Confronting the Injustices of Our Nation’s Immigration Courts Through Community Lawyering

/ Blog Post

Photo of Alison Heinen
Photo of Alison Siczek

By Alison Siczek, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by Beyond Legal Aid. Alison’s Fellowship is cosponsored by Exelon Corporation and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

For the past three months, I have spoken to Juana every week. Some weeks are better than others. There are days she can focus solely on caring for her family. Other days, the layered trauma of the past few decades comes rushing back in terrifying waves.

Back in Mexico, a man kidnapped Juana and kept her captive for years. After she escaped with her four children, caring for them became her whole life. She later witnessed a murder by notorious narcotraffickers and testified against them in open court. Local police and prosecutors told her to flee to the United States.

Since she arrived in the United States, she has again been focused on survival. Her granddaughter, who she has cared for her whole life, fled with her, and now Juana helps care for her granddaughter’s children as well. Juana’s final asylum hearing was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the next traumatic experience, of reliving all of her past horrors in front of an immigration judge, is on hold for now.

The absolute strength and bravery of the mothers I have worked alongside the past year and a half is unwavering. Navigating the complexity of immigration courts, especially with its pandemic-related postponements and delays, can be all-consuming. Removal proceedings in immigration court are life-changing. They can mean a chance at a free life versus the risk of death upon removal.

The injustices of our nation’s immigration courts are well-known. What often gets overlooked is the life outside of the small, cold, windowless courtrooms. Parents who, waiting on final hearings scheduled two or three years down the line, are struggling to feed their families while they are not yet eligible for work permits. Mothers who, on their own, are navigating schools, financial institutions, and housing options, often in a language they barely know.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship has allowed me to provide holistic representation for these families who are in removal proceedings. In addition to direct representation in their legal matters, I have helped them make connections with counseling services, public benefits programs, and tax filing assistance. Fortunately, I am not alone in this endeavor. Through the community lawyering model of my host organization, Beyond Legal Aid, I am connected with community-based and activist organizations throughout the Greater Chicagoland Area.

This collaboration with community members is what matters the most to me. I am not the one who knows what the communities I work with need the most—the communities themselves do. I do not decide the goals and needs that are prioritized. The autonomous community members, leaders, and activists I collaborate with are the decision-makers.

This collaboration with community members is what matters the most to me. I am not the one who knows what the communities I work with need the most—the communities themselves do.

Alison Siczek /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Mothers are often the leaders in these communities. For example, Gesenia and Stephanie are both mothers and active members of a neighborhood defense network. While it requires more time and dedication, they have also agreed to be part of the network’s campaign highlighting the separation of families within the United States. The Obama-era policy, exacerbated during the Trump Administration, of family separation at the border may no longer be in the headlines. However, the risk of family separation (due to the limited options for defending against removal) is still very much alive. Gesenia and Stephanie are using their voices and sharing their stories as part of the campaign.

This activist-led campaign aims to bring sustained attention and action to an issue that affects other individual community members. The best chance I have at building sustainable power for other mothers, like Juana, is supporting those fighting for more systemic change in their communities.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship has allowed me to embrace and learn this community-led approach to lawyering. The incredible mothers and families I meet along the way are teaching me and their communities more than they may know.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Alison’s efforts to bring more attention and assistance to immigrant mothers who are in removal proceedings. To learn more about this Fellowship project, visit here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow