Photos by Jason Minto
Neda Biggs never knew she was searching for justice when she traveled overseas in her 20s. In her mind, she needed a respite from the pain that followed her as she tried to make sense of her father’s tragic suicide. Her foundation collapsed at the age of 17 with his death, and she struggled for years to find solid footing. “It was a time of social turmoil and questioning. I was questioning social issues and my own situation,” recalls Biggs, 63, of Smyrna.
Feeling lost and unsure of what to do with her life, the Dover native headed toward Asia, traveling on different occasions to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Nepal and Israel, among other countries. But, in fact, she was embarking on a lifelong quest to fight for the underclass, which has taken her to schools, prisons, churches and now the heart of southern Delaware’s immigrant community. She has evolved into an attorney and legal advocate for immigrant victims of abuse and violence.
An otherwise quiet and understated woman, Biggs has become a fervent voice in Delaware for immigrants who have faced the worst possible abuses. She now works, along with like-minded colleagues, at La Esperanza, a multiservice community center that strives to integrate and empower Latino immigrants. At the nondescript, two-story building off North Race Street in Georgetown, Biggs keeps files on the nearly 200 clients she handles at any given moment. With lives full of uncertainty and despair, the most vulnerable of immigrants see her as a pillar of strength.
She has put into action a law known as the Violence Against Women Act, pushed by Vice President Joe Biden when he was a senator in 1994. An amendment, the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000, later created new forms of relief for immigrant victims of violent crime, sexual assault or trafficking. The law reflects the fact that undocumented immigrant women are susceptible to abuse and exploitation at different times, from their entry into the United States to their work situation and even in their homes. U visas now make it easier for victims of police-documented violence to seek asylum in the United States. Biggs’ combination of legal expertise and certification in mental-health counseling, along with her extensive contacts with referral agencies and professionals, allows her to deliver comprehensive services—all at no cost to the victims. She unravels complicated cases, offering hope.
“The resilience that she has to keep going, even when judges have said no over the phone, is so impressive,“ says Claudia Peña Porretti, La Esperanza’s executive director, who also holds a law degree. Biggs will persist until they hear her and the plight of her clients, Peña Porretti adds, and she does it all in an unassuming manner. “To help give someone a life in the United States—and know that you made it possible for them to say, ‘I am a legal permanent resident’—is huge. Yet she doesn’t see what a gift she provides,” Peña Porretti says. Biggs’ dedication was recognized by the Delaware Commission for Women, which inducted her into its Hall of Fame. Past commission chairwoman Nancy P. Fleming noted that Biggs’ profound commitment to the immigrant community, coupled with her bilingual skills and holistic response to the needs of her clients, defines her as an extraordinary victim advocate. “She uses her intelligence, tremendous heart and flawless work ethic to serve and empower those who face serious life challenges,” Fleming explains.
Meeting Mother Teresa was a life-changing experience for Biggs. She was 26 and had earned a bachelor’s degree in special education, yet she quickly discovered that the career choice didn’t really feed her inquisitive nature and desire to learn about a variety of people. She left the country again, this time to India. On a trip to Calcutta, Biggs went to an early-morning Mass one day with acquaintances from the hostel where she was staying. Mother Teresa was also in the pews and later greeted the young women in Biggs’ group. “She shook my hand and said, ‘You girls get your hands busy with God’s work,’” Biggs recalls. “She was a tiny woman with a very strong handshake and powerful words.” A Roman Catholic by upbringing, Biggs heard the words echo in her head.
Shortly after the encounter, she saw an August 1977 Time magazine cover story. The article cast a spotlight on the “destitute and desperate in the land of plenty,” calling them the “unreachables.” Ironically, Biggs read the article about Americans who can’t escape poverty as she walked through a third-world city that suffered from poverty, destitution and social stratification. “The article really spoke to me and helped me realize that I want to work with people who are disenfranchised at home,” she recalls. She expected to return to the United States and head to inner-city Philadelphia. But what followed was a long and winding road that would place her in front of Delaware’s underclass—special-education students, inmates, migrant workers and now undocumented immigrants.
A woman with a quest for learning and academic enrichment, Biggs pursued university studies that deepened her understanding of a variety of marginalized people. In addition to her bachelor’s degree in sociology, she has a master’s in special education, a master’s in counseling, a juris doctorate and significant doctoral coursework in criminal justice and family studies. She has been licensed to practice law in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania since the mid-1990s. In Delaware, she handles only immigration cases that fall under federal law. The Delaware Bar Association requires the equivalent of an internship in a firm to be accepted to the bar, which is difficult for a busy attorney practicing solo to schedule. Yet Biggs’ extensive understanding of immigration victim issues takes her, upon request, to speak at workshops and training sessions across Delaware and the United States.
Biggs consults with Claudia Peña Porretti, executive director of La Esperanza in Georgetown.
Though housed at La Esperanza, Biggs is an independent contractor. A grant pays for a salary considered quite modest for an attorney. Despite not being a regular staff member, Biggs is a mainstay and the heart of the organization as it relates to resolving immigration issues. Now working alongside Peña Porretti, Biggs is in a better position to work to empower the immigrants whom she sees. La Esperanza recently received news that the organization would be receiving its first direct federal grant: almost $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice through its Office on Violence Against Women. “We plan to expand our victim services program and increase our direct legal services staff by hiring a family-law attorney and bilingual paralegal. Our goal is to increase our capacity to provide much-needed, vital domestic relations services, resources and assistance to Latino victims and survivors to empower them to become self-sufficient and lead independent and safe lives,” Peña Porretti says.
The team of dedicated advocates for immigrants counts on Sister Ascension Banegas, co-founder of La Esperanza Community Center in Georgetown, who was also inducted into the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women. At 82, Sister Ascension remains fiercely devoted to the fight for justice for hardworking immigrants living in poverty in Delaware. The agency, with a budget of less than $500,000 and just 15 employees, serves about 5,000 people a year. “Everything we do here is related to immigration. That is how we have come to know so much about immigration law and services,” Peña Porretti says.
The specialization can be emotionally draining. On any given day, staff members can arrive at work and learn that a client has been deported and separated from his or her family, leaving them all even more vulnerable. “This is very challenging to deal with on a regular basis, and it’s a challenge to continue to fight when there are people in the community who have other opinions,” Peña Porretti notes. Indeed, fighting for the rights of immigrants, including those without a visa, is tough as well—particularly in recent months as news of children arriving alone to the United States has stirred anger and debate. Peña Porretti and Biggs both know that some people see undocumented immigrants as criminals.
Historically, people have fought for basic human rights when laws are discriminatory and inhumane, and they contend that current immigration laws are the same. When people live with poverty, food insecurity, joblessness and violence, and when you have to wait for 10 years because the law says that you can’t come into the U.S. because of a quota system, that’s an obstacle, they say. “What I say to them is we don’t have an immigrant problem. We have laws that are broken and antiquated,” Peña Porretti adds. Biggs agrees. “We also have an obligation to uphold the rights that these immigrants have,” she says.
Part of Biggs’ work involves feeding immigrants with hope, even when logic defies it. Paula, a 39-year-old Guatemalan woman, lived on edge for weeks as she awaited the arrival of her 12-year-old daughter. She had left the girl with her mother years ago to escape an abusive partner and seek a better life for her child. But time passed too quickly, and the girl decided to follow the thousands of other children who cross the border to reunite with their parents. In her pocket, she carried her mother’s cellphone number. But for more than 30 days, Paula didn’t hear her voice. Peña Porretti saw Biggs talk about the child as if her safety was not in question. “Logically, I am thinking it has been 30 days. If she has arrived in the States and has a [telephone] number, someone would have contacted the mother. I asked Neda, ‘Should we be preparing her for both options?’” Peña Porretti recalls. Biggs was adamant that they needed to keep Paula’s hope alive. For Paula, Biggs’ support over those weeks was invaluable. Her daughter contacted her on the 40th day and is now living with her mother, awaiting an immigration hearing. “She was the one person who was optimistic and kept me sane. She is an angel in our lives,” Paula says.
As luck would have it, Biggs’ determination with another client took her face-to-face with a Texas judge known as “El Diablo,” or the Devil. The client, a victim of domestic violence who had just moved to Texas from Delaware, had a hearing soon after she first met with Biggs. The judge denied a change of venue. Rather than complicate the case, Biggs took a flight to San Antonio to meet the judge and ask for a change in person, which he granted. She paid for that trip herself. “I do it all because I am inspired by them,” says Biggs. “They’re people with strong family values, resourcefulness and kindness. I also recognize that there aren’t that many people who can do this particular work, particularly because the clients don’t have any money.”
Biggs also likes to help her clients by showing them the light even in their darkest moments. The nightmares that they endure from physical and emotional abuse are what turn out to change their lives, she explains. In some ways, Biggs understands the idea. For years, she felt paralyzed by the pain and void created by her father’s death. But her travels healed her and introduced her to people very different from those she knew as a youth. “Today, I know that his death pushed me into the world and away from the life I would have had in Dover,” she says. “Without a doubt, my life would have gone in a very different direction.”