LAF Hosts 2nd Annual Modern-Day American Worker Conference

IMG_2108LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group hosted its 2nd Annual Modern-Day American Worker Conference: Enforcing Workers’ Rights in Changing Times held at Chicago-Kent College of Law on Friday, March 24.  For the second year, the Conference was generously sponsored by the Polk Bros Foundation and hosted close to 70 participants.  A variety of attorneys and advocates discussed a wide range of topics affecting low-wage workers and immigrants in Illinois, including discrimination in temporary work agencies, the psycho-social impacts of wage theft and sexual assault, and document abuse.  With LAF attorneys as moderators, panelists included legal experts such as Pablo Godoy, Trial Attorney with the US Department of Justice’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section, and Healing to Action Co-Founder Sheerine Alemzadeh.  Attendees included officials from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, in addition to immigration and employment law attorneys, law students, and community-based organizations assisting victims of human trafficking and low-wage workers.

Speakers throughout the day touched on some of the key legal issues impacting migrant workers’ rights in Illinois, as well as how they manifest in our modern legal system. The Conference’s opening lecturer was Sheila Maddali, the Co-Director of Restaurant Opportunities Center, who discussed the legal rights of restaurant workers and her agency’s work on their behalf.  Ms. Alemzadeh, along with Professor Jacob Lesniewski of Dominican University and Arturo Carillo of St. Anthony’s Wellness Program discussed recent research on the psycho-social impact of wage theft on workers.  In the afternoon, LAF’s Miguel Keberlein, Director of the Immigration and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, discussed vulnerabilities of low-wage agricultural workers, who have explaining how these workers have always been exempt from overtime pay standards, unlike all other sectors.  Another panel, with attorney Godoy, the Regional Director of the NLRB, attorney Kalman Resnick and Raise the Floor Director Lydia Colunga discussed document abuse discrimination and remedies for workers. As the closing panelists, Miguel and former LAF attorney Jose Alonso, shared googlemapping tools they use to identify and track places where migrant workers live and work in order to create effective outreach to workers in rural Illinois. These tools make it easier to find and keep track of migrant workers, who are often socially and geographically isolated, in order to intervene and advocate on behalf of exploited and vulnerable workers throughout Illinois.

Thanks to everyone who was able to join LAF for these enlightening discussions. Special thanks to our community partners for coming together to share information and resources. These efforts will continue to build collaborative relationships between LAF and other stakeholders in the effort to enforce workers’ rights in our communities.

Heartwarming Card from Client

In this charged political climate, it’s hard sometimes to remember the everyday impact of our work at LAF.  We can get caught up talking about the impact proposed funding cuts would have on our agency or the impact proposed policies would have on our clients.  But what LAF does every day has nothing to do with politics.  Every day we work to make a difference in peoples’ lives, one client at a time.

And often, it’s those clients who break through that fog of distractions and remind us about the core of our mission.  A few days ago, Karen Doran, a Staff Attorney in our Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, got a card from a client that did just that.  The client had been unfairly denied unemployment benefits and was facing all sorts of financial problems.  Karen’s advocacy won her the benefits to which she was entitled.  Karen was just doing her job, but the client’s effusive gratitude is a ringing reminder of the real impact LAF’s work can have in a client’s life.  She sent the following note in a card to Karen:

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Repsonse to Proposed Federal Budget Cuts

The federal budget proposal released this morning by the President includes a complete defunding of the Legal Services Corporation. A mere 0.0001% of the overall federal budget, LSC funds the majority of civil legal aid agencies across the country. LSC funding is 46% of LAF’s budget. The budget proposal also includes the elimination of the AmeriCorps program, the Community Development Block Grant program, and several Department of Justice grants that fund LAF’s work with people living in poverty in our community. These cuts would be devastating to LAF and its clients across Chicagoland, so your contributions are more important than ever now.
The Legal Services Corporation, set up much like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (also eliminated in this budget proposal), is a nonprofit organization that distributes federal funding to grantees in every state and territory of the United States, to provide professional legal aid, at no cost, to people facing real emergencies. LAF got its start more than 50 years ago with funding from LSC’s predecessors to “provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation.” “Our aim,” President Lyndon Johnson declared, “is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and above all, to prevent it.”
The staff, Board, and family of LAF and I remain committed to that aim. We continue to believe that civil legal aid is the single most effective tool to combat poverty and bring families out of poverty for good. Without LSC and the other funding eliminated under the proposed budget, there will be more families made homeless by illegal evictions and unfair foreclosures, more victims of abuse and trafficking trapped in dangerous situations, more children denied special education services, more people denied healthcare and the public benefits to which they are entitled, more seniors taken advantage of by scheming contractors, more veterans whose service has cost them their health or their homes, and more immigrants without access to a fair shot at the American Dream. Without LSC, there will be many more people living in poverty denied their right to justice in the American court system.
I cannot say what LAF would look like without the funding and guidance from LSC and these other funding sources, but we will work to develop a plan if this budget is passed by Congress. Even with our other generous funders, no organization can absorb a cut of nearly half without having a smaller staff serving fewer clients. But LAF will not be shuttered by this. We are dedicated to our mission, our city, our clients, our practice, and the ideal that justice, fairness, equality, and representation should not depend on a person’s ability to pay. With your ongoing and increased financial support, LAF will remain the source of the best legal help money can’t buy.

February eNewsletter

The winds of political change have swept over the country, and word of massive change in programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and the Affordable Care Act is in the air.  Immigrant families are terrified of being caught up in mass deportations.  Funding for even the Legal Service Corporation itself is at risk – which would slash LAF’s budget nearly in half.
No one can predict the outcome of the political debate, but it certainly looks as if, in the words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, “a hard rain’s gonna fall” on people who have very little shelter from the storm.

“This is Grassroots”

A Snapshot of the Woodlawn Legal Clinic and the Community that Made it Happen

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Working in civil legal aid, you become accustomed to limited resources and occasional setbacks. With only 15 minutes before the Woodlawn Legal Clinic opens for clients, the internet vanishes and the staff is hard-pressed to find it. While Haleigh Haffner, an AmeriCorps VISTA in LAF’s Children and Families Practice Group, makes calls for technical assistance, Regina Hernandez, a VISTA Attorney at LAF and the key figure behind the clinic, begins pondering Plans B and C out loud. No internet means squinting at the small screen of Regina’s cell phone and, once the clinic finishes, potential overtime creating client profiles in LAF’s case database. When Haleigh hangs up without good news, Regina plugs in a small desk fan (“It gets hot in here.”), and settles in at one of the tables in a secluded area that she calls the “war room.” With piles of advice on everything from eviction to domestic violence, a box of sandwiches, and plenty of chairs for attorneys to sit and strategize on behalf of their clients, it looks like the first line of defense on what will become a legal battlefield. “We can’t let this [setback] affect the people out there who need our help,” she gestures to those lining up in the waiting room. “The important thing is that the people here are seen and served. We’ll make it work.”

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AmeriCorps VISTAs, Haleigh Haffner and Kalin O’Connor

The Woodlawn Legal Clinic began 6 years ago through the partnership of LAF, DLA Piper, and the AKArama foundation, the oldest Greek-letter organization established by college educated African American women. On the second Wednesday of every month, attorneys and volunteers set up a low-budget mobile law firm at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter community center in Hyde Park and make their expertise available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Since its conception, Woodlawn has served 875 clients, an average of about 30 people each month.  However, this February’s clinic saw a record 50 clients. “This is the most we’ve ever had,” Regina is wide-eyed as Kalin O’Connor, the VISTA Volunteer Coordinator at LAF, delivers yet another pile of intake forms to her makeshift desk. She’s not entirely surprised though. There’s been a concerted effort to spread the word, an initiative that’s ramped up recently with partnerships with other community organizations.

As the night progresses, the chairs in the waiting room fill up and so do the stations in the interview space where clients discuss their legal problem with an attorney. The staff is always in motion, dashing back and forth between interviews and the war room, shaking hands with clients they’ve helped and calling the names of the next in line. To someone just stepping into the building it might look like chaos, but there’s a rhythm to it. Regina’s fan makes a lot of sense. The check-in table has become crowded with new clients, each guided through the check-in process by one of the dedicated volunteers. As the first point of contact for clients at the clinic, these volunteers answer initial questions and smooth out initial anxieties. “People come in with a lot of issues, some from a very emotional place. They represent out there,” Ruth Slaughter, Director of Corporate & Community Relations at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter, points outside. “We keep that in mind and work to meet them where they’re at.”

Meeting people where they’re at sums up Woodlawn Legal Clinic’s origin story. Its founders saw that people in legal need were often unable to make the trip to their offices for counsel, so they decided to bring the counsel to them. “For a few years now, pro bono resources have been shrinking,” Annie Geraghty Helms, DLA Piper’s Director and Counsel for Pro Bono Programs, told the ABA Journal. “We have a responsibility, a real call to action to work together.” Working with AKArama and LAF, Annie conceptualized the clinic as a project built from community. “More and more, what I’ve seen from the leadership of corporate clients and in the firm world is this recognition that we are all lawyers and in it together.”

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LAF Volunteer, Margaret Boyd, and Ruth Slaughter

She is not alone in her belief.  The volunteers dedicating their time to Woodlawn come from LAF and DLA Piper, as well as Chicago law schools and legal departments of companies like Hyatt and Discover Financial Services. This allows volunteers to serve clients in teams, each member contributing their own set of skills while also creating an educational experience for all. Often the legal intervention is brief (a sternly worded phone call from an attorney to an unfair landlord is sometimes all that’s needed to set things straight), but when the cases get more complex volunteers will establish a plan of action with LAF staff. In true legal aid fashion, the system is effective because no resource is left untapped. A volunteer attorney may practice divorce law by day, but at the clinic they may suddenly need to advise a client struggling to attain much-needed Public Benefits. “It’s really a testament to the fact that lawyers, no matter their legal field, are valuable as attorneys,” explains Gwen Hickey, a VISTA in the External Relations Department at LAF and first time volunteer at the clinic. “With the guidance of LAF staff, they can use their training and license to do great work for clients outside of their practice area.”

At the end of the evening, there are still clients being interviewed; one, who came in after the cut-off time, was given an appointment at the Jose de Diego Clinic, a partnership between LAF and Katten Muchin Rosenman. Dennericka Brooks, a senior attorney in LAF’s Housing Practice Group who’s been at Woodlawn since its beginning, is still discussing a case (“She’s notorious for taking on clients, even when she is already at her limit with case work,” Regina says.) and first time volunteers are already talking about next month. “This is grassroots,” Bertina Power-Stewart, President of the Theta Omega Chapter, grins and spreads her arms to show the bustling AKArama center. “This comes from the community.”

 

Let’s Do Lunch: “Understanding Human Trafficking”

trafficking-brownbagEarlier this week, LAF hosted its first Brownbag Roundtable of 2017, featuring Staff Attorney Amy Martin and Supervisory Attorney Lisa Palumbo from LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. With sixty minutes and an attentive crowd, they shed light on the global issue of human trafficking—a form of modern slavery that can include sexual exploitation, forced labor, or both.

Through force, fraud, and coercion, traffickers prey on the socially and economically vulnerable. In the United States, false promises of employment or citizenship lure immigrants on temporary visas—though many trafficking victims are U.S. citizens. “One of the common misconceptions is that they’ve been brought from abroad,” Lisa explains. “But that’s not always the case.”

The number of labor trafficking cases reported in the United States increased last year, likely due to outreach efforts and a rising level of public awareness. Still, human trafficking remains a vastly underreported crime. Those particularly vulnerable often lack a social safety net and familiarity with their legal rights. Moreover, they’re often socially and geographically isolated, living in fear of retaliation from their traffickers.

LAF launched the Trafficking Survivors’ Assistance Program (TSAP) in 2014 to combat human trafficking in Illinois. Through TSAP, LAF provides comprehensive legal services—including assistance with issues like immigration, employment, public benefits, and housing—to about 200 trafficking survivors each year.

Amy described one such former client named James, a talented athlete who was recruited in Nigeria at the age of 14 to play basketball in the United States. Upon James’ arrival, his trafficker forced him to sleep on the floor of this garage, withheld food and water as a means to control him, and refused to let him tell his family about what was really going on. Unbeknownst to James, his trafficker was meanwhile accepting thousands of dollars in gifts from athletic recruiters on his behalf. When James found LAF, they were able to help him obtain a T visa—a type of visa reserved for victims of trafficking—empowering him to reclaim his autonomy and get his life back on track.

Thanks to all who were able to join us for this illuminating discussion. For those who weren’t, feel free send any questions or requests for more information to tsap@lafchicago.org.