Dominique Mejia

The Project

Dominique (she/her/hers) uses advocacy, outreach, and litigation to protect Illinois immigrant youth from deportation by accessing state court via a new law that expands Special Immigrant Juvenile Status eligibility.

Every year, thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children enter the United States fleeing violence, abuse, and neglect. They may face deportation and family separation if they cannot establish eligibility for immigration relief. Some of these immigrant youth can obtain protection through Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which creates a path to lawful status for immigrant youth who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected. Although federal law makes SIJS available to youth under 21, many states limit eligibility for predicate orders to children under 18, effectively excluding eligible youth based on their residence. In 2021, Illinois expanded eligibility to 18 to 21-year-olds. There is now an urgent need to increase awareness of the new law and ensure immigrant youth have access to attorneys with experience in both the immigration and Illinois court systems.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Dominique will represent immigrant youth in both state court and immigration proceedings. She will also conduct legal trainings for attorneys, judges, and immigrant youth advocates who may screen and represent clients in SIJS proceedings, as well as provide pro bono training and support. Additionally, Dominique will develop best practices and models for implementing this new law in Illinois.

My interest in immigration law and public service generally is deeply rooted in my personal experience being a child of undocumented Mexican immigrants. I learned from a young age about the importance of community and putting others before oneself, but I also learned the harsh realities of living without privilege and security which fuels my passion for this cause.

Dominique Mejia /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Using community lawyering strategies to support low-income renters in the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown in navigating housing disputes and protect people with prior justice involvement from housing discrimination under Cook County’s new Just Housing Amendment.

Most people lack any knowledge about Cook County’s new Just Housing Amendment, a law that prohibits housing discrimination based on prior justice involvement. Charlie’s Fellowship seeks to fix this problem by making UPLC a leader in JHA legal aid and advocacy – and as a result of this work, more people are getting into housing and more landlords are following the law. Charlie’s Fellowship also answers the drastic need for eviction defense, prevention, and trainings amid the COVID-19 pandemic in his own rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Uptown. Charlie works closely with Uptown organizers and community groups to help other renters in the neighborhood understand and exercise their rights to safe and stable housing.

As a tenant in Uptown, Charlie serves his own neighborhood, which he moved to after experiencing housing displacement in another part of Chicago. His background in organizing and coalition-building has taught him to always look for ways to expand the table and join people together around shared values and visions for the future.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Charlie has:

  • Helped tenants secure housing, avoid evictions, and obtain rent relief and repairs
  • Collaborated with local organizers and activists to resist gentrification in Uptown
  • Launched a legal aid practice, complete with resources and a virtual clinic, for justice-involved individuals under the Cook County Just Housing Amendment
  • Led a team of advocates to improve JHA enforcement and compliance by major housing providers
  • Delivered legal rights trainings on housing rights in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic

Next Steps

In the next six months, Charlie plans to:

  • Place more people into housing by asserting their rights under the Just Housing Amendment
  • Provide legal training and representation to help tenants facing the COVID-19 eviction crisis
  • Expand support for tenant organizing and movement-building in Uptown and beyond
  • Collaborate with local advocates to protect Uptown from permanent gentrification

Media

Alan Mills and Charlie Isaacs: Cook County is a fair housing model for those who paid their debt to society

2021 Scales of Justice Highlights

Illinois' Eviction Moratorium Explained

Neighborhoods are comprised not of buildings, but of the people who live in them.

Charles J. Isaacs /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Katherine will represent undocumented immigrant children who have suffered sexual violence in immigration matters and work to increase their access to mental health services through community and network building.

There is no right to no-cost counsel in immigration court proceedings, even for unaccompanied minors. Less than one-third of children end up with legal representation; it is estimated that 90% of these children are ultimately reported. For many children, especially those who have experienced gender-based violence, these legal obstacles are supplanted by mental health challenges. They experience higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, needs that too often go unmet.

As a law student, Katherine worked with girls who fled harassment from gang members and men in their family after their government failed to protect them. The U.S. has a profound role to play in helping these girls escape violence and empowering them to lead healthy, productive lives here, but the system is not set up to embrace that role. Katherine knew that she wanted to build a bridge to get these girls and others like them over our system’s hurdles and on their way to better futures.

Fellowship Plans

Katherine will provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors fleeing gender-based violence and create materials detailing the mental health services available to unaccompanied minors. She will also work to identify clients with unmet mental health needs and provide referrals for services and direct advocacy.

The Project

Chicago’s vehicle impound system is particularly aggressive, seizing cars and fining their owners thousands of dollars for dozens of different offenses. Due to certain offenses, and oppressively steep resulting fines, cars in Chicago can be impounded indefinitely, even if the owner is not present or charged of a crime. Thousands of vehicles that allegedly have some connection to criminal activity are impounded each year by the Chicago Police Department. Deprived of transportation and the ability to get to work and earn a living, residents’ lives quickly spiral out of control.

In total, Chicago fined motorists more than $17 million between March 2017 and March 2018 for 31 different types of offenses, ranging from DUI to having illegal fireworks in a car to playing music too loud, according to data from the Chicago Administrative Hearings Department. About $10 million of those fines were for driving on a suspended license, and more than $3 million were for drug offenses. The program impounds cars even when the owner beats a criminal case or isn’t charged with a crime in the first place. It impounds cars even when the owner isn’t driving, like when a child is borrowing a parent’s car.

Andrew’s project aimed to provide direct representation to vehicle owners in city impoundment proceedings and state forfeiture proceedings, with the ultimate goal of successfully advocating for changes in state and city policies surrounding civil asset forfeiture. Andrew created Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Defense Project (CAFDP), which provides representation to individuals who have had their vehicles impounded due to arrests, stopping further cycles of poverty.

Fellowship Highlights

During his Fellowship, Andrew provided full representation to 117 clients in a total of approximately 170 cases, including state forfeiture cases, city impoundment proceedings, and city appeals. He referred 26 forfeiture cases to pro bono attorneys at United and Seyfarth, the sponsors of his Fellowship, with approximately 27 pro bono attorneys participating. Additionally, Andrew served as chair of a subcommittee of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice’s Forms Committee, leading a team of judges and lawyers to create statewide standardized forms for pro se litigants in civil asset forfeiture cases.

Andrew also worked with legislators, the ACLU, Illinois State Bar Association, and others on the drafting and negotiation of House Bill 303 (Senate Amendment 1), which passed recently. He participated in in-person negotiations with law enforcement groups in Springfield in March and May and drafted sections of the law- including the “innocent owner hearing” provisions that allow an innocent owner to file a motion for an expedited hearing. As a result of our efforts and others, the state’s attorney’s office has begun changing its enforcement policies in forfeiture cases- dismissing more cases and deciding on criteria for what cases they will and will not accept from the police.

What’s Next

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Andrew plans to begin a two-year federal clerkship with Judge Carol Mirando in the Middle District of Florida.

Media

Chicago Is Trying to Pay Down Its Debt by Impounding Innocent People’s Cars

Illinois Issues: Civil Asset Forfeiture Critics Complain Innocent People Pay

Vetting Worthy Pro Bono Projects

The most striking thing was going to court and seeing the sheer number of people who didn’t have anyone to represent them. That showed me the need.

Andrew Hemmer /
Corporate Counsel Business Journal