Winning as a team

Last December, Fatima flew to Bosnia with her husband Julian and their two young children to see Julian’s family, for what she thought was just a routine visit. But as their scheduled return date neared, Fatima realized that Julian didn’t intend for her or the kids to return to Chicago. Instead, he planned to keep her and the children there against her will, thousands of miles from home, in a remote area of a country where she didn’t speak the language.

Fatima contacted the U.S. Embassy, who sent the police to Julian’s parents’ home. About a week later, with the help of a friend, Fatima eventually managed to flee Bosnia with her children. Two months after she returned home, Julian filed what’s known as a Hague petition, claiming that the children’s “habitual residence” was really in Bosnia, and that any court proceedings to decide custody should take place there, not in the U.S. If Fatima lost the Hague Petition hearing, it was almost certain that Julian would take the children back to Bosnia and make Fatima fight for custody there.

That is when Fatima came to LAF for help. LAF Supervisory attorney, JoAnn Villasenor and staff attorney, Teresa Sullivan and JoAnn Villasenor, took the lead on Fatima’s case, but the complexity and the urgency of the case made it a priority for the Children and Families Practice Group.

When LAF accepted the case, the scheduled hearing was only five days away. Proceedings for Hague petitions are conducted on very short timetables, and for good reason—the law is designed to return home children who have been illegally taken from their home countries as quickly as possible. But this presents an enormous obstacle to someone like Fatima, who couldn’t afford private legal representation, and even to other legal aid agencies that lack the deep bench and the expertise required to pull off a defense so quickly.

“We couldn’t have done this without the help of the whole team,” said Teresa, “our success in this case is a testament to the camaraderie within the practice group, to our ability to support each other when the stakes are high.”

The team supporting Fatima included not just LAF staff, but also Fatima herself, who Teresa describes as “a dream client, a real partner in winning her own case.” Fatima found witnesses, secured documents that established the children’s residency here in the United States, and provided valuable background for Teresa and JoAnn’s depositions. “You need that ammunition to do a thorough deposition with 24 hours’ notice,” says JoAnn.

In the end, all that preparation paid off. Even though LAF only had a week to prepare for a full-blown trial, and even though Teresa and JoAnn received some 47 exhibits, half of them in Bosnia, the night before the trial was set to begin, Fatima won a resounding victory.

The court’s decision only pertains to which country should handle the custody case, not the actual custody decision itself, but though “it sounds like a technical decision, it ensures the children stay here where they belong and that [Fatima’s] life isn’t uprooted to go litigate in a foreign country in a language she doesn’t speak,” Teresa says.

Though her fight isn’t over yet, Fatima was just as excited about the victory as the team from LAF. Walking out of court, Fatima ran into LAF’s executive director John Gallo, who was trying to make it in time to catch the trial’s afternoon session. Thanks to Teresa and JoAnn’s savvy in the courtroom, it turned out the trial was already over; he was too late.  But he did get to meet Fatima, who greeted him with a joyous, “Are you the boss? Can I give you a hug?”

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Meet Ainat Margalit

Ainat Margalit is a Senior Attorney in the Consumer Practice Group at LAF where she focuses on homeownership preservation, bankruptcy and debt collection defense. She’s also the winner of the 2018 Solovy award, which she accepted at our annual luncheon last week.

LAF Annual Luncheon | The Palmer House

Ainat, her children, and her colleagues Rich Wheelock and Lillian Lepe

Ainat began work at LAF 6 years ago, after earning two law degrees (one in Israel, one in Chicago), serving two clerkships (one in Israel, one in Chicago), arguing appeals for the Illinois Attorney General, defending clients against foreclosures at a private firm, and advocating against misleading nutritional information in Washington D.C. She’s also a founding member of Hyde Park Cats, which spays and neuters feral cats on the south side of the city and finds homes for strays. She has a wealth of experience, and she puts it to work on her clients’ behalf.

“I always wanted to be doing legal services,” she says, “I always wanted to use my law degree to help people. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to do so at LAF.”

Now that she’s here at LAF, Ainat’s expertise in consumer protection serves as a valuable resource to clients whose homes and livelihoods are at stake, and she holds the people she helps in very high regard. “I have a client that calls LAF ‘the innocence project for homeowners,’ who says to me ‘all my block has been foreclosed on except for me.’ But she’s the one that reached out, and that’s hard. It’s a leap of faith to ask for help, and not everyone does.”

So as long as there are Chicagoans in need and willing to reach out, Ainat will keep lending her support. “It’s hard times for consumers right now,” she says, “We’ve got to keep on fighting.”

A little advocacy goes a long way

Abigail came to LAF with an unusual problem. She was thirty-five years old and was born and raised in Chicago, but she’d never applied for a social security number. For most of her life, Abigail had lived with her mother, and she’d spent the last several years providing in-home care while her mother’s health declined. The two of them lived on her mom’s pension payments.

When her mother passed away, Abigail was left with no income. She needed an ID to apply for a job, and she needed a social security card to apply for an ID, but she lacked the necessary papers for registering with social security. So she came to LAF’s Katten De Diego legal clinic for help.

“She went her entire childhood without any official documentation. She was totally off the grid,” says Jenelle Pedroza, a social worker with LAF who worked on Abigail’s case. Jenelle accompanied Abigail to multiple appointments with the Social Security Administration, using whatever they could to establish her identity. They got creative with the materials they presented, even using newspaper clippings that featured a young Abigail with her mother at The Field Museum. Amy Marinacci, a supervisory attorney with LAF’s public benefits practice group, drafted a demand letter arguing that the documents Abigail presented were, in fact, sufficient to establish her identity. After months of perseverance, Abigail finally picked up her social security card. “It seems simple, but this had huge implications for what she could and couldn’t do. I hope we’ve helped her start reaching her goals,” says Jenelle.

Dora came to the Woodlawn legal clinic looking for help collecting the benefits from her husband’s life insurance policy after he died unexpectedly. The insurer claimed she was behind on premium payments, until she showed them the money order receipts proving she had, in fact, paid them. Then they claimed that her husband was terminally ill when he bought the policy, and they weren’t obligated to pay. VISTA attorney Dana Harbaugh provided the medical records proving that their claim was bogus.

Dora had been getting the run-around for months, but, as Dana herself says, “As soon as I called and said, ‘I’m her attorney,’ things went a lot more smoothly. And then, one day, I got a $10,000 check in the mail. It’s a great example of how advocacy can make a big difference, even if it’s not a complicated legal issue. That money will make a huge difference in her life, and she was entitled to it the whole time.

Both Abigail and Dora show how a little bit of advocacy goes a long way.

Fighting for immigrant DV survivors, despite limits in the law

Below is a guest post from Nubia Willman, a supervisory attorney in LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group.

At LAF, we’re used to working with limited resources. No fancy messengers to deliver filings, no administrative assistance to put together trial exhibits—none of the frills you expect in a major law firm. Even without those resources, we work hard with what we have because we know that our ultimate tool, the legal system, is supposed to be open and available to all.

In 1996, our funding restrictions changed our ability to represent undocumented immigrants. We were limited to only representing those who were survivors of domestic violence or other serious crimes. Since then, we have advocated for domestic violence survivors seeking legal relief from all around the world. We know how resilient and brave our clients are in the face of horrible, humiliating, life-threatening situations.

Clients like Bhavika, who entered the United States on an H4 visa with her husband. A husband who abused her, threatened to set her on fire, and then demanded she return to India so he could have her committed.

Or like Juan, whose citizen wife physically assaulted him and threatened to murder their children if he didn’t obey her.

Or like Roberta, who fled from Guatemala after her husband strangled her until she blacked out. This confirmed to Roberta that the years of abuse she endured would result in her death.

Roberta fled to the U.S. and sought help at LAF. Through a four-year process, we successfully obtained asylum for her based on the domestic violence she suffered in her home country.

Now, the recent decision by Attorney General Sessions that domestic violence can no longer serve as grounds for asylum erases a remedy for thousands of women like Roberta, who are fleeing to the U.S. to save their lives. The inability to apply for DV-based asylum will result in the death and torture of countless women.

The loss of this remedy also creates a chilling effect for other victims of domestic violence, clients like Bhavika and Juan, who experienced DV in the U.S. and now fear that our country doesn’t value protecting victims of inter-family violence.

This decision limits the legal relief available to so many, yet at LAF we’ve adapted to making due with limited options. We will continue to fight for all survivors of domestic violence—both in and out of immigration proceedings—to ensure their safety and access to the legal system. We will continue to use all tools at our disposal and fight for all appropriate forms of legal relief for all our clients.

You can join us in that fight! Share this post and like our page on Facebook—let others know what good work LAF is doing. And if you feel moved, make a donation so we can continue to help even more Bhavikas, Juans, and Robertas.