After crossing the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso border with her family in 1997, an undocumented woman now living in Michigan said she hoped to escape the violence and poverty in Mexico and establish a new life in the United States.
“We came here because the violence was starting to get out of hand, and we were really poor down in Mexico,” the woman, who requested anonymity, said. “Sometimes we didn’t have any food. My mom worked two jobs, my dad worked two jobs and we were barely making any money.”
But when the woman’s family members were arrested in Michigan as a result of their undocumented immigration status last November, she faced the possibility of deportation and turned to the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Ann Arbor for legal aid.
The MIRC is part of the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Poverty Law Program — a partnership between the University of Michigan Law School and the Legal Services of South Central Michigan — which offers free legal services to individuals like the undocumented women from Mexico. Services include legal consultation on issues such as foreclosure, immigration rights, family law, consumer law and elder law.
The MIRC has been part of the program for several years, according to Carolyn Krieger, an attorney in the clinic who worked with the undocumented woman. Krieger is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal fellow and one of the two fellows in the MIRC.
Lorray Brown, co-manager and consumer law attorney of MPLP, said the poverty law clinic — which began in 1997 — receives federal funding to provide pro bono legal services to underprivileged populations. MPLP clients must meet an income eligibility guideline and have an income that falls below the national poverty threshold.
“We’re providing the same kind of services that a general law firm would, except the service is for free, so poor people can come to us and be able to get good representation,” Brown said.
The program also handles cases involving systemic issues that have a broader impact on certain communities, Brown said.
“We wouldn’t necessarily represent the individual person or run into court to stop an eviction, but if there’s a policy or they’re shutting down an entire rental unit of an entire subsidized apartment building because of some bad policy, we would get involved in it because the decision would result in very broad impacts,” Brown said.
There are about similar programs similar to the MPLP located throughout Michigan. Brown said the Ann Arbor office provides resources and support for other field programs, which include training, research and litigation support.
Krieger said she operates a project in the Ann Arbor office that works specifically with immigrants who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Krieger said she helps her clients to pursue U Visas, which she said are for “undocumented victims of crimes who are cooperative with the police.”
Krieger said she also handles cases involving issues with the Violence Against Women Act for instances in which women typically would petition to gain legal status but are unable to do so because of abuse.
“It gives the abuse victim a path to basically petition for herself and get herself a Green Card,” Krieger said.
The MIRC also allows Law School students to volunteer in the center to gain knowledge and experience with immigration law.
Katie Kersh, a first-year Law School student, has been volunteering at the MIRC this semester. She said she decided to go to law school because she wants to pursue a legal career dealing with immigration issues.
To prepare for her future work as a lawyer, Kersh works with Krieger in the office and assists clients in the process of filing applications for U Visas.
“By helping (clients) with the process, they can feel safe and also they can not worry about their abuser because they’re helping to put him in jail,” Kersh said. “And then also they can feel a sense of security because they have a visa now.”
Using her proficiency in Spanish, Kersh said she is able to facilitate communication with clients to get their account of a situation. She added that the process of obtaining documents like police reports can be difficult because clients are sometimes afraid to speak to the police since they’re undocumented.
“Sometimes it takes a lot for them to get the courage to go down to the police station,” she said.
Kersh, who is also a member of an organization on campus called Michigan Immigrant and Labor Law Association, said her work in this group and the MIRC has helped broaden her understanding of the human side of law.
“(The MIRC) has provided not only that real life experience, but it’s also made me feel like I’m really helping people instead of just reading cases all day,” she said.
For the undocumented woman, who said she wasn’t arrested because her two children were born in the United States, the MIRC has been helpful in answering her questions and explaining the paperwork necessary to become a legal resident or citizen, she said.
The client said though she hasn’t yet gone to court to obtain documentation, she’s met with immigration officers in Detroit. She added that she hopes her case will be able heard in court this month and that she is grateful to have the clinic’s services.
“(Krieger is) helping me for free, and I started to see results here and there, and I’m very confident of her work,” the client said.
Krieger explained that the MIRC is valuable for those on both ends.
“Helping these women obtain legal immigration status for the first time in their lives is incredibly rewarding,” Krieger wrote in an e-mail interview. “It’s life changing for them in a greater way than really any other legal outcome.”