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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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.

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.

A Right to Education for Isaiah

LAF’s Education Law team are a quiet group, but they are dedicated champions for the rights of children.  They work every day to demand that children in Chicago’s public schools – including charter schools – receive the quality education they deserve.  Members of the Ed Law team recently shared the story of Isaiah, a student for whom LAF’s services ensured he can succeed in a supportive school environment.

After his kindergarten year, Isaiah’s neighborhood public school was closed by the district.  His mother enrolled him in a charter school for the next year, and requested an evaluation for special education services to help with some emerging behavioral issues related to his diagnosis of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  She received no response.  In a new environment and with no support, six-year-old Isaiah’s behavior only got more disruptive and dangerous.  The school held multiple conferences with his mother, but never began an evaluation for special education services for the first grader.  The charter school ignored every warning sign that Isaiah had a disability and needed special education help.  Instead, the school repeatedly called emergency mental health support services from the State, which ended up sending him to three different psychiatric hospitals in four months, and they refused to let him return to school.

That’s when Isaiah’s family came to LAF for help.  LAF’s attorneys filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which sided with Isaiah on every count: the charter school had failed to identify Isaiah’s need for special education services, and failed to provide the special education services that Isaiah had every right to receive due to his disability.  OCR ordered a full independent evaluation that resulted in a robust individualized education program (IEP) for Isaiah and required that he attend a specialized special education school focused on emotional disabilities.  OCR also required the staff at his old charter school be educated on the laws surrounding special education..

Two years later, Isaiah is in third grade at his specialized school.  Just last week, Isaiah’s mom called LAF and shared that he made the honor roll.  He is doing well in school, his behavioral issues are under control, and he is thriving.  Hopefully, he will be able to transition to a neighborhood school soon.  LAF is proud of the progress Isaiah has made in the new supportive environment he is entitled to have.  We are committed to standing up for the rights of all students with disabilities in our education system, and to ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to succeed in school.

Amy Martin Stands for…Stability

This year, we’re celebrating LAF’s 50th anniversary! To wrap up our big year, we’re celebrating our outstanding staff and volunteers. Keep up with our blog throughout the month of December to get a look at some of the dedicated people who make up LAF and all that it stands for.

“Without a safety net to rely on if something goes wrong, your life can become very chaotic and start to unravel,” says Amy Martin, a Staff Attorney in LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. “LAF helps maintain a safety net for individuals and families in difficult situations – whether it’s representing a domestic violence survivor seeking protection, defending low wage workers experiencing wage theft or other workplace abuse, preventing an eviction that would result in homelessness, or preventing the loss of public benefits or utility services that keep families afloat.  These are just a few examples.”

She recalls a married couple she worked with who came to the US with temporary visas. They accepted jobs at a local restaurant under their employer’s false promise to help them obtain permanent citizenship. For several months, they worked long hours for almost nothing, experienced constant threats and verbal abuse, and were forced to live in a crowded, dirty apartment with other workers from the restaurant. They felt trapped because their employer had taken their passport and other immigrant documents. As the expiration of their temporary visas drew closer, their anxiety levels intensified. When the husband ultimately confronted their employer, he was badly assaulted. With LAF on their side, they were able to obtain visas allowing them to remain in the U.S. legally and eventually pursue a green card. LAF also helped them report the trafficking crime to law enforcement and connect them with a pro bono attorney to pursue a case for civil damages.

“It was a very traumatic situation for them, but because we were able to get them legal status, they’ve become a lot more stable. They’ve been able to access health insurance, find work and permanent housing, and now have the means to better care for their young daughter, Amy says. Their legal status also empowered them to work with law enforcement in its investigation of their trafficker, thereby supporting nationwide efforts to combat human trafficking. Even with dedicated attorneys like Amy on the case, Cook County remains a national hub for human trafficking, including both U.S. citizen and foreign national victims. With the added uncertainty surrounding immigration policy in the years to come, LAF’s immigrant clients may face even greater  challenges. “There’s a lot of fear out there right now and a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen… We’re moving forward with our cases and telling clients that we just have to wait and see what happens. But it’s hard—it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Individual contributions enable LAF attorneys to fight for exploited immigrants and migrant workers, providing some stability to those who need it most. Make your tax-deductible donation for 2016 to LAF at www.lafchicago.org.

September 2016 eNewsletter

Fall is here and the leaves are turning, the air is cooling and the days are getting shorter.  But at LAF, we’re always working long days and at full speed, including sharing our September eNewsletter.

Just this month, the Board, YPB, and staff responsible for the Golf Outing had another great success on a beautiful fall day to raise funds and awareness for LAF’s mission.  Paralegal Lisa Hilleren is out in the city every day helping ensure people have access to the benefits they deserve.  Attorney Myka Held is helping clients like Shannon and Maddie keep their families together and safe from kidnapping and abuse.

We’re also looking back at our past, recognizing 30 years of an impactful housing legislation protecting renters from unscrupulous landlords, celebrating more than a decade of teamwork with residents of the Cabrini-Green Housing Development in a neat interactive digital timeline, and revealing our newly-published 2015 Annual Report.

You can read about all of those stories, and much more, in this September eNewsletter.  On behalf of everyone who does this work every day, and everyone who benefits from our services and your support, thank you.