This fall President Obama issued an executive order as part of an initiative to address immigration issues around the country. The executive order took place on Nov. 20, but for many the plan has only increased the confusion surrounding an already complex issue. This was apparent at a recent informational forum held at the regional high school. Almost every seat was filled and one hand after another was raised as people asked questions about their individual situations.

At the podium, Rebecca McCarthy, an immigration attorney who recently returned to work on the Island, fielded each question, responding when necessary through a translator.

Executive order on immigration law has created lots of confusion. — Alison L. Mead

“Before I go into the details of President Obama’s administrative action, it’s important to understand the difference between administrative action and immigration reform,” she said. “As of today, Congress has not passed an immigration reform bill. The reason why this is important to understand is that executive actions are temporary actions.” Ms. McCarthy went on to explain some key pieces of the president’s executive order as it pertains to immigrants currently living in the U.S., focusing particularly on deferred action for parents and children.

“It’s going to still be a long process,” she said. “So the best thing to do is get your documents together. If you believe that you qualify, contact an immigration attorney to make sure that you qualify and stay on top of what’s happening with the government.”

The forum was one of several that Ms. McCarthy will be hosting to help educate the Island’s immigrant population on how the executive order may or may not change their current situation.

Ms. McCarthy, 36, was born on the Island, well, Falmouth actually, a debate that continues in her family as to whether she is a true Islander or not. She spent her first three years here before her parents moved to Storrs, Conn., where her father, Michael McCarthy, worked as a football coach and guidance counselor. Her father is now the director of the guidance department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Ms. McCarthy majored in human development and family relations at the University of Connecticut. In her sophomore year she took a year off to serve in an AmeriCorps program in South Carolina, traveling around the southeast performing community service. After graduation she moved to New York city.

“I went to New York and I was trying to figure out what to do next. Because of my AmeriCorps experience I had always been interested in law and public service,” she said. “And so I decided to apply to law school.”

The next couple of years she spent clerking at the Paul, Weiss law firm full time and going to New York Law School at night. “I didn’t sleep much. The job in itself was pretty intense. It was also a good learning experience and gave me a good foundation.”

After working as a corporate lawyer for a few years, she decided it was time for a change. “They do so much amazing work, but it just wasn’t why I went to law school,” she said. So she and her boyfriend moved to Phoenix, Ariz., in 2008 where one of her brothers was living.

“I had a huge interest in immigration, and in Phoenix, especially at that time, there were so many changes and so much going on I thought that it would be a great experience. It turned into about six years out there.”

Rebecca McCarthy spoke about immigration issues at the regional high school. — Alison L. Mead

Ms. McCarthy joined a small but very busy law firm due to the controversial immigration raids at the time initiated by Sheriff Joseph Arpaio.

“It was right before Senate Bill (SB) 1070,” she said. “All of that went into effect when I was out there.” SB 1070 was an aggressive state law that attempted to criminalize being present in the state of Arizona without proper immigration documents. It also gave police the authority to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained if there was “reasonable suspicion” that they were not in the U.S. legally.

“For years I had many clients that were just coming into Arizona to work — they were seasonal workers. At that time it wasn’t enforced the way that it is now,” Ms. McCarthy said. “All they were doing was entering, working and going back to Mexico. It was work that was needed in Arizona, but it also caused a lot of animosity because people were entering without status and without documents, and there was the whole argument of taking jobs from U.S. workers. And I think when the economy started to get bad that’s when it was really heightened.”

Ms. McCarthy also worked with clients who were being interviewed by the Department of Justice, which was investigating Sheriff Arpaio. During the raids, Sheriff Arpaio would take all of the documents at the place of employment and then prosecute the workers individually. This was a roundabout way of enforcing federal law, resulting in individuals being prosecuted for felonies, which then made them ineligible for bond in state and federal courts and adversely affected their immigration status.

“That was a huge part of the work I was doing down there,” she said.

After six years in Arizona, Ms. McCarthy felt that it was time to move back to the Island to be closer to her family. “I wanted to come home,” she said.

While she has yet to do any marketing, her client base has grown due to word of mouth. Last winter, a friend of the family referred someone to her who was set to be deported. Thanks to Ms. McCarthy’s representation, that particular community member was able to remain in the U.S.

“That was my way of establishing and proving that I am someone who does immigration law and I will travel to Boston and do whatever is necessary in order to go to court,” she said.

This fall, Ms. McCarthy volunteered to work pro bono for two weeks at the Artesia Detention Center in New Mexico — a holding cell for women and children seeking asylum from Central American countries. Lynn Ditchfield accompanied her and also served as a translator, an experience the pair discussed in an October forum at the high school.

“I just learned so much about the present conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and asylum law because I was just entrenched in it for two weeks,” Ms. McCarthy said. “We were working non-stop with this group of women. It was pretty amazing to be able to do that. It was pretty tough emotionally, hearing all of these emotional stories and explaining cut-and-dry legal terms and being strong for them. There are such high numbers of violence against women in these countries . . . it was hard to hear the stories of assault and rape and child abduction.”

She is still following up on the cases she worked on in Artesia. But mostly, Ms. McCarthy is looking forward to providing the Island community with her services and information, learning Portuguese, teaching a human rights course and, in her downtime, enjoying the beach and walking the trails on the Island.

“I’m really looking forward to this year because I think that I can be more active in the Island community,” she said. “For the past two years, I’ve been here and I’ve met many people, but I really feel like now this year I’m settled. I’m here and I’m ready to be more involved.”