Jonathan Contreras

The Project

Jonathan (Jon) (he/him/his) will advocate for the repatriation of deported veterans through direct representation, policy reform, and coalition building.

For over 200 years, the United States has promised immigrant service members an expedited path to citizenship in exchange for their sacrifices. Yet for decades, the U.S. has failed to provide these service members with the citizenship they are due. As a result, hundreds of veterans were left subject to deportation and banished forever from their families and the country they fought to protect. Deported veterans are owed the opportunity to return home and reform that ensures service members can naturalize and no veterans are deported moving forward.

Fellowship Plans

During his Fellowship, Jon will represent individual veterans’ repatriation claims to vacate their deportation orders and reinstate their legal residency. Through this, he will push for legal reform at the state and federal levels to increase access to repatriation for other deported veterans. In addition, he will help build a coalition of veterans’ and immigrants’ rights activists, legal service providers, and deported veterans themselves. This coalition will support the needs of deported veterans up to and after their repatriation. Additionally, Jonathan will work with this coalition to push the DHS to adopt policies that prevent future veteran deportations and ensure that immigrant service members can naturalize.

As the child of Mexican immigrants, I am proud to stand with this community. Deported veterans fought for this country and for their right to repatriate—we owe it to them to finally bring them home.

Jonathan Contreras /
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

Ndome (she/her/hers) will expand access to maternal healthcare for low-income pregnant people and women of color by addressing legal barriers to midwifery care through impact litigation, policy advocacy, legal research, and community education. 

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality ratio among developed nations. Black women are nearly four times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related causes, and Indigenous women are more than twice as likely. Unlike many other wealthy nations where midwives care for most birthing people, the U.S. has imposed medically unnecessary legal and financial barriers to midwifery services. As the COVID-19 pandemic strains health systems and further endangers maternal health, addressing these barriers has become more urgent than ever. 

Midwifery care has the potential to address many barriers to safe and respectful maternal health care. Expanded access to midwifery care, including more midwives of color, can equitably improve maternal health outcomes and enable low-income pregnant people of color to make meaningful decisions about where, how, and with whom they will birth. 

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Ndome will explore bringing forth a proactive, constitutional challenge to laws that restrict midwives’ practice and birthing people’s access to midwives. Additionally, she will monitor, track, advocate, and analyze proposed legislation at the state and federal level that may impact the ability of low-income people to access midwifery care. 

Media

Reducing Inequalities, Advancing Human Rights

I believe that reproductive rights are human rights and should be treated as such.

Ndome Essoka /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Nicqelle serves non-citizen veterans through the process of naturalization.

Currently, 16% of veterans who apply for naturalization are denied, which is 5% higher than their civilian counterparts. According to Sections 328 and 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, those who serve honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces are eligible for expedited naturalization. In recent years, there has been a decline in the number of naturalization applications and an increase in application denials. Nicqelle will help veterans through the naturalization process while striving to discover why fewer active service members are applying for naturalization and why veterans are denied naturalization at a higher rate than civilians.

Nicqelle’s family connection to the veteran and immigrant communities makes her passionate about helping non-citizen veterans through the naturalization process

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the past year, Nicqelle has:

  • Launched the Veterans Naturalization Assistance Program (VNAP)
  • Provided direct representation to 25 veteran clients
  • Referred clients to partner organizations that can best serve their specific needs
  • Delivered 20 virtual educational presentations on the veteran naturalization process, reaching 990 attendees including veteran service officers, law school students, and volunteers
  • Sent over 3,700 outreach emails to individuals working at organizations that serve veterans to increase awareness of the project and available services
  • Participated in 15 coalition-building meetings to increase the reach and impact of the project
  • Successfully held a virtual naturalization clinic with sponsors, which assisted ten non-citizen veterans in beginning their naturalization applications

Next Steps

In the next year, Nicqelle plans to:

  • Develop a greater online presence of VNAP’s services
  • Continue individual outreach to build relationships and educate more individuals about VNAP’s work
  • Host a second non-citizen veterans naturalization clinic
  • Host trainings and educational presentations to teach more attorneys and related professionals about the needs and rights of non-citizen veterans

Media

The Veterans Consortium Announces Our 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellows

The Project

Ashley provided direct legal services, deepened collaboration among providers, and advocated for systems change for people who have complex medical, legal, and social needs while living in poverty in Southern NJ.

With roughly 40 percent of Camden’s residents living in poverty, the city has significant rates of asthma, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other life-threatening diseases. Legal issues in all functional domains represent significant barriers to improving health and overall quality of life. This project aimed to strengthen collaboration between the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and Rutgers Law School, to offer innovative, targeted multi-disciplinary approaches to empower individuals with complex needs.

After working in social services for several years before attending law school, Ashley began to recognize a dire need for lawyers who were sensitive to the experiences of individuals with severe mental and physical health conditions. She pursued a career in law to address this need, intending to offer holistic, practical, individualized, and accessible legal services.

Fellowship Highlights

Through her fellowship, Ashley provided direct legal support to over a hundred individuals with complex health and social needs. She utilized her clients’ expressed priorities and trends from her on-the-ground work to engage in effective client-centered policy advocacy. Ashley shared findings from this practice-to-policy approach with the medical and legal communities. Demonstrating the need for housing-related legal support during the pandemic, Ashley’s efforts culminated in the MLP receiving a $300,000 grant to expand eviction prevention work to a broader patient population through an innovative referral model.

Next Steps

Ashley will remain at the Medical-Legal Partnership through the end of 2021, taking on the role of Staff Attorney. She will continue prioritizing housing-related legal needs, as the end of the eviction moratorium makes eviction prevention more critical than ever.

Media

Rutgers Law School’s Medical-Legal Partnership Helps Resolve Complex Care Issues for South Jersey Residents

Ashley Maddison RLAW '19 Helps Clients Through the Camden Medical-Legal Partnership

Patients-to-Policy Learning Collaborative Part II: Applying the MLP approach to Housing for Patients with Complex Needs

I am passionate about uniting communities to tackle systemic barriers to improved health and life outcomes.

Ashley Maddison /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

John Paul, a veteran of the United States Army, established a model consortium of higher education institutions to aid veterans and active duty troops with medical and disability issues, reemployment, and reintegration.

The Inspiration

Need Addressed By Project

Veterans face unique challenges as they reenter the civilian world. These challenges are compounded by the wounds that many veterans bear, both inside and out, after returning from service in combat. Too many veterans return to civilian life to face unemployment, homelessness, and involvement in the criminal justice system. While benefits and services are available to help them cope with disability and the turmoil of returning to civilian life, too many veterans fall through the cracks. Veterans’ benefits and services are often poorly advertised, difficult to obtain, and delayed for long periods of time because of the overloaded system for determining eligibility.

Fellowship Highlights

During his Fellowship, John Paul has:

  • Developed a Veterans Initiative Program in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to assist veterans charged with petty offenses obtain the treatment, services, and benefits that they need to avoid future involvement in the criminal justice system
  • Promoted the development of veterans benefits clinics at law schools across the United States through conference presentations, co-authoring written material on the topic, and assisting in the creation of a veterans clinic consortium to support the work of existing and newly established veterans clinics
  • Educated attorneys, law students, and mental health professionals about the needs of military veterans in Virginia and the benefits and services available to meet those needs
  • Represented veterans in claims for disability compensation benefits and discharge upgrades

Where are they now?

Now that the Fellowship is complete, John Paul will advocate for policies that promote independence, autonomy, and inclusion of people with disabilities in Virginia as a Senior Policy Analyst at the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities.

The Project

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) has reported that the average amount of time from the filing of an appeal of disability denial to the BVA decision is 1,407 days. In addition to already long systemic delays, potentially thousands of veterans’ appeals have been effectively warehoused by the VA Regional Offices (“RO”). In these cases, ROs have not completed the procedures necessary for the appeal to advance to the BVA for decision. The BVA is required to decide appeals in the order in which they are placed on the BVA’s docket; however, because some ROs are not certifying appeals to the BVA in a timely manner, the already long delay is protracted for some veterans. The result is that veterans who would have had their appeals decided are still waiting on a RO to complete a one-page VA Form that would move the process forward. This systemic and illegal delay causes veterans financial hardship, lack of access to VA health care, and lack of faith in the VA.

Paul provided legal services to disabled veterans whose appeals of initial disability denials have been systemically delayed for years and helped to improve the VA appellate process currently in place.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two years, Paul has:

  • Provided legal services to 295 veterans and placed 34 veterans with pro bono attorneys for full representation
  • Assisted over 100 veterans in getting their appeals certified to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which has already resulted in benefits being granted to 28 veterans to date
  • Contributed to filing a class action petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims with the goal of securing relief for all veterans suffering from delays in the appeals process
  • Delivered three “Know Your Rights” presentations to inform more than 50 veterans about how to apply for a discharge upgrade
  • Trained service providers working with senior veterans about services available for their clients
  • Organized and conducted four discharge upgrade clinics through which nearly 90 veterans received brief services and advice
  • Worked closely with sponsor pro bono volunteers who served clients in all areas of the project

What’s Next

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Paul plans to:

  • Continue helping veterans as a staff attorney at NVLSP to assist veterans with applications for discharge upgrades
  • Provide support to high impact litigation addressing the systemic delays in the VA’s appellate procedures to bring relief to thousands of veterans’ benefits claimants
  • Organize and lead pro bono legal clinics to assist veterans in seeking upgrades to their discharge characterization
  • Continue training and mentoring pro bono attorneys to help veterans in their legal claims against the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs

Media

“Always Faithful” to My Fellow Veterans

The Project

Marques worked to end modern-day debtors’ prisons in the greater DC area, through direct representation and policy advocacy for individuals subject to overly onerous fines, fees and jail time for minor offenses.

Many state and local governments increasingly rely on excessive fees and fines levied against people entangled in the criminal justice system. Courts often use unconstitutional tactics to collect these fines and fees, including the arrest and jailing of those who cannot afford to pay without providing a hearing to determine ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment. Although bail can only be used to secure a defendant’s appearance, many jurisdictions now use bail as a tool to detain individuals who cannot afford to pay, or to extract high bond fees, in situations where there is no public safety benefit to keeping the person detained. Individuals in the greater Washington, DC area are spending time in jail because they are unable to pay overly onerous fines, fees, and bail. Sending people to jail because they are unable to pay is unconstitutional and has significant collateral consequences, including job loss and threats to housing and family stability.

Fellowship Highlights

During the Fellowship period, Marques has:

  • Developed a legal strategy to attack the incarceration of individuals for failure to pay court fees
  • Researched and analyzed the legal framework for challenges to improper fees and fines
  • Created a court watching program that identifies practices that criminalize low-income individuals
  • Built a partnership with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to identify and attack practices that criminalize low-income individuals
  • Created a Coalition that led the effort to decriminalize the practice of arresting DC residents who were jailed because they could not afford to pay the metro fare
  • Prepared testimony against the proposed amendment to a drivers license suspension bill to help end the predatory practice of suspending licenses solely because individuals cannot pay their fines

What’s Next

Now that his Fellowship is complete, Marques will continue the work of his project with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. He will also be filing an impact case aimed at addressing the detention of low-income defendants who are unable to pay Electronic Monitoring Fees.

Media

Chief Newsham is wrong. Police oversight is essential.

DC Pro Bono Week 2019: Pro Bono in Protest: Protecting First Amendment Freedoms in the District

The Project

Isabel provided legal representation and conducted outreach to low-income immigrant survivors of domestic violence in underserved outlying Pennsylvania counties.

Lack of stable immigration status is a frequent and often insurmountable barrier to leaving an abusive relationship for many survivors of domestic violence. Pathways to stable immigration status exist that enable survivors to seek out safety and self-sufficiency away from their abusers. However before Isabel became a fellow roughly 30% of Pennsylvania’s immigrants were living in counties where there were almost no affordable immigration legal service providers. This meant that many survivors and their advocates were unaware of these pathways or had no way to secure them. Isabel educated community organizations in these counties to identify individuals in need of services.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship period:

  • Isabel provided immigration representation to 70 individuals including survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and their family members
  • Isabel provided brief legal orientations to an additional 54 immigrants regarding their rights and eligibility for relief based on domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Isabel and her sponsors created educational materials for social service providers to help them support immigrant survivors of domestic violence
  • Isabel built and strengthened referral partnerships with 5 social service organizations operating in the geographic area and collaborated with an additional 8 organizations to serve clients.

What’s Next

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Isabel will continue on as a staff attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania representing survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, addressing the overwhelming need for services that her Fellowship exposed.

The Project

Christian eliminated legal barriers to stability and promote integration for justice-involved veterans through direct civil legal representation, outreach, education, and advocacy.

The justice system incarcerates veterans at a significantly higher rate than non-veterans, and the difficulties leading to their criminal conduct often relate to their service. The Justice Involved Veterans Project (JIVP) provides civil legal services to veterans. Today, veterans treatment courts provide treatment for some veterans in lieu of incarceration, but true reintegration requires more than avoiding jail. This project provides civil legal services that eliminate barriers to employment so that veterans leaving treatment programs can return to the community with dignity and honor.

Fellowship Highlights

During the Fellowship period, Christian has:

  • Provided direct representation to 35 veterans seeking assistance with veteran’s benefits claims, discharge upgrades, license restoration, and appealing denials of service in the Veteran’s Health Administration
  • Became the first program to provide civil legal services to the participants in any veteran’s treatment court in Maryland, where more veterans used this project’s services than any other non-VA benefit
  • Advocated for alternatives to incarceration and reemployment programs for justice-involved veterans by engaging judges, bar associations, and community partners through discussions and presentations highlighting the unique positioning of treatment courts to help veterans overcome the difficulties many face when returning from their service
  • Collaborated with The Veterans Consortium to host a discharge upgrade clinic at MCVET, where attorneys from Northrop Grumman and Covington met with veterans about discharge upgrades

Next Steps

Christian will continue to work to improve outcomes for veterans as an Attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Additionally, Christian will remain involved at MCVET as a member of the Board where Christian hopes to continue providing brief advice to residents.