Meet José Alonso, and October eNewsletter

Eight years ago, straight out of law school, José Alonso joined LAF and never looked back.  Now a Senior Attorney in LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, José has made himself irreplaceable at LAF.  José works with immigrants, migrants, and seasonal agricultural workers across the state in cases as diverse as wage theft, domestic violence, housing, human trafficking, discrimination, working conditions, immigration, and public benefits.  He locates these workers, educates them about their legal rights, and empowers them through legal representation.  This work requires him to be a highly skilled attorney with expertise across a wide range of poverty law issues.  It also requires José to be willing to travel long hours across the state, build trust with clients, and understand the nuances of doing outreach.  José talks about how important that basic trust is, and about how LAF is often the only thing standing between the workers and poverty, abuse, and discrimination:  “Many times, we’re it.  We have the trust in these communities, that if they have legal issues or immigration issues, we will help them.  We’re it.  We have to help them.”
Recently, that trust brought eight migrant workers to José to tell him their stories of backbreaking work in dangerous and illegal conditions, including working long hours in extreme heat, not being paid the minimum wage, not having access to bathrooms and potable drinking water in the field, and having to sleep on a hardwood floor.  José helped the workers raise claims against their employer for violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Illinois Minimum Wage Law, and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.  With LAF’s help, these workers obtained a settlement of more than $20,000, with an additional $7,500 in attorney’s fees and costs to LAF.  This is the sort of work that keeps Jose at LAF, he explains:  “To be able to have a job that allows me to do this, it’s really a dream.  I’ve never charged anybody ever for my legal services, and that makes me feel good.  Plus, working together, finding justice for the immigrant worker population, to analyze a case, to find an immigration remedy, an employment remedy, to achieve justice in a holistic way… it’s exciting.  It keeps me here.”
In honor of his incredible work, he was awarded one of the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Sun-Times Public Interest Fellowships for 2015.  They are proud to help him financially meet his law school loan obligations while he works tirelessly “to serve those who yearn for justice, respect, dignified treatment, equality, opportunity, and access to resources.” Congratulations, José!
Read more about José’s accomplishments, and much more, in LAF’s October eNewsletter, out today!

New White House Initiative Focuses on Legal Aid

On September 24, the White House announced the establishment of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. President Barack Obama released a statement including a six-part plan to make the justice system more accessible by people living in poverty in the United States.

The president believes that by making legal aid a part of existing federal programs, we can help more people more effectively and more efficiently. “By encouraging Federal departments and agencies to collaborate, share best practices, and consider the impact of legal services on the success of their programs,” he explains, “the Federal Government can enhance access to justice in our communities.”

The White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which will be referred to as LAIR, will be led by the U.S. Attorney General the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, and others they designate with the responsibility. It will include members from at least 17 different federal departments, offices, and agencies, including the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Department of Homeland Security, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, Legal Services Corporation, and Social Security Administration. The Department of Justice will be responsible for supplying the resources needed for this initiative to be successful.

LAIR will work with existing federal programs that are serving impoverished communities so they can properly implement legal aid into these programs. Their involvement and research within these programs will “increase the availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families, regardless of wealth or status.” They will meet at least three times a year and work with individuals nationwide on multiple levels of government.

In a world where legal aid is often ignored in the social services conversation, the efforts of President Obama and LAIR can only open doors to bring national awareness to this issue. At LAF, we see the importance of working together to bring change, through our medical-legal partnerships and our ongoing pro bono projects. Helping people achieve the justice they deserve will help us lift Americans out of poverty, and ensure them a permanent solution to a better life.

Poverty Prevents Long-Term Planning

Much of the political rhetoric surrounding poverty focuses on blaming the poor for their situation, and chides them for their lack of self-control.  It often argues that if people living in poverty had better self-control, they could plan for the future and improve their lives.  A recent article published by New Republic sheds some light on these preconceived notions and compiles research to push back against those stereotypes.

The article shows that people living in poverty often don’t have access to the resources necessary to address issues beyond their most immediate needs.  It also argues that the “permanent now” that poverty traps people in prevents long-term planning more than poor self-control does.  In summary:

“The science suggests that poverty has powerful harmful effects on people, and helps explain why it’s so hard to escape.  Their choices are much more a product of their situation, rather than a lack of self-control.”

You can read the whole article here, and you can learn more about the sort of difficult decisions that people living in poverty face at a new training presented by our Young Professionals Board for this year’s Pro Bono Week.  “Tight Budgets & Tough Choices: Poverty, Decisions, and Why Legal Aid Matters” will be led by Allicia L. Aiken and sponsored by Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg LLP.  The training will demonstrate the tough choices the poorest people in our community face in their daily lives, and highlight how legal aid can prevent or even remove the obstacles that keep people stuck in poverty.  The training is free, but requires advance registration, and will take place at by Barack Ferrazzano, on the 39th floor of 200 W. Madison St., from 5:30-7:30pm on Wednesday October 28thRegister for that training here.