BATTERY PARK CITY — Father Thomas Greene knows Hiroko Kusuda through his role as provincial superior of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province in St. Louis.
In a pre-recorded video, he congratulated Kusuda for the Humanitarian Service Award she received at the Center for Migration Studies gala at The View at the Battery in Battery Park City.
“Every day that Jesuits pray at Mass for migrants, we’re praying that someone will help them,” Father Greene told her. “And so, in a very beautiful way, you are the answer to our prayers.”
In her acceptance speech, Kusuda said she once thought of herself as a “simple-minded” corporate lawyer in New Orleans.
But there was nothing simple about a personal goal Kusuda, who is from Japan, had driving her: She wanted to help others navigate the complicated immigration legal system in the U.S.
The opportunity to do that came from Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
And so began the repeated 400-mile round trips from New Orleans to the massive federal detention facility in Oakdale, Louisiana.
At first, Kusuda worked alone but eventually recruited help from other lawyers.
Kusuda confirmed she faced multiple challenges when, in the early 2000s, she started helping detainees at the federal detention center in Central Louisiana.
“Every time I went to the detention center in Oakdale, people asked me, ‘Are you visiting your boyfriend?’ Or, ‘How old are you?’ ” Kusuda said. “And every time I said, ‘It’s none of your business.’ ”
The detention center authorities were not amused.
“They made me wait three hours in a waiting area to punish me,” she said.
Some challenges were not man-made. The twin hurricanes of Katrina and Rita in 2005 displaced not only Kusuda’s clients but her own family as well.
“I don’t know how many hundreds of miles I racked up,” Kusuda said. “I used my little Nissan Sentra. The car actually ended up dying.”
But Kusuda persisted, with compassion and grace, according to Donald Kerwin, executive director of CMS.
“The job didn’t just encompass the Oakdale detention facility,” he continued, “but also the parish jails in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana.”
Kusuda managed CLINIC’s Louisiana Deportation and Detention Representation Project, providing technical assistance to Catholic diocesan immigration programs in Gulf Coast states.
She also co-founded the Louisiana Immigrant Representation Working Group, which consists of private, non-profit, and government attorneys and works to boost the legal representation of immigrants in Louisiana.
Kusuda now trains future immigration lawyers as a clinic professor and director of the Immigration Law Section of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
“So many people have burned out and left this profession,” she said. “But the only reason that I’ve been able to sustain my work is because of the friendship and support of this network of people who are committed to doing this work.”