Zoraima Pelaez

The Project

Zoraima (she/her/hers/ella) works to protect the right to abortion and ensure meaningful access, particularly for poor people, people of color, and those living in rural areas, using innovative legal strategies.

In December 2021, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which presents a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and threatens to upend over 50 years of precedent protecting every pregnant person’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy before viability. The stakes are extremely high: If Roe v. Wade falls, abortion will likely be banned in half of the country. But even if Roe v. Wade is upheld in any capacity, hostile state legislatures will continue to push abortion care further out of reach, especially for poor people, people of color, those living in rural areas, and other marginalized communities who already struggle to navigate a complex web of restrictions.

Fellowship Plans

Zoraima’s project will use impact litigation, advocacy, and coalition building to protect the right to abortion and ensure those seeking abortion care have meaningful access to care, regardless of income or geographic location. Zoraima will craft and execute litigation and advocacy strategies based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jackson Women’s Health Organization and challenge novel abortion restrictions passed in current and future state legislative sessions.

She will also help navigate barriers to abortion access, with an emphasis on barriers to accessing and providing care across state borders. Zoraima’s project will focus on building and strengthening coalitions throughout the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements to develop community-driven tools and guidance for patients, healthcare professionals, abortion funds, and practical support networks that seek or provide abortion care and support across state borders.

As someone who has exercised my constitutional right to abortion, I am dedicated to using my legal education and career to advocate for everyone’s right to decide whether, when, or how to parent.

Zoraima Pelaez /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Ashley (she/her/hers) will work to protect the voting rights of Texans affected by the criminal justice system by expanding voting access to people incarcerated pretrial, people formerly incarcerated, and low-income communities. 

Texas’ intentional disenfranchisement laws have left the state with the lowest rate of voter turnout in the country, and Texas has one of the highest rates of criminal convictions. Voting is even harder for those who encounter the criminal justice system—disproportionately Black, Latino, and low-income people. 

Three-quarters of Harris County’s 9,000-person jail population are eligible voters; however, it is nearly impossible to vote in a Texas jail. People convicted of felonies are eligible to vote in Texas once they have completed their sentence, including parole or probation, but there is often tremendous confusion about eligibility. When people impacted by the criminal justice system do vote, they face obstacles. They often live and work in communities with fewer resources for voting. 

Fellowship Plans

Ashley’s project will use community outreach, policy advocacy, and impact litigation to address voter suppression. She will provide voting access for people incarcerated pretrial or for misdemeanors through outreach about voter eligibility, registering to vote, and instructions for voting. She will help inform people who have completed sentences for felonies about their restored voting rights and help clarify eligibility requirements. Ashley will also work to ensure equitable polling locations and voting resources are available in communities most impacted by the criminal justice system. 

Voting is power. I want to help return power to communities that need it most.

Ashley Harris /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Hannah’s project focused on providing legal needs to disaster survivors to aid their recovery as well as preparing vulnerable individuals living in disaster-prone areas.

Her project addressed ongoing housing and economic needs from disasters in the Coastal Bend and the Rio Grande Valley. Residents in these areas survived Hurricane Harvey, frequent flooding events, and Hurricane Hanna. These areas will continue to be hit by disasters in the future due to the geographic location and the increasing threat of climate change. The resulting legal issues cause low-income individuals to recover from disasters far slower than their wealthier neighbors if they recover at all. Legal assistance allows low-income clients a path to recovery that would not otherwise exist.

Hannah is dedicated to providing direct legal services to low-income clients, towards the eradication of economic discrimination. After beginning her work on disaster recovery following Hurricane Harvey, she began to understand the specific ways in which disasters reveal and worsen economic inequality. As such, she has become an impassioned advocate for low-income disaster survivors.

Fellowship Highlights

Hannah provided legal services to residents of counties in South and West Texas directly impacted by natural disasters, with a focus on direct representation of low-income individuals before FEMA and the State of Texas as well as title clearing for individuals seeking recovery. She also worked to build coalitions and institutional knowledge to support the program’s response to future disasters by participating in Coastal Bend area coalitions involved in disaster work and in larger-scale advocacy efforts, both for long-term recovery efforts as well as ongoing efforts focused on disaster preparedness and new responses. Hannah also coordinated virtual wills clinics in her service area to assist low-income individuals with estate planning.

Hannah previously served as an Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps.

Media

Current and Emerging Issues in Disaster Response: Legal Strategies and Practices for Helping Survivors

Meet the 2021 Class of Disaster Resilience Program Student Fellows

Disaster Legal Aid Trainings: How to Apply for FEMA Assistance

Equal Justice Works Fellows to Host Disaster Legal Aid Trainings

Many rural Texas counties currently left out of federal disaster aid eligibility for winter storm

Be Prepared! – Disaster Planning Tips for Lawyers & Law Firms

The Project

Caitlin works toward housing stability and income maintenance for persons with serious mental illness in Dallas County through direct representation, community partnerships, and education.

Adults with serious mental illness are at high risk for homelessness, institutionalization, and incarceration. In Texas, up to one million adults have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness; 36,000 of those individuals live in poverty and cycle between jails, emergency rooms, crisis services, hospitals, and other short-term crisis interventions. Access to civil legal aid is critical in breaking this cycle and promoting independence, self-determination, and choice. Effectively serving people with serious mental illness requires a specialized and multidisciplinary approach with a strong emphasis on the whole person.

Caitlin has extensive experience in disability rights, with a specific focus on psychiatric disabilities. She aims to increase self-determination and autonomy through thoughtful, accessible representation. As a person with lived experience, she is passionate about providing person-centered legal services.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Caitlin has:

  • Engaged in 26 full representation cases and 158 advice or brief service cases for adults with mental health needs in Dallas County
  • Established relationships with the mental health community in Dallas and created a new referral pathway for applicants with difficulty navigating traditional legal aid systems
  • Presented three Know Your Rights trainings on advance directives and support documents, reaching 120 members of the client community
  • Conducted 18 presentations to providers and advocates on how to serve clients with mental illness and to share information on the work of the project
  • Presented two CLE trainings to attorneys in Texas on reaching clients with mental illness

Next Steps

In the next year, Caitlin plans to:

  • Continue serving clients in housing and benefits cases
  • Expand outreach program and continue to present to both community providers and the client community
  • Host pro bono clinics for Psychiatric Advance Directives and Supported Decision-Making Agreements
  • Conduct a legal needs survey of the mental health community in Dallas County
  • Create additional tools for attorneys working with clients with mental illness and pro se materials for applicants in the areas of housing and benefits

I am drawn to work with this population not simply due to my own experiences, but because I am morally compelled to intervene in a system where mental illness causes, perpetuates and arises from poverty and bias. Race and socioeconomic status should not dictate whether a person with serious mental illness has access to the tools of recovery.

Caitlin Machell /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Harjeen empowers, educates, and advocates for Texans impacted by a broken probation system through direct representation, all to end the poverty to mass incarceration pipeline.

Around 388,000 people are on probation in Texas, accounting for half of the state’s criminal legal system. There is no right to counsel during this probation stage, despite how much is at risk. If a person is too poor to pay their probation costs, which can easily run in the thousands of dollars, they will remain on probation for an extended period of time. This furthers the cycle of poverty through lingering payments, difficulty obtaining employment, limitations on relocation, and barriers to enrolling in higher education programs. A probation system that keeps a person entangled in the criminal legal system because they cannot pay a sum of money effectively criminalizes poverty by punishing people further for no reason other than their lack of resources.

Harjeen’s Kurdish heritage instilled in her a passion to work with and empower underserved populations. This project will provide her an opportunity to do just that, while effecting lasting change in Texas’s criminal legal system.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Harjeen has:

  • Waived a total of $15,842.19 in probation-related costs, fines, and restitution.
  • Achieved the early termination of probation for 3 clients.
  • Testified before the Texas Legislature Corrections Committee in support of the Justice Reinvestment Bill, which partially aims to alleviate the financial burden of probation on low-income Texans.
  • Worked with a local coalition to stop the construction of an $80 million women’s jail in Travis County, Texas, which would have disparately impacted poor women of color and added to the state’s overwhelmingly carceral infrastructure.

Next Steps

In the next six months, Harjeen plans to:

  • Create toolkits to disseminate to local judges and practitioners to educate them on the current fines and fees laws in Texas. This will allow practitioners to better advocate for their clients, and to ensure judges do not assess fines and fees against low-income folks who are unable to pay.
  • Continue directly representing low-income individuals struggling with the costs of probation in Texas, and crafting mitigation materials to advocate for their early release from probation.
  • Host Know-Your-Rights trainings to educate the local community so they can advocate for themselves during the probation period.

Growing up in a Kurdish immigrant community, I witnessed firsthand how devastating grappling with the legal system can be, especially when someone does not have the finances or generational knowledge to succeed.

Harjeen Zibari /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Laura organizes clinics that address the unmet, pressing legal needs of people living in the Trans-Pecos region of far west Texas; during these clinics, TRLA offers holistic legal services to clients and establishes referral networks in remote communities.

Access to justice is an urgent issue for this rural area’s low-income population, who live across 31,000 square miles of high Chihuahuan desert. Laura will increase TRLA’s presence in hard-to-reach areas by conducting clinics that address recurring legal issues she has identified. By developing contacts in these areas, Laura strengthens TRLA’s referral networks, which connect TRLA’s holistic legal services to very rural communities.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is the only legal aid organization that provides direct services to this vast area. TRLA’s office in Alpine, consisting of just two attorneys, is still a two-hour drive for many clients. Access to justice is a pressing need for low-income residents in this area.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Laura has:

  • Connected with community leaders and advocates to identify recurring, unmet legal needs in the Trans-Pecos region
  • Researched procedures for protesting property tax appraisals and then used social media and weekly newspapers to provide information and education to low-income homeowners
  • Provided direct representation to survivors of domestic violence in the Trans-Pecos area

Next Steps

In the next year, Laura plans to:

  • Organize pro se assisted divorce clinics in areas where TRLA historically has low levels of engagement
  • Develop a needs assessment for clinic participants that will enable TRLA to provide holistic legal services
  • Further develop referral networks in rural communities where TRLA is not well-known
  • Continue representing clients in family law matters

I grew up in a small town in rural Colorado, and my previous experience living in the Trans-Pecos area inspired my decision to go to law school. Access to justice in remote areas is a unique and pressing need that I am excited to address.

Laura Tucker /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Chase fights for environmental justice and community development in industrial communities on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Texas’ seaports and large coastal industrial facilities have entered a period of growth. Their neighboring low-income and minority neighborhoods, which have long carried the burden of industry’s negative externalities without sharing in the prosperity, are under threat to be further left behind. These communities continue to suffer from high pollution, are crisscrossed by busy rail lines and truck routes, and despite their neighbors’ success, have continued high rates of unemployment and underdevelopment.

Chase was inspired to dig into the issues facing underdeveloped coastal communities when participating in a law school clinic. When he visited a port community to educate local leaders on their opportunities to advocate for themselves, he witnessed firsthand the daily challenges they face. Chase previously served as an Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Chase has:

  • Provided direct legal representation to a community group and to individual clients spanning six different vulnerable port communities, which included participating in impact litigation and comments to state and federal agencies regarding permits for industrial facilities and strengthening of public participation processes
  • Conducted virtual and in-person outreach viewed or attended by 1800 individuals, developed educational materials that were distributed over 1200 times, and conducted two presentations to over 170 other public interest advocates
  • Completed a comprehensive community needs survey and assessment in a port community, which will be used to guide the implementation of a major community development project in the next year
  • Obtained changes to Texas’ environmental enforcement policy which will help protect environmental justice communities across Texas
  • Regularly participated in a coalition of over 15 public interest organizations working together to further environmental and economic justice along the Texas Gulf Coast

Next Steps

In the next year, Chase plans to:

  • Continue to directly represent individuals and community groups in transactional work and environmental and economic justice
  • Perform frequent outreach and community education to build relationships with more individuals and organizations in vulnerable port communities and strengthen their advocacy skills
  • Develop and pilot an “all about ports” educational curriculum, which can continue to be utilized in environmental justice communities after the fellowship
  • Engage with regulatory agencies at the local, state, and national level to strengthen protections and opportunities via direct legal representation and other means

Despite being illuminated by the bright lights of the 24 hours a day operations of their industrial neighbors, adjacent communities often do not receive nearly the attention and respect they deserve.

Chase Porter /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Kassandra expanded Texas Legal Services Center’s Medical-Legal Partnerships to a school-linked health center and integrated legal interventions to address the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on at-risk youth.

Kassandra’s Fellowship sought to mitigate the long-term negative health effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) for patients at People’s Community Clinic’s school-linked health center in Manor, Texas. Remediating ACEs for youth is important for Manor, a town whose population has doubled in the last 10 years yet has a below-average median income. There are no legal aid offices in Manor, and there are no attorneys dedicated to meeting the health-harming and education-undermining legal needs of Manor’s youth. Kassandra focused on helping the clinic’s pediatric and adolescent patients meet their financial, educational, and personal needs, particularly in light of the evolving pandemic. Kassandra worked with clinicians to integrate these needs into the delivery of healthcare.

Kassandra first discovered the correlation between health and poverty during her undergraduate study of humanities, medical law, and ethics when she was confronted with bleak statistics: people living in poverty have increased health risks and are more likely to die at an early age. She became determined to volunteer and address these issues.

Fellowship Highlights

During her two-year Fellowship, Kassandra:

  • Provided full representation, advice, and/or warm referrals to over 250 patient-clients on matters including disability and other benefits, guardianship, supported decision-making agreements, and education
  • Conducted trainings with the pediatric and adolescent department of People’s Community Clinic and at the It’s Time Texas virtual conference, educating clinicians and other participants on topics including MLP services for at-risk youth, consent, and confidentiality issues for minors, bullying in the virtual education context, and pandemic-related legal updates
  • Assisted TLSC’s MLP and Impact Litigation departments to draft an emergency rulemaking petition to the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, which resulted in a moratorium on utility shut-offs in the state during the pandemic with the PUCT estimating that the $30 million utility-relief program protected some 600,000 households from disconnection for non-payment
  • Led a collaboration with Texas Law to draft a healthcare-informed amicus brief on the federal Medicaid work requirements case before the Supreme Court

Next Steps

Kassandra will join Texas Civil Rights Project as a Manne Family Fellow in their Racial and Economic Justice practice group, where she will continue advocating for underrepresented communities. TLSC will sustain Kassandra’s project by creating a permanent MLP pediatrics attorney position.

Media

Texas Medicine September 2020

How Medical-Legal Partnerships Help Patients

Supreme Court Clinic Teams Up with Public-Interest Alumni to Advocate for Healthcare Access

Legal Counsel: A Health Care Partner For Immigrant Communities

The Project

Leah pursued relief from removal for detained and formerly detained survivors of violence in Texas, particularly indigenous language speakers, through direct representation, resource development, and advocacy.

In Central Texas, fewer than half of non-detained immigrants have legal representation; for detained individuals, that number drops to about 20%. During the term of the Fellowship, changes in case law and policy undermined protections for refugees and disproportionately impacted asylum seekers who speak indigenous languages, who are often fleeing years of institutional discrimination and violence in their countries of origin. Rare language speakers are frequently denied appropriate language access during their hearings and throughout their detention.

Because she lives in a mixed-status family, Leah understands the fear that her clients feel knowing that a member of their family could be taken from their lives at any moment. She understands the role that the legal system plays—for better and for worse— in her clients’ lives, and her first-hand experiences with the power of the legal system frame her outlook during every client meeting.

Fellowship Highlights

During her two-year Fellowship, Leah:

  • Provided full representation or advice/brief services in over 85 immigration cases in central and south Texas
  • Represented indigenous language speakers in removal proceedings in Immigration Court, including cases of individuals who were non-detained as well as those in ICE detention
  • Hosted trainings for pro bono attorneys on the topic of representing asylum seekers in removal proceedings
  • Engaged in coalition building in the community through collaboration with over 45 groups and participation in over 60 external meetings to advance the goals and reach of the project
  • Regularly collaborated with other attorneys working on asylum cases from Texas to California and offered guidance on issues involving indigenous language speakers
  • Organized and co-led a three-part in-house training on the topic of language access, including TRLA’s Language Access Plan and Title VI obligations

Next Steps

Leah is pleased to continue her work with the Immigration Team at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in Austin as a staff attorney at the conclusion of her Fellowship.

Media

Leaving home and the journey across Mexico

Indigenous diaspora: Reaching the border, untracked in the U.S. immigration system

Expelled to Northern Mexico and invisible in U.S. immigration courts

There are simply not enough non-profit immigration lawyers in Texas.

Leah Rodriguez /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

There has been a tremendous unmet need to provide legal services to identity theft victims, especially for vulnerable populations. There has also been a need to train and educate victim advocates on how to address the economic challenges resulting from identity theft, including screening for other economic/financial abuse issues. 

Stephanie primarily provided direct legal services to identity theft victims among vulnerable populations such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking survivors. She also provided training and education to victim advocates regarding identity theft issues. 

Stephanie had previously worked with victims of domestic violence in the family law context and she has first-hand experience in seeing the challenges victims have when trying to rebuild their lives. She has a strong desire to help these individuals become economically stable in order to reduce the likelihood of future domestic violence.