Alexandra Zaretsky

The Project

Alexandra’s (she/her/hers) project will focus on reuniting refugee families from Muslim-majority countries, including recently displaced Afghans, by exposing and challenging anti-Muslim immigration policies.

Thousands of refugees from Muslim-majority countries in Southwest Asia and Africa– including places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia– are separated from their families abroad and anxiously waiting to reunite in the United States. President Biden nominally repealed the Muslim Ban, but discriminatory policies continue to keep the Ban alive in practice. While current policies do not overtly ban refugees from Muslim-majority countries, they are designed to keep out Muslims through bureaucratic requirements that are almost impossible for refugees from particular countries to meet. These policies are largely hidden from public scrutiny, so families do not know why they are separated.

Through her prior work with the International Refugee Assistance Project, including work with families impacted by the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Alexandra has seen how irrational and arbitrary bureaucratic requirements operate to keep families from Muslim-majority countries apart.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Alexandra will work to identify, expose, and challenge discriminatory policies that keep refugee families apart and prevent them from reuniting in safety in the United States. She will engage with Muslim refugee communities, including recently displaced Afghans, to identify policies and practices which discriminate against refugees from Muslim-majority countries in Southwest Asia and Africa. She will identify and represent individuals with acute family reunification needs. Furthermore, Alexandra will litigate challenges against discriminatory policies and engage in strategic advocacy.

As the granddaughter of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, I am motivated to expose and reform the discriminatory policies that keep families from countries like Iraq apart.

Alexandra Zaretsky /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Tara (she/her/hers) will work at the intersection of domestic violence and gun violence by representing clients in Washington D.C. in Civil Protection Order, Extreme Risk Protection Order, and family law matters.

In 2019, the Council of the District of Columbia enacted legislation that created a new form of protection order aimed at gun violence: the Extreme Risk Protection Order. Like most “red flag” laws, this measure permits law enforcement to seek a restraining order against an individual who would be a danger to themselves or others if they possess or purchase firearms. However, these orders have been extremely underutilized, and fewer than 30 have ever been filed. This is compounded by the fact that there is also a massive shortage of services available for survivors in both Civil Protection Order and family law cases in Washington D.C. in general.

Fellowship Plans

Tara’s project will focus on representing survivors who have suffered gun violence or were threatened by gun violence. Her representation will focus on Civil Protection Order and Extreme Risk Protection Order cases; however, she will also provide representation in a limited number of family law cases where a child custody order or divorce decree would provide continued stability and violence prevention. Additionally, Tara will provide know-your-rights presentations and work with the DC Volunteer Lawyer’s Project’s community partners to educate the community about the availability of Extreme Risk Protection Orders.

The Project

Jennifer (she/her/hers) works to eliminate medical debt in Washington, D.C., with hopes to advance economic and racial equity through direct representation, policy advocacy, and hospital-based reform.

Medical debt is the largest source of debt Americans owe collections agencies. Residents of D.C. hold over $700 million in medical debt, with households of color in the area over 300% more likely to hold medical debt than their white neighbors. This medical debt leads to many negative financial and psychological consequences. Although D.C. has expanded Medicaid eligibility, many thousands of residents are still uninsured or under-insured and unable to pay steep medical bills, particularly in light of the impacts of COVID-19. No local legal service provider in D.C. currently focuses on addressing medical debt.

Fellowship Plans

Through her project, Jennifer will provide direct legal representation to D.C. residents holding medical debt. She will conduct community education sessions to mitigate future medical debt loads by helping community members access hospital financial assistance. She will advocate for increased protections for holders of medical debt under D.C. laws. Finally, Jennifer will collaborate with hospitals in the area to help them sell their written-off bad debt to RIP Medical Debt, which will then forgive the debt entirely.

Media

Equal Justice Works Awards Medical Debt Fellowship at Tzedek DC

Re-thinking medical debt in D.C. is an important step forward in eliminating the racial wealth gap and advancing equity within our nation’s capital.

Jennifer Holloway /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Darby (she/her/hers) will advocate for and empower elders in California prisons by challenging illegal parole denials and creating comprehensive resources for pro se litigants.

There are approximately 34,000 people in California serving life sentences with the possibility of parole – over one-third of the state prison population – many of whom are elders, and the vast majority of whom are Black and brown. Statistically, elder Lifers are exceedingly safe to be released from prison, with recidivism rates of less than one percent. However, the Board of Parole Hearings grants parole to only 18% of eligible elder Lifers each year. The Board frequently denies parole for illegal reasons, and the only way to challenge a parole denial is via habeas corpus petition. Most Lifers can’t afford to retain habeas counsel, and free legal aid is extremely rare. As a result, pro se litigants provide a primary check on the Board’s powers; however, systemic barriers and a lack of support make it virtually impossible for most Lifers to do so.

Fellowship Plans

Darby’s project will use a two-pronged approach to advocate for and empower elder Lifers who are ready to come home. Firstly, she will provide direct representation to elder Lifers who were illegally denied parole and who seek to challenge the denial. The second prong of the project will focus on empowering Lifers who seek to challenge an illegal parole denial but do not have access to counsel. Darby will perform a needs assessment to determine the resources necessary to support Lifers in challenging parole denials pro se. She will then create and distribute a resource guide for these pro se litigants; the guide will include answers to common questions about habeas petitions, as well as template arguments challenging the most common illegal bases for denial.

So long as the Board of Parole Hearings has the power to decide whether someone spends seven years or seven decades in a cage, I will fight alongside Lifers to hold the Board accountable for its actions.

Darby Aono /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Jina (she/her/hers) will advocate with low-income residents of color in East Oakland, California for environmental justice and community resilience through direct representation, education, and policy implementation.

Racial justice and environmental justice are inextricably linked. Amidst current crises like the racial disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic are the persistent crises in environmental justice communities like East Oakland—pollution, poverty, and more—which are exacerbated by climate change and an extractive economy that prioritizes industry profits over residents’ health. In such globally challenging times, East Oakland is also grappling with how its future will look and who will control its fate, as it encounters challenges like unreliable energy, serious respiratory health issues, and displacement.

Low-income residents of color in East Oakland need a comprehensive response that will build community resilience, capacity, and self-determination, supporting their self-empowerment toward a more just and sustainable future.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Jina will represent the community in proceedings regarding California’s energy portfolio and implement a microgrid in the community. She will work with residents to develop a community benefits agreement to prevent displacement and to support local economic development. She will also develop educational materials on wildfire preparedness and other environmental health issues of interest to the community.

During the beginning of my family's story in America, we struggled to survive in a foreign place with no voice and no power. These early experiences taught me the importance of listening to and amplifying the voices of people who our society often silences, and motivated my decision to pursue community lawyering.

Jina Kim /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Mattie (she/her/hers) will work to establish the Anti-Criminalization Project at Dolores Street Community Services that will fight the criminalization of immigrants by providing post-conviction relief (PCR) and immigration representation, while also engaging in state and local policy advocacy, working on federal litigation, and preparing resources to help expand access to services for criminalized immigrants and immigrants particularly vulnerable to criminalization.

Each year, countless immigrants are detained and deported from Southern California as a direct result of criminal convictions. Under current immigration law, any noncitizen, even a long-time green card holder with a U.S. citizen spouse and child, can be rendered deportable due to a single misdemeanor conviction. In a criminal system in which 98% of criminal defendants plead guilty, many immigrants agree to convictions without meaningfully understanding the severe consequences they will have for their immigration status. To address these legally invalid convictions, California has created PCR vehicles to vacate these criminal convictions, but access to PCR remains extremely limited in Southern California, where 4.5 million immigrants reside. 

Mattie has seen firsthand the suffering that ensues when an immigrant is subjected to mandatory detention and deportation as a result of contact with an unjust criminal system. She believes more must be done to prevent this devastation to families and communities in California.

Post-conviction relief is one of the most powerful ways to prevent the disproportionate harm a criminal conviction can have on an immigrant’s life and community

Mattie Armstrong /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Tirien investigated and documented several systematic challenges to the implementation of death judgments, such as harm perpetrated by juvenile detention facilities, racially discriminatory application of the death penalty, and brain damage that can result from childhood exposure to pesticides or lead.

Media

2021 Scales of Justice Highlights

The Project

Amanda represents the rising number of immigrant youth in the dependency system as a result of shifting immigration policies that increasingly destabilize and separate immigrant families.

Recent shifts in immigration policies have immensely threatened the safety, security, and stability of immigrant families, resulting in a growing number of immigrant children in the child welfare system. These young people have distinct needs in the child welfare system, such as precarious legal status of their family members and themselves, distinct multicultural and linguistic backgrounds, or complex trauma as a result of immigration histories in an era of emboldened xenophobia. This project addresses these unique needs through holistic and trauma-informed advocacy.

Amanda is motivated to leverage her legal skills and access to systems of power to challenge the insidious ways in which immigrant communities of color are targeted, criminalized, and dehumanized by our legal system. She hopes to contribute to ongoing immigrant rights movements to ensure that everyone—regardless of immigration status—has access to the resources and legal protections necessary to live a life full of dignity and safety.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Amanda has:

  • Represented 14 young people who have been placed in the child welfare system in both their dependency and immigration matters.
  • Successfully advocated for enforcement of dependent youths’ rights to visit caregivers and siblings, adequate and effective medical and psychiatric care, and access to transitional housing placements.
  • Filed 8 petitions for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, 3 applications for Asylum, 1 petition for Nonimmigrant U Status, and 3 applications for work authorization.

Next Steps

In the next year, Amanda plans to:

  • Expand her representation model to account for educational rights for immigrant foster youth.
  • Develop a training series for local child protective services agencies on the specific needs and rights of immigrant foster youth.
  • Provide technical assistance and mentorship to local dependency attorneys in order to build capacity for the effective representation of all immigrant-dependent youth.

The Project

Deborah will disrupt the exclusion of communities of color from American citizenship by challenging denaturalization and related immigration policies through direct representation, impact litigation, and advocacy.

In recent years, the government’s denaturalization operation has rapidly grown in number, scope, and infrastructure. Through denaturalization, the government is able to strip Americans of their citizenship. When an individual is denaturalized, that person is no longer an American and suddenly at risk of potential deportation. While denaturalizations of the past have targeted war criminals, now, denaturalization operations are indiscriminately targeting Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian individuals for the mistakes of incompetent lawyers or inaccurate translators. Denaturalizations operate in conjunction with recent immigration policies dramatically restricting entry into the U.S. to effectively redefine, to the exclusion of communities of color, who is considered “American.” 

Fellowship Plans

Deborah’s project challenges the ever-expanding denaturalization machine by providing pro bono direct representation for individuals targeted for denaturalization, conducting community outreach to raise awareness of this growing threat, and initiating impact litigation against the denaturalization operation itself. In addition, she will situate denaturalizations itheir broader context. Through a white paper and public advocacy, Deborah will shed light on the government’s covert redefinition of American citizenship through denaturalizations and other immigration policies. Deborah is the first-ever Fellow hosted by Muslim Advocates.

Media

Attorneys urge awareness, calm amid China Initiative turmoil

The widespread failure to recognize the humanity of those affected by our immigration policies has led me to believe that communities of color are facing a crisis of belonging in the U.S. and beyond. The government is stripping Americans of their citizenship and effectively redefining citizenship to the exclusion of communities of color. This demands us to act.

Deborah Choi /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Matt advocated to ensure that detained and recently released unaccompanied immigrant children receive the education services to which they are entitled through developing new litigation, supporting class action lawsuits, policy advocacy, collaborating with local organizations, and creating informative resources.

As of June 2021, there were over 17,000 unaccompanied children (“UCs”) in federal immigrant detention. These children are entitled to education services under federal law, state law, and the Flores Settlement Agreement. Tragically, federal and state governments frequently fail to provide the required services, particularly special education, which leaves UCs ill-equipped for public schools when they are released to their families in the U.S. Furthermore, some public schools create enrollment obstacles for released children, fail to provide them with required services, or push them into alternative education programs.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Matt has:

  • Developed potential new litigation to enforce the education rights of UCs with disabilities in more restrictive Office of Refugee Resettlement (“ORR”) facilities
  • Wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education urging it to issue new guidance that States and Local Education Agencies must comply with federal special education laws as applied to UCs with qualifying disabilities in their jurisdictions
  • Conducted two Flores monitoring visits to ORR facilities and six trauma-informed interviews with UCs to learn about their experiences, obtain key evidence, and amplify their stories in ongoing advocacy;
  • Wrote a memorandum on the ability to use materials from earlier lawsuits in the Lucas R. v. Azar case, which helped to inform strategic litigation decisions
  • Provided brief services and referrals to 15 individuals who had youth law issues, including issues related to disability accommodations in schools
  • In total, Matt and his team’s work potentially benefited over 70,000 immigrant children

Next Steps

Matt is moving to New York City and will continue working as a public interest attorney.

Media

• Alumni Secure Release of Immigrant Child Detainees to Shield Them from COVID-19