Juan Osuna: A Tribute to an Indispensable Person
The shocking, very sad news came in a phone call from a mutual friend: Juan Osuna had died. Until his retirement in May, Juan held the critical position of Director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the part of the Department of Justice that houses both the immigration courts and their appellate body, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Losing Juan so soon is a terrible coda. He had more to give and was doing so.
I don’t recall when I first met Juan. He was one of those people who was just always there, an indispensable person in your work life and friendships. Our time in federal service overlapped somewhat, so it was to be expected that as colleagues in the Justice Department, we would work together and cooperate, forming a natural kinship by being members of the same team.
However, it has been since I’ve been at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), reaching out to government officials from the think tank world that I came to fully experience and appreciate Juan’s professionalism and admirable personal qualities. He has been an invaluable, reliable, trusted contributor to our work. Whenever we asked him for information, invited him to participate in our events, or sought his expertise on the whys and wherefores of immigration court matters, he willingly responded and helped. He was a good friend to MPI, while always remaining true to his role and responsibilities as a government official.
He spoke at numerous public events, shared insights at many MPI convenings designed to generate dialogue and bipartisanship between government and nongovernmental actors in a safe space, and made EOIR staff available to answer questions about how our complex, often obscure immigration judicial system works in practice. This has been especially true on work MPI has been doing to fully understand the current crisis in the nation’s political asylum system, of which the immigration courts are a key part.
The dialogue and transparency that Juan fostered sometimes ran up against bureaucratic roadblocks. He was a skillful player in finding ways to overcome form when it got in the way of substance and always went the extra mile to make it possible to collaborate and communicate.
This willingness and savvy were especially commendable given the difficulties of his job. EOIR is an agency that has often been neglected by the executive branch and Congress alike, as well as one that has suffered political misuse by administrations of both parties from time to time. Juan withstood the pressures of those periods by always maintaining a steady hand and commitment to advancing EOIR’s mission above all else.
Juan’s unwavering devotion to public service is shared by his wife, Wendy Young, a strong force in immigration advocacy as the Executive Director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). KIND provides pro bono legal representation for young immigrants in vulnerable situations. Juan and Wendy are the personification of a Washington power couple in the immigration world we inhabit.
They also have each played key roles on different sides of difficult issues, such as policies regarding the child migrant flows of recent years. My colleagues and I mused more than once about what their dinner table conversations might have been like. However, what all who were acquainted with them knew for a certainty is that they were both deeply principled, highly respected leaders pursuing values of justice and fairness. I am heartsick for Wendy at the loss of her life partner.
Juan was, in the words colleagues shared in recent days, “deeply respected,” “such a nice and likeable person,” and “caring, thoughtful, enormously knowledgeable.” As we at MPI and so many others throughout the immigration world contemplate work without his store of knowledge and fundamental human decency readily at hand, we mourn that his was a life cut too short, just as we honor him for a life well lived.
Thank you, Juan, for the many gifts you gave and the important mark you left on the lives of so many. We will miss you very much. Godspeed.
Doris Meissner is Director of the Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program and was Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.