Growing up in El Salvador, sisters Maria and Ana lived in constant fear. A gang had forcibly recruited the older sister by threatening to harm the younger sister. On top of that, both siblings suffered significant child abuse from a family member. The sisters fled the country and sought safety in the U.S. Once in the Chicago area, they were connected with the National Immigrant Justice Center, one of the many outstanding organizations you support through the Investing in Justice Campaign. NIJC’s staff spent extensive time earning the children’s trust and learning their story. With NIJC’s legal assistance, Maria and Ana were granted asylum and can now begin their recovery in the United States.
Maria and Ana are just two of many immigrants and refugees who have come to Chicago to escape danger and persecution in their home countries. With over 300,000 undocumented immigrants living in Chicago, the need for immigration legal services is great. Immigration is one of the most complex areas of law, and undocumented immigrants generally do not have a right to an attorney. Without counsel, immigrants, including children, struggle to navigate a complicated and dysfunctional system alone. As a result, many have to appear before an immigration judge and against a government attorney without anyone to assist them. Many who are eligible for protection are unaware of or incapable of enforcing their legal rights.
In Chicago, a major source of legal assistance for immigrants is NIJC, a program of Heartland Alliance. Founded over 30 years ago, NIJC provides access to justice to low-income immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Headquartered in Chicago with offices in Northern Indiana and Washington D.C., NIJC provides often life-saving legal representation to nearly 10,000 immigrants and refugees each year, including children, LGBT individuals, families, people fleeing persecution, and immigrants in detention.
NIJC educates community members and policymakers, advocating for a humane immigration system that works for everyone. NIJC’s executive director, Mary Meg McCarthy, describes the organization as both service-based and change-focused, using what NIJC attorneys learn on the front lines to influence policy at the federal level.
NIJC is one of several nonprofit organizations in Illinois providing immigration legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees. What makes NIJC unique is the breadth of the services it provides, in large part due to its sizeable pool of more than 1,500 pro bono attorneys.
Leveraging these considerable pro bono contributions enables NIJC to provide direct representation in a range of cases. Staff and volunteer attorneys represent adults and children like Maria and Ana who are in the U.S. and fear returning to their home country because they have suffered or fear persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality or political opinion. Other cases include deportation defense and cases involving victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other crimes. In addition, NIJC engages in impact litigation and policy advocacy in an effort to improve our country’s broken immigration system.
Under the new administration, immigration policy has significantly shifted and the situation remains fluid, with more changes anticipated in the coming weeks. In the past month, the White House and Department of Homeland Security have issued a series of documents detailing a significant expansion of immigration enforcement and detention in the United States.
Since these orders were signed and memos issued, NIJC and other organizations have seen an outpouring of interest from Chicago’s legal community in representing immigrants. A list of current immigration pro bono opportunities and resources is available on Illinois Legal Aid Online. NIJC, along with partners such as the Chicago Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, will host a deportation defense symposium on March 16. While there are currently a limited number of deportation cases available, the training will help to build the capacity of lawyers available to represent immigrants facing deportation, a number expected to grow under the new policies. In the meantime, NIJC has available asylum cases and other opportunities for attorneys and other legal professionals who want to get involved.
In the coming months, NIJC and its pro bono partners will continue their work representing immigrants and refugees like Maria and Ana, while promoting immigration reform reflecting American values of justice and due process.