: Growing up in a place that wasn’t safe, I felt like my body was always threatened. Since moving to the States, having that freedom is a feeling that I carry with me a lot. Freedom is like my guiding stone. My first summer as a first-year law student, I went down to the border with the Texas Civil Rights Project, and I got to see what it was like for people crossing the border. I got to see what a Detention Center was. I got to see and hear stories of immigrants, which are very different from my story, because my story was one of privilege.

I was lucky that I had enough money to leave the country, and it was still really hard. My life was basically determined by visas and who would roll the dice on my abilities and invest in me. I went to law school in Oklahoma, and realized 35 percent of inmates in Oklahoma County were immigrants and mostly Hispanic. I started working at the public defender’s office and witnessed a serious lack of proper representation for immigrants that were being treated in the most inhumane way. After that experience I was determined to practice immigration law and make sure that I could teach people what their rights were.

Touching Land came about later in my career. I was already a resident in this country, and I started doing a lot of public “Know Your Rights” workshops. Initially I could tell that people weren’t retaining the information they needed and that they had more questions than answers, so I wanted to figure out how I could make these workshops less threatening and more of a relaxing environment. I conducted the workshops in Spanish, but words were still a barrier for some indigenous attendees. I have a lot of students that speak K’iche’ and Mam, so I wanted to do something that would be more physical and inclusive, and clay is a very forgiving, beautiful material. I decided to do more of a somatic practice where people can feel in their bodies and remember through actions, through colors, through sounds, what it is like to stand up for themselves and to understand that they have rights. That’s about how Touching Land came about.

AW: Can you expand a little bit on what kinds of things you saw at the border and what made you want to work in a public defender’s office defending these individuals?

CRM: Absolutely. At the border there are trailers where some immigrants resided. A border patrol officer told me, “We usually throw two apples into the trailer and wait 24 hours, and whoever decides to not sign a self-deportation order, they’re the ones that have the right to claim asylum.” Again, I did not see them do this with my own eyes, but I could tell that situations at the border were not really following rules. You could tell that it was the Wild Wild West. Also, there are colonies all around the Rio Grande Valley where people live without sewer services, without water and where farm workers are abused horribly.

Seeing these injustices, diving into the history, and talking to these people and hearing their stories of bravery is at the core of the work that I do. I am driven to continue helping people directly and creating systems that can help support them. 

AW: What was it like for you being a Latina student in the field of law, which doesn’t accept many Latina women and is typically a difficult space for many minorities?

CRM: It was really hard. I was an art student that went to law school in Oklahoma. I was one of very few minorities, and I think I was one of two Latinas. We had meal plans at the school, because we really couldn’t afford to live outside of the school. I did not feel supported by many people in the school, some others were very wonderful, but I wasn’t invited into the space. It was a space that wasn’t made for people like me, when only 2 percent of the lawyer field is Latinas. I essentially was taught to learn as a white man, and carry myself as a white man, because that was the only way that I could be accepted. One of the few Black faculty members in the school who took me under her wing told me, “Listen, you can’t really be entirely yourself. You’re a Latina wanting to change the world. You have to fit the status quo, you have to keep the rules, or you won’t be admitted into the Bar.”

I’ll share with you that I felt so alienated in law school that my best friend was a man that is currently on death row. After meeting him at the public defender’s office he became like a dad to me, because he saw me not as a token, not as the minority, not as that girl with an accent, but he saw me as Carolina, fully, and entirely. He believed in me, and he encouraged me. I found more commonalities with a man in prison that I did with my own peers.

AW: You mentioned that you attended both art and law school. In general, those are very different fields. Did you feel that they had any intersections, and how did you combine both fields in your art workshops with immigrants? 

CRM: I live in the estuary of many different places: activism, law and art. To me, they’re actually not very different. In law, you are performing, you’re using words and statutes as your materials, but you’re essentially telling a story. The storytelling is what makes you a successful litigator and advocate. And with art, you’re using paint. For me, art is a form of documenting historical events, a form of documenting stories and things that we cannot quite understand with words. To me, art has so much potential to reach us as humans. This comes into play with why Touching Land. When we do our programming, there is no better material to equalize people than art. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD, or you went to school up until kindergarten, because in the end, a lump of clay is a lump of clay. The way that anyone manages a lump of clay is the same. There’s so much power in art that the law cannot explain. There are injustices I saw at the public defender’s office that still enrage me to this day, and those are the issues that I bring about in the art world. 

AW: Being a lawyer yourself, I’m sure you’ve been exposed to many inequities within the legal system. How do you do your best as a lawyer to help people through the system, while at the same time pushing against it?

CRW: Absolutely. I’m currently mentoring two kids that are at Yale University, and they feel like they don’t fit. I tell them, “Your bodies will recognize that these spaces were not meant for us, and so in a very physical and in a very emotional way, you will never fit that space. No matter what you do, no matter how white, or how assimilating you are, you will never feel okay in that space.” I think it’s very much the same with laws. For instance, in Oklahoma County, there’s a group of eight people that decide what crimes go to death row, and that committee is all white men. If death is an option for a jury in Oklahoma County, most of the time, if you are of color, you’re gonna get death no matter what. With those proportions and those statistics, people of color tend to choose life without parole. They tend to just choose not to have the agony of going through a trial, and regardless of a trial, it’s not gonna be fair.

In those situations, I think it’s enraging. In the public defender’s office, I previously got into trouble because I said that my client deserved light. He had been incarcerated for two years and had no access to sunlight and vitamin D that is essential for our bodies. I couldn’t represent this person properly because he was severely depressed. In response I got laughs from everybody, they told me, “This is a ridiculous right that you’re fighting for.” It is not to me. I think honoring people’s humanity, whether they’re in prison or not, is important. It’s hard to fight these systems of oppression for years and realize that nothing really changes. I’m hopeful that change is coming. I think there’s a lot of work to do and there’s no good answer, but to me, embracing joy and embracing what makes us unique is where we begin.

AW: Could you talk a bit more about Touching Land and how it has brought a community of immigrants together?

CRM: Touching Land is a non-profit, and within it there are basically two veins of work. These include the Empowerment and the Building Bridges programs. The Empowerment program brings together immigrants, both undocumented and documented. Immigrants come to a beautiful art studio in Brooklyn, which would otherwise be very expensive and inaccessible for most migrants. We disrupt that space and bring our joy and magic. For four weeks, we have classes there on knowing your rights, so what to do if ICE shows up at your door, what type of resources your children have at schools, and so on. The average salary of those that come to my classes is eight dollars per hour. We teach them that the minimum they should be making is $15 and how to negotiate for more. We assess what the needs of the group are, and then along with every class, they also build sculptures with their hands. It’s very kinesthetic and a beautiful way of learning because it’s very relaxing. While we teach them and give them very useful legal tools, those who escaped domestic violence or other horrible situations are comfortable and get to build a community. We give them resources so they know they have rights, and they feel empowerment in the tools and art they create.

The Building Bridges program is a mixed space where we bring empowered immigrants and also people of privilege, mostly white people in the neighboring community. We sit them together and they share their humanity while creating an art piece together. They share stories and take a little piece of each other with them. We are trying to give immigrants visibility, and trying to create not just allies but co-conspirators. In this way, we educate the community and help people navigate aggressive systems feeling a bit more empowered.

AW: Do you feel that your work as an immigration lawyer or as a community organizer has had more impact, or are both equally important?

CRM: I think personally, I have made more impact in community organizing and activism. As a lawyer I do help people but it’s a very transactional experience. It’s very emotional, very arbitrary, and very unpredictable. As a community builder, I’ve been able to make small impacts in my community and create a ripple effect. At the height of the family separation policy, I organized groups of women through social media to come to detention centers with me. I would bring 16 lawyers and translators with me, and we would work for an entire week representing women that were inside detention centers. That, to me, has more impact than working independently as a lawyer one-on-one with clients. I’ve also worked with special-needs immigrant mothers to build a playground in their neighborhood. Helping them advocate with local city council members to make this a reality was really amazing. Of course, if I change legislation, that’s a whole different thing, but my joy and my ability to bring joy to communities, I value much more.

AW: What were some of the conditions that you witnessed in detention centers?

CRM: First of all, we couldn’t touch women or children there. When you take away human touch, you take away books, essentially you take away their humanity. We saw a lot of really horrible things inside that were violations of human rights to a degree that I never thought I would see. I think ultimately the inability to hug a child when they’re crying, or a mom that is telling you about her sexual abuse experience, that’s really hard. Why are we incarcerating humans that are seeking help and legally exercising their right to seek refuge in a different country? That to me is unfathomable, and that’s why I organize groups to go down to these centers and be true agents of change within these communities.

AW: You’ve been very outspoken about ending policies like Title 42, a pandemic-era emergency health order that allows the president to turn away migrants at the Southern border. What other policies would you like to see either dismantled or enacted?

CRM: I would do away completely with detention centers, and create welcoming centers that would allow people to have resources. I am currently working on a database of resources for people that come in through the border. We are focused on helping people cross, getting doctors for those whose children are sick, and getting assistance for women who’ve crossed, 80 percent of whom have been raped while crossing. Many people, if they don’t have the right resources and drop their cases, become part of the estimated 12 million undocumented people in the country. Then they don’t get any financial help from the government like refugees do. I would create a stipend that would at least allow them to have resources. Immigrants are indispensable for our economy, and I would change farming laws as well to make sure that workers are treated properly. I would do away with the three- and 10-year bar, which is the rule where if you cross the border and stay here for more than six months or a year, then you have to go back to your country and can’t come back to the United States for three or 10 years, respectively. When that rule was created, we prevented migrants from working here and being able to go back home. We screwed Central Americans who depended on money made from farm work in this country and would then invest it in their homelands. We prevented them from having mobility. 

AW: How has your immigration work changed between the last two presidencies?

CRM: I stopped my legal practice a few years ago, and began focusing on Touching Land and pro-bono work. During the Trump era, I was doing policy advocacy for a nonprofit called MomsRising, but it was really hard because there was a change in law every Friday. Every Friday, at 6:00 PM, there would be a new memorandum, and it would be crazier than the one before. It was very taxing and very stressful, and that’s when a lot of my advocacy really took flight. Touching Land was born out of the Trump era. As an immigration lawyer, I felt like I wasn’t really going to be effective in that laws were not going to change. The main question for me was, “How can I make sure that my people are not going to get deported?”These are people that have been living here for 30 years. I really focused on Brooklyn, and I made sure that people understood not to talk to strangers or give their information to police that stopped them, for example. For me, it was about making sure that my community didn’t just disappear during the Trump era. I don’t have a practice because I really believe that my gift is in advocacy. 

AW: What do you think is the best way for people to get involved and make changes in their communities?

CRM: I always say, don’t be discouraged. Joy is an act of resistance. Audre Lorde said that, and I hold on to that so, so fiercely. It’s so easy to get depressed about all the horribleness that there is in the world, but we can change. All it takes to make change is to become active in your local organizations. If immigration is your thing, reach out to the Hispanic organization in your town and see how you can advocate. The system is really screwed, but we are so lucky to live in this country. Just being able to drive with my window down is a joy I can’t explain, because I couldn’t do that for my entire life in Colombia. I didn’t have this freedom and finally have it. It’s incredible to think, “You are free, you have all these rights, you don’t have to blend in with the community, you can be as flamboyant and beautiful as you are, and nobody can deport you.” In moments of despair, I go to my community, I go to joy, I go to the beauty and the magic of the impact that we’ve created, and I don’t stay in despair.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity