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.


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

Courtney provides direct representation, community education, and policy advocacy on behalf of children with autism, increasing access to special education services during the transition from preschool to kindergarten.

In New York City schools, there are more than 20,000 students with autism. These students – 78% of whom qualify for free and reduced price lunch – are often denied necessary services, supports, and interventions in violation of the law. This project advocates for these students during a particularly critical juncture: the transition from preschool to kindergarten, called the Turning Five Process. It helps families secure appropriate school placements and special education services, ensuring that students begin kindergarten on the right educational trajectory.

Courtney has seen the transformative power of early education firsthand. Before law school, she taught first, second, and third-grade students in Integrated Co-Teaching classrooms in Harlem and Brooklyn.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Courtney has:

  • Launched a Turning 5 helpline that families contact for resources and support with the kindergarten admissions and kindergarten IEP process
  • Provided full representation to 23 children, including at IEP meetings and administrative due process proceedings
  • Provided brief advice and counsel to more than 50 families
  • Presented 8 Know Your Rights workshops to families and staff in partnership with preschools

Next Steps

In the next six months, Courtney plans to:

  • Expand access to the Turning 5 helpline through continued outreach to preschools, medical providers, and community-based organizations
  • Provide representation to families at Turning 5 IEP meetings and administrative due process proceedings, as well as informal advocacy before the NYC Department of Education
  • Present Know Your Rights workshops in partnership with additional preschool

The Project

The Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center formed in September 2001 to provide legal, technical, research and policy assistance to grassroots community groups engaged in a wide range of community development efforts throughout New York City. My project focuses on providing transactional legal services in collaboration with community-based organizations. This will enable immigrant and low-wage workers, especially in the Bronx, to energize economic opportunities through cooperative enterprise and small business development.


The Project

Alisa challenged the jail-detention-deportation pipeline many noncitizens face through a pilot project responding to ICE’s practices at NYC jails. Additionally, Alisa documented abuse, provided pro se assistance, helped contest legal interpretations mandating detention, and coordinated litigation challenging unconstitutional practices. Finally, Alisa created toolkits and trainings from lessons learned. By advocating with allies, Alisa hoped to shift the public debate from one that dehumanizes “criminal aliens” to one that focuses on ways to make our communities truly secure.

The Project

Laura used direct representation, impact litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, community organizing, and education to combat predatory practices of employment agencies that exploit workers in low-wage industries, particularly immigrant workers, in the New York City metropolitan area.

New immigrants frequently rely on employment agencies to help them find work. In 2012, New York City had about 350 employment agencies, but advocates estimated that more than 1,000 agencies existed at the time, primarily located in communities with large immigrant populations. Unscrupulous agencies substantially control access to low-wage jobs, which enables them to charge exorbitant fees to job seekers and defraud workers. Agencies also knowingly place workers with employers that violate labor laws, engage in wage theft, and blacklist workers who complain.

Fellowship Highlights

During her Fellowship, Laura provided advice, referrals, or representation to 65 workers as well as know-your-rights presentations to nearly 600 individuals. She also served as counsel to New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) on employment agency issues and supported NICE in launching the Justice for Job Seekers campaign, a statewide coalition of about 30 New York workers’ rights organizations. The campaign advocated for state legislation to improve employment agency laws that were adopted in 2017.

Next Steps

After her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, Laura worked as a Marvin M. Karpatkin Fellow with the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 2015, she joined the National Employment Law Project (NELP) where she is now the Immigrant Worker Justice Program Director.

Laura joined NELP in 2015 and is currently NELP’s Immigrant Worker Justice Program Director. Previously, Laura supported NELP’s efforts to create a good jobs economy by providing legal and technical assistance to local, state, and national campaigns to raise the minimum wage and enforce labor standards. Her work has included supporting campaigns to defend local policies from state preemption, expanding local authority to adopt pro-worker policies, and contributing to research on the abuse of state preemption. In her previous role as Legal Director of the Local Solutions Support Center’s Joint Project with NELP, Laura oversaw LSSC’s legal work focused on deploying proactive legal strategies to help communities resist and reverse state preemption laws.

Laura’s background includes a variety of social and economic justice-related work, including an Equal Justice Works Fellowship at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, where she represented immigrant workers in litigation and assisted community groups seeking policy change. As a Marvin M. Karpatkin Fellow with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, Laura supported litigation and conducted legal research related to debtors’ prisons, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other major sources of racial injustice in the U.S. Before attending law school, Laura worked for JUNTA for Progressive Action in New Haven, Connecticut, focusing on local economic development and immigrant worker advocacy.


Two New York legislators are backing legislation to stop low wage workers from being preyed upon

Labor sharks sink teeth into low-wage immigrant workers

A State Inquiry Is Said to Target Job Agencies

The Project

Jalise provided representation to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender nonconforming students in New York City facing school suspensions, and advocated for their equal access to education.

Too often, the heightened visibility of LGBTQ and gender nonconforming youth attracts unjustified negative attention. In schools, this negative attention can manifest in destructive bullying situations and in teachers’ biases. Both circumstances can lead to increased contact with school discipline and school police, which can ultimately lead to dropping out. Additionally, because students in NYC schools are overwhelmingly youth of color, many of these LGBTQ/GNC students occupy a doubly marginalized status. The 40,000-100,000 LGBTQ students in NYC public schools need an advocate to stand up, for their rights and to end policies that lead to disproportionate discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two years, Jalise has:

  • Advocated for reform of school climate and discipline policies to administrative agencies and legislators.
  • Represented six students in school suspension matters and provided advice and “Know Your Rights” materials, to many more students and families.
  • Developed and administered trainings, for school staff and advocates on removing barriers, to education for LGBTQ and gender nonconforming students.

Next Steps

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Jalise plans to serve as a law clerk, to Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis of the U.S. District Court, for the Southern District of New York.

The Project

Loretta empowered low-income children and families by providing direct representation to children in child welfare proceedings where reunification is the goal, while building a practice model focusing on collaboration with parents’ attorneys to avoid unnecessary removals, speed up the reunification process and keep families together.

New York City has approximately 9,000 children in foster care. Many of these children are removed from their families due to circumstances that stem from poverty. National studies have shown that children in foster care are at high risk for academic failure, violence, drug abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and mental and physical illness. This project creates a practice model to shorten children’s stay in foster care by preventing initial removals and speeding up family reunification rates in order to improve life outcomes for children involved in the system and empower children and families.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two years, Loretta has:

  • Provided direct representation to 124 clients
  • Successfully reunified 51 children with their families
  • Won or settled 16 emergency removal hearings on behalf of her clients permitting them to return home
  • Successfully reunified 35 clients by means of trial/final discharge or applications to modify dispositional orders
  • Successfully dismissed 3 cases at trial, 2 of which by prima facie applications

What’s Next

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Loretta plans to:

  • Work as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society, Juvenile Rights Practice (JRP)
  • Continue representation of child welfare clients
  • Conduct trainings for new hires and JRP attorneys, social workers and paralegals on reunification advocacy
  • Help senior management establish permanent reunification teams in each borough
  • Represent delinquency clients as part of the new Raise the Age Legislation

The Project

Naomi promoted economic justice by providing legal services and other financial advocacy to women living in poverty and facing economic crisis caused by divorce, domestic abuse, and consumer debt.

Women living in poverty are disproportionately impacted by the financial trauma of divorce, especially when they are saddled with debts which will trap their family in poverty.  Often, these financial crises are caused by partner abuse, such as the withholding of income, identity theft, and coercive debt.  Creditors and debt buyers may mirror and perpetuate patterns of power and control by harassing and deceitfully obtaining default judgments against uninformed and unrepresented defendants.  This project expanded Her Justice’s existing services for women in New York City’s five boroughs by providing holistic legal representation and financial advocacy in consumer debt defense cases and in divorces.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship period, Naomi:

  • Directly represented 13 women in 15 legal cases, and co-mentored pro bono teams on an additional five cases in Family Court, Supreme Court Matrimonial and Consumer Defense
  • Provided advice, counsel, and brief services to over 259 people through Her Justice, CLARO clinics, and Volunteer Lawyer for the Day programs
  • Designed and executed a two-day pro bono training and legal clinic at Kramer Levin to provide legal services for women at the initial stages of a litigated divorce
  • Trained community partners and Her Justice staff on Domestic Violence and Consumer Debt Issues, by conducting trainings and creating educational materials, including a Debt Assessment Tool

Next Steps

Naomi continues to develop the Marital Debt Project at Her Justice as a staff attorney. She is currently working to expand the legal services provided and advocate for systemic awareness and change.


Domestic abuse and identity theft

Why Marital Identity Theft Is So Hard To Fight

Promoting Economic Justice for Women