Maria F. Garcia-Syngros

The Project

Maria Fernanda (she/her/hers) will represent and advise low-income immigrant women and children placed in time-restricted proceedings in Immigration Court while pursuing impact litigation to ensure systemic failings in these proceedings are addressed.

The Dedicated Docket is a program that places thousands of low-income immigrant families in time-restricted proceedings: Their cases must be adjudicated within 300 days of their first hearing before an immigration judge. This is an impossibly short timeframe to locate an attorney, gather necessary supporting evidence, and prepare legal arguments. The families, who predominantly speak a language other than English and have no legal training, must face the convoluted immigration system without a legal advocate. These families are five times less likely to win their cases compared to those who are represented by an attorney.

Fellowship Plans

Maria Fernanda will provide direct representation to immigrants on the Dedicated Docket and conduct outreach to pro se litigants. She will also explore impact litigation to stop the Department of Justice from continuing to implement the Dedicated Docket. Finally, she will directly represent women and children who have been ordered removed by reopening their cases to assert asylum based on novel arguments; for example, by arguing that the truncated nature of the Dedicated Docket proceedings violates basic due process rights.

Media

Maria F. Garcia-syngros ’22 Is Named a 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

I am incredibly honored to be an Equal Justice Works Fellow. This Fellowship has allowed me to meet a need in the immigration system that would otherwise go unaddressed.

Maria F. Garcia-Syngros /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Victoria provides affirming legal representation for queer immigrants and engages in community-based education and outreach to serve all LGBTQ+ races of color, with a particular focus on expanding UnLocal’s services to include outreach to Asian Pacific Islander communities.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) immigrants face unique challenges due to their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity. Some LGBTQ+ immigrants come to escape persecution, homophobic discrimination, or trauma from their home countries. There is also a need for stronger community infrastructure among queer immigrants in light of homophobia or anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially among asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, and LGBTQ+ Asian Americans (API), who are often overlooked. This leaves a visible gap in addressing queer immigrants’ and LGBTQ+ APIs’ legal needs. This project seeks to ensure that such people receive culturally sensitive and affirming legal services.

Victoria is an LGBTQ+ Korean immigrant, lying at the exact intersections of an Asian-American, LGBTQ+ individual, and an immigrant. She therefore identifies and empathizes with the community she works with and wants to see LGBTQ+ APIs represented in the law, LGBTQ+ community, and society at large.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Victoria has:

  • Represented and advised over 30 individuals from UnLocal, its partner clinics, and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA).
  • Collaborated with the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (NCAPACD) and the LGBTQ+ Taskforce for policy, advocacy, and awareness efforts through a collaborative policy letter and a live web panel.
  • Attended clinics to assist with intake for LGBTQ+ immigrants and DACA clients and formed partnerships with CBST and local API groups.
  • Achieved victory in an LGBTQ+ client’s asylum case in Immigration Court.

Next Steps

In the next year, Victoria plans to:

  • Continue to provide direct legal representation to LGBTQ+ immigrants of color via the current docket with a focus on asylum.
  • Take more clients independently and represent them through the immigration and asylum process.
  • Help solidify and maintain partnerships with local API and LGBTQ+ affirming organizations for additional clients, education and outreach, and/or funding, and reach out to more organizations throughout the year to build UnLocal’s reach to the API community.
  • Continue to develop and present educational resources and seminars on queer and/or queer immigrant issues for local communities, including translating them for API communities.

Media

Building Connections in the Asian and Pacific Islander and LGBTQ+ Asian and Pacific Islander Communities

Introducing the 2020 Fellows Fighting for the LGBTQ+ Community

What I am fighting for is written in my face and identity. I want to be an advocate for my own intersectional community and make a difference on their behalf.

Victoria Jeon /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Yael seeks to enforce refugees’ rights to be safely reunited with their families, through lawsuits seeking prompt adjudication of delayed follow-to join applications, community outreach, and systemic advocacy.

During the difficult, sometimes chaotic flight to safety, refugee families are often separated and unable to travel together. Acknowledging this reality, the Follow-to-Join (FTJ) process was created as an immigration pathway specifically for refugee and asylee family reunification. Processing standstills have kept thousands of refugee families separated for years, often living in precarious conditions as they wait to reunify. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these delays. As the backlog grows, follow-to-join refugees need systemic advocacy efforts to enforce their right to be reunited with their families in the United States.

Yael’s family history drives her desire to build a career assisting immigrants and refugees as they face an increasingly complex and hostile immigration system.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

So far during the Fellowship, Yael has:

  • Litigated in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on behalf of two Sudanese refugees, now resettled in the Baltimore area, who have been waiting years to be reunified with their families
  • Investigated processing delays through the Freedom of Information Act and other litigation
  • Contributed to a public report and published a summary describing the causes of follow-to-join delay and making recommendations for addressing those delays

Next Steps

In the next year, Yael plans to:

  • Develop further litigation strategies to reunify refugees who have been separated from their families
  • Expand advocacy and litigation to address security vetting inefficiencies that contribute to delays.
  • Coordinate with pro bono and organizational partners to support litigation to address delayed FTJ petitions and reunify refugees with their families.

Media

Opinion: I’m a Sudanese refugee. This Father’s Day, all I want is to be reunited with my family.

Sudanese Refugees File Suit Over Delayed Reunification Apps

'No child should be away from their mom': Trump policies make it nearly impossible for refugees to come to US

As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I feel deeply committed to using my law degree to assist those who are fleeing persecution in my own lifetime.

Yael Ben Tov /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Ben investigated and published information about automated decision-making systems used in high-risk government services throughout the criminal justice cycle. Ben educated the public, advocates, and legislators working to address and combat the inherent biases in both the underlying data and algorithms used in the criminal cycle.

The increasing reliance on data and algorithms to make decisions about the length and severity of punishment among other important determinations is an underappreciated trend in the criminal justice system today. One example is the algorithm used to determine recidivism risk and to set bail, commonly referred to as a “risk assessment,” which has been shown to have disparate impacts on people of color. Other algorithms are used to determine eligibility for government benefits and more. Yet despite the increasingly significant role that these algorithms play in our justice system, they operate largely in a black box. Bringing them to light and instituting proper accountability and testing procedures will be essential to control the disparate impact these systems are having on underrepresented and over-incarcerated communities.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Ben has:

  • Testified in support of a bill establishing transparency and accountability in government procurement of automated decision-making systems in front of the Washington State Legislatures and submitted written testimony to the Massachusetts State Legislature
  • Published a report called Liberty At Risk, featuring significant FOIA documents, legal analysis, and recommendations around the use of Pretrial Risk Assessments
  • Worked with government agencies and other organizations to help understand and strategize about the use and impacts of automated decision-making systems.
  • Published and maintained web pages highlighting open government work, legal analysis, and critical educational context

Next Steps

Ben will transition to a Counsel role at EPIC, where he will do similar work leading AI and Human Rights work both inside and out of the Criminal context.

Media

AI legislation must address bias in algorithmic decision-making systems

In California, voters must choose between cash bail and algorithms

An Algorithm That Grants Freedom, or Takes It Away

Algorithms Were Supposed to Fix the Bail System. They Haven't

Going back to work or school? An algorithm may warn you to keep your distance from others

Technology Adoption Around the Criminal Justice System is a Tightrope

The capabilities that algorithms have to improve impartiality and efficiency within the courts and policing are vast and exciting—but can’t come at the cost of equality, transparency, and understanding in order to mitigate the perpetuation of inequitable incarceration.

Ben Winters /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Suzannah is helping to design and run a legal clinic at the local VA Medical Center. Rhode Island is one of only a handful of states that do not currently offer veterans this service. She is also forming a collaboration with the veterans legal clinic at the local law school in order to better identify and address the legal needs of veterans in our area with the aid of law student volunteers.

The Project

Judy provided immigrant trafficking victims in New York City with increased access to no-cost, culturally competent, language-accessible legal services, increased immigrant communities’ awareness of trafficking and legal rights and services available to individuals who have experienced trafficking, and increased the professional community’s capacity to effectively identify and respond to trafficking. Judy provided culturally competent, trauma-informed legal services to immigrant victims of trafficking, conducted outreach to immigrant communities, and provided training to communities, pro bono attorneys, and other professional stakeholders. 

Judy had previously worked in victim-centered, trauma-focused legal services for four years as an immigration attorney, legal fellow and intern, and law student. As a Chinese immigrant who speaks Mandarin, she is able to provide culturally and linguistically competent counsel and assistance to many trafficking victims in New York City who are monolingual Mandarin speakers. Finally, she has a genuine passion for helping crime victims heal from their past experiences and build a better future for themselves and their families. 

The Project

Amira provided direct representation of victims of domestic violence in a wide variety of matters including immigration, orders of protection, contested and uncontested divorces, child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, and criminal court advocacy.

The Project

Sara improved access to health care for humanitarian-based immigrants in New York City. Sara worked with immigrants’ health care providers to achieve project goals through targeted representation, outreach, and advocacy.

Low-income, humanitarian-based immigrants with serious health problems confront an overwhelming array of challenges including illness, poverty, lack of knowledge of their rights, and fundamental misconceptions about accessing health care. This project works with underserved immigrants by opening legal clinics in inner-city hospitals. It offers representation to individuals in their immigration cases, and helps them obtain appropriate relief based on their humanitarian claims. This project helps clients obtain Medicaid, to which they are legally entitled after submitting federal immigration applications. The project involves conducting information campaigns for hospital staff, as well as advocacy and outreach campaigns for immigrants.

Fellowship Highlights

During her Fellowship, Sara:

  • Opened two hospital-based legal clinics for humanitarian immigrants (crime victims, survivors of domestic violence, and asylum seekers)
  • Expanded an existing asylum clinic and doubled its representation capacity
  • Represented dozens of undocumented clients in their federal immigration cases and NYS Medicaid cases
  • Won immigration status for clients, including asylum, and helped clients to obtain health coverage through Medicaid

Where are they now?

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Sara will continue running her hospital-based legal clinics for humanitarian immigrants as a Staff Attorney with New York Legal Assistance Group.

The Project

As a Fellow with CSS’s Next Door Project, I work to remove and challenge barriers to employment faced by people with criminal records. My specific project involves working closely with the Osborne Association, serving clients in Osborne’s successful workforce readiness programs by obtaining and explaining their criminal records, helping them earn certificates to demonstrate rehabilitation, and representing them if denied a job or an occupational license. I will also be training Osborne staff to read and understand criminal records, along with the employment rights of the people they serve.

The Inspiration

Need Addressed By Project

More than six million New Yorkers have a criminal record, and they face significant and growing barriers
to employment. These barriers fall hardest on people of color: African Americans and Latinos are,
respectively, nine and four times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in New York, and they are
disproportionately arrested and convicted for quality-of-life offenses.

Once a person has a criminal record, economic prospects plummet. 60% of people released from incarceration are unemployed one year afterwards, and the unemployment rate for people with criminal
records hovers around 50%.

This high unemployment rate is exacerbated when job applicants understand neither their criminal
record nor their rights. Many individuals think, for example, that misdemeanor convictions are expunged after seven years, or that having a felony conviction prevents them from voting; neither is true. Conversely, they may not be aware that New York law explicitly protects people with criminal records from employment
discrimination, and that they may be eligible for state-issued certificates of rehabilitation that can help
them obtain occupational licenses and jobs that would otherwise be unavailable to them because of their
records.

The Right Person For This Project

Throughout my law school career, I worked in various ways toward the preservation of Constitutional rights in the criminal justice context. This work took the form of facilitating know-your-rights trainings for many of New York City’s over-policed communities as a member of the National Lawyers Guild’s Street Law Project, promoting judicial reform as an intern at the Center for Court Innovation, representing a wrongfully arrested individual as a student in Cardozo’s Civil Rights Clinic, and conducting discovery and drafting complaints in police brutality cases as an intern at the law firm Rankin and Taylor.

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