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Equal Justice at Work: December 2012

Executive Director's Corner

On December 10, we celebrated Human Rights Day.  When you look at the vast majority of work we do at Equal Justice Works to help disenfranchised people assert their legal rights, you realize that most of our work is related to human rights.  Whether a Fellow is working on behalf of veterans, disaster victims, LGBT communities, or immigrants, human rights is at the core of all the work they do.

Take for instance Jessica Jones, a 2011 Fellow sponsored by Steptoe and Johnson LLP who is working at the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, DC. Jessica works on behalf of children who flee to the U.S. hoping to escape from violence in their home countries. Frightened and desperately seeking safety, these unaccompanied children most often cross the border without immigration paperwork and are immediately apprehended by border control. They are held in immigration facilities where they receive perfunctory education about their legal rights, which do not include the guarantee of an attorney. Jessica’s work is devoted to improving the process for these children to gain legal asylum in the United States.

Also working on behalf of immigrants is 2011 Public Defender Corps Member Felipe Alexandre.  Felipe is working in New York to ensure that immigrants brought through the criminal justice system are fully informed about their rights and the immigration consequences of court decisions for non-citizens. Felipe has seen many clients who have been coerced into signing documents without knowing the full consequences of what they’re signing, including innocents signing statements of guilt when they were not provided with adequate translation, or because they were told it would be the best choice for them to avoid punishment, only to find out later it meant automatic deportation.   

Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on December 10, but at Equal Justice Works we are working to make every day human rights day. Let’s work together to make sure every voice counts, no matter what, every day of the year.


Fellows on the Front

Advocating for the rights of migrant children

Every day, unaccompanied children cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. seeking refuge from violence in their home countries. On their journey, these children are vulnerable to rape and assault, and an alarming number of them become victims of traffickers and smugglers. Once they get to the border, they are apprehended by Customs and Border Protection and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Children’s Services. The facilities where they are placed range from lock-down shelters to designated beds at juvenile detention centers, and once in custody these children have no guaranteed right to a lawyer. Equal Justice Works Fellow Jessica Jones (2011), sponsored by Steptoe and Johnson LLP, is working hard to improve the conditions and treatment of migrant children by promoting laws and policies that increase their protection and access to justice.

Jessica first learned about the plight of migrant children in law school when she wrote a paper about family immigration detention. “I was astonished at how children could be placed in penal-like facilities solely on the basis of their immigration status,” she says, “with no rights to an attorney and without any review of their detention.” This is what made her seek an internship and later her Fellowship at the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, DC.  Throughout the course of her Fellowship she has interviewed over 70 unaccompanied migrant children whose stories have helped inform her policy work.

“I continue to see children held in overly restrictive immigration facilities,” she says. “For children without a sponsor to be released to, they can remain in facilities for several months or longer. They also have no guaranteed right to a lawyer. Failing to provide legal representation is a failure of due process and is in violation of international human rights law, specifically our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Recently, Jessica co-wrote Forced from Home, a report on migrant children in the U.S. that is filled with the stories of these children. “The report has already done much to raise awareness about unaccompanied children in immigration custody and the reasons for why they migrate to the United States,” Jessica says.

Working on policy is an important and often overlooked aspect of law that many law students might not think about in school. Jessica did policy clerkships while she was a law student, and focused on children’s rights. She is now directly applying her education to affecting real change in an area she is passionate about. With a young lawyer as dedicated as Jessica advocating for better laws and policies, the future is hopeful for migrant children in the U.S.


Fellows on the Front

A Public Defender Corps Member defending immigrants in Rochester, NY

When Felipe Alexandre began law school, he intended to become a corporate attorney at an American law firm in China. After his first year of law school, he landed a dream summer internship at an American firm in Beijing, but after just a week on the job his excitement began to fade. He felt he was missing a few key ingredients for job satisfaction as a lawyer: interacting with people and helping them. He decided to head down the path of becoming a public defender. Upon graduating, he applied for a Fellowship with Public Defender Corps and headed to Alabama for an intensive training at the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC). As a member of the Public Defender Corps class of 2011, Felipe was one of the first lawyers to enter into this joint program between Equal Justice Works and the SPDTC. He is stationed in Rochester, New York, and has worked extensively with the immigrant population there.

One of Felipe’s duties as a public defender is to make sure his clients are fully apprised of the consequences of any paperwork they sign. One client had been charged with stealing items from the store where he worked. He signed an admission when he was arrested for the offense, which was his first, but he was insistent that he believed he had signed paperwork related to worker’s compensation for a slip and fall accident. “He was under the impression that he had signed a waiver of further medical coverage when in fact he was admitting to stealing the listed items,” Felipe says. The interpreter provided to the client was not an objective third party, but a manager from the store. And, while it should have been simple for Felipe to obtain the document himself to look at it, he says he “asked for this document for weeks, always receiving the runaround from the store.” Felipe is still working on this case. “Discovery should be simple and easy and not pulling teeth like it has been in this case,” he says. “I won’t let my client plead to anything until we are apprised of all the evidence the store has.” The stalling that Felipe has been experiencing in this case does not deter him from doing his job, though. On the contrary, he is even more dedicated to providing the best representation possible for his client.

 “As a first generation immigrant myself,” Felipe says, “I have an interest in helping non-citizens resolve the immigration consequences of their criminal cases.” Felipe has helped many people through the criminal justice system in Rochester, making sure that non-citizens are apprised of the immigration consequences that could flow from their decisions in their criminal cases. “A disposition involving no jail time might seem like the bargain of the year for an immigrant facing criminal charges,” he says. “But often those convictions could trigger deportation if immigration law is not properly considered.” The stakes are high for many of Felipe’s clients, and he is dedicated to making sure that they understand the options available to them and that all people have their constitutional right to representation and a fair trial.

Felipe has recently become the director of the New York State Defender Association’s Criminal Defense Immigration Project. His job will be educating public defenders across the state on how to help their clients navigate the complex intersection of criminal and immigration law. “This fellowship has laid the foundation for the kind of attorney I want to be,” Felipe says. “The training I received at the SPDTC and the passionate people I met there inspire me every day. I will treasure my experiences there for the rest of my life, and I know they will define the attorney I will be. What a privilege to start one’s legal career in such a dynamite way!”


AmeriCorps Update

Guest Post by Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Marcy Wehling, a legal first-responder to Superstorm Sandy

When Superstorm Sandy hit at the end of October this year, I was very concerned for my friends in New York City.  I went to law school in Queens and lived in Brooklyn, so New York City was home to me for several years.  I began following the legal developments closely, and before long felt moved to get involved. I contacted Equal Justice Works to find out whether AmeriCorps would deploy any of the legal Fellows to do disaster relief legal work. Almost immediately, I found out that AmeriCorps said yes (“Godspeed” wrote the AmeriCorps official who approved the request.) and that I should start researching placement options. With Equal Justice Works’ guidance and Legal Assistance of Western New York, my regular AmeriCorps service site in Rochester, I found the need greatest at Staten Island Legal Services (SILS), an office of Legal Services New York City (NYC).

While awaiting my deployment, I became involved with a group of individuals trying to improve access to food after the storm. People were being turned away from grocery stores with no electricity when trying to use food stamps, including special “disaster food stamps”. This benefit is accessed via EBT (electronic benefits transfer), similar to how credit cards are used at stores. Many store owners were not aware that the law allowed them to accept manual vouchers.   I conducted legal research and wrote an instruction guide so that victims could use their manual vouchers. I collaborated with a couple of grassroots organizations in New York City to distribute this information. They sent out volunteers on foot and bicycle to canvas stores in the Rockaways and Red Hook and provide this information. The last report I received stated that at least a dozen known stores had begun using the manual voucher system, providing access to affordable, nutritious food to hundreds, if not thousands, of low-income New Yorkers.  It’s amazing what can get done, even from far away.   

On December 3, I came to Staten Island and was immediately put to work. In planning this deployment, it was expected that I would need to provide assistance mostly around public benefits and unemployment. However, the true need has been with the legal issues surrounding FEMA disaster relief claims and insurance denials.  When trying to explain what it has been like working here, I could only describe my days as consumed by a rapid fire of open book, timed pop quizzes.

I was assigned numerous cases during my first week and staffed the Legal Services NYC Sandy hotline. However, my first glimpse at the devastation of Sandy was not until after my first week. On my day off, I drove through Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay to see houses damaged and destroyed, people lined up at hot food and supply tents, and piles upon piles of garbage and soggy household contents. I could not believe this was the state of things six weeks after the storm.

I staffed a legal clinic out of Saint Margaret Mary Church the Sunday after my first week. FEMA and the Small Business Administration have representatives there to assist with disaster assistance and loan applications, and the neighborhood firefighters were cooking chicken on giant grills outside. I talked to families who were scared their houses were destroyed and individuals who were awaiting insurance determinations before they could make repairs and move back into their homes.

I have conducted legal intake and provided advice to at least 25 individuals and families, have participated in two legal clinics, and have logged around 80 hours so far, only half-way through my deployment. The case work has been challenging and rewarding - so much so that I decided to stay an additional week at SILS, with support from Equal Justice Works and Legal Assistance of Western New York.  I am grateful to SILS and AmeriCorps for the opportunity to be of service to my fellow New Yorkers.  I know that SILS is excited to have two more Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows—Jamie Rodriguez and Zach Tusinger—come from Joplin, Missouri, in January.


Educational Debt Tip of the Month

New Year’s Resolutions and Christmas Gifts

Last month we told you about the Pay As You Earn plan, a new income-driven repayment plan, and said we would let you know when it was available. Now, thanks to early implementation by the Department of Education, we’re able to let you know that eligible borrowers will be able to enroll in Pay As You Earn starting December 21.

Of course, only federal loans are eligible for Pay As You Earn, other income-driven repayment plans like Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. But to be eligible to borrow federal loans, you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It’s also required to gain access to federal grants and scholarships, and many states and schools use the information to determine eligibility for their different aid programs. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s not worth your time: everyone qualifies for some form of aid, and you should keep your options open.

If you haven’t done so already, you can still fill out the current FAFSA for the 2012-2013 school year. The federal deadline is June 30, but states and schools may have different (and earlier) deadlines. Grants and scholarships often have limited funds, so fill it out as soon as you can. It shouldn’t take long and you’re able to make corrections and changes after you submit it.

The FAFSA for the 2013-2014 school year will be available be available January 1. Make completing it one of your New Year’s resolutions!

Do you know someone who is concerned about their student debt? Give them our comprehensive new eBook, Take Control of Your Future: A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt, for Christmas. It’s available now from the Kindle store: just click “Give As A Gift.”