Alumna fights for refugees and renews faith in the American dream

Krish Vignarajah
Krish Vignarajah

Last year, Krish Vignarajah ’01 B.A., ’08 J.D. was running for governor of Maryland, part of a wave of women candidates running for office. Now, the former policy director for Michelle Obama is the first immigrant CEO of the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), an 80-year-old organization providing opportunities and support to immigrants. The work is personal to Vignarajah, whose own parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was just nine months old, fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka and settling in Maryland. When she looks at the recent spate of attacks on immigrants, from family separation to anti-immigrant chants and shootings, Vignarajah sees not only her own history, but her two-year-old daughter’s future. “In the last couple of months, we’ve seen two little girls about her age die — one in U.S. custody and one crossing the Rio Grande. When I see these children, I see my daughter,” she says.

In July, Vignarajah was invited by U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) to serve as a witness for unaccompanied minors — an area that LIRS is deeply invested in — before the House Appropriations Committee. LIRS is one of only two agencies approved to work with unaccompanied refugee minors in the U.S. When Vignarajah visited the Homestead migrant detention facility in Florida, there were 1,700 children housed there, with 144 children crowded into one room on bunk beds.

In her testimony, Vignarajah argued that these prison-like warehouses are both unnecessary and inflict lasting trauma. “We provide better alternatives — safe, small, family-centric homes,” she says. “We are building a national network of foster care parents. It’s an alternative that’s better for kids, and better for taxpayers — at one-third to one-half the cost.” In her testimony, Vignarajah noted that LIRS has a network of 400 foster care parents who are trained and approved to care for children in home settings until they can be reunified.

Vignarajah says she believes her message was heard. “There was a really inspiring bipartisan conversation in our hearing, and an agreement that we need to put these big factories out of business in favor of our model,” she says. “There’s clear agreement on the principles, but how quickly can we move?”

Vignarajah serves hot meals to migrant families recently released from ICE processing facilities
Vignarajah serves hot meals to migrant families recently released from ICE processing facilities as part of LIRS’s Respite and Welcome program in New Mexico.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced that all unaccompanied minors had been removed as of Aug. 3 from the Homestead facility, relocated to “an appropriate sponsor or transferred to a state-licensed facility within the ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement]”.

While LIRS has over 100 partners in 39 states, Vignarajah says its home city of Baltimore is “cosmopolitan and diverse” and “continues to be incredibly welcoming to immigrants.”

When she came to Yale as an undergraduate, and later attended Yale Law School, Vignarajah found a similar spirit of openness and support for realizing one’s potential. “Yale is this microcosm of the diversity and talent of America,” she says. “So many come to America because it represents this shining city on a hill. Yale represents the best and the brightest.”

She says it is easy to lose sight, amidst all the heated political rhetoric, of just how open and welcoming America remains. “Whether I’m visiting our operations along the southern border or meeting resettled refugees, I’m still so inspired by the welcoming nature of so many communities,” Vignarajah says. “As I meet with immigrants and communities, it renews my faith that the America that welcomed my family is alive and well.”

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