Colombian by birth, Michelle Mendez immigrated with her single mother to Virginia, becoming a U.S. citizen as a teen. After September 11th, her senior year of college, she set out to pursue social justice for immigrants by working with detained immigrants and on national advocacy for immigration reform. Understanding the importance of foreign languages in the immigrants’ rights world, Michelle returned to France to perfect her French and learn Arabic. A former Equal Justice Works Fellow and Rotary Peace Fellow, she has served as a professor at three law schools, including Yale Law School where she taught the "Asylum Advocacy in Times of Crisis" seminar. Michelle has scored victories for immigrants in various federal courts and leads the immigration programs for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. In addition to federal court victories, Michelle also successfully lobbied to enact legislation expanding access to special protections for immigrant children in Maryland.
Defending Vulnerable Populations Program
One-line project summary:
DVP leverages social media to help immigrants navigate the system and creates remote models to prevent or respond to immigration enforcement
Present your project.
In the United States, the government does not provide legal counsel to asylum seekers. Without counsel, asylum seekers are lost in the immigration law maze and, as a result, fail to appear in immigration court leading to in absentia orders of removal. In absentia orders of removal render asylum seekers vulnerable to detention and swift deportation without the right to be heard before an immigration judge. Having set asylum seekers up for failure, the government then touts high in absentia rates to advocate for increased detention of asylum seekers. DVP addresses this problem by using social media to educate asylum seekers on the asylum-seeking process to prevent in absentia removal orders, provide representation on work permits, changes of venue, and motions to reopen removal orders, and provides referrals to competent and ethical legal counsel as well as social services. Our works elevates humanity by giving asylum seekers a fighting chance.
Submit a video.
What specific problem are you solving?
On a global level, most countries that see a high number of asylum seekers fail to support them adequately through the asylum application process. This means millions of asylum seekers lack crucial information on the particular country’s asylum application process, unless an NGO or the private sector fills this gap. Without this crucial information, asylum seekers risk not receiving protection, or worse, becoming another immigration enforcement statistic for that country. For example, on March 13, 2020, the U.S. government responded to our Freedom of Information Act request for data on the number of in absentia removal orders issued based on legal representation status. We requested: (i) the total number of in absentia removal orders issued since 2008; (ii) the number of in absentia orders issued to Unaccompanied Children since 2008; and (iii) the number of in absentia orders issued to families since 2018. The data proved that those unable to secure legal orientation or representation are at extraordinary risk of receiving in absentia removal orders—92.6% of those with in absentia orders issued in FY2020 were unrepresented. Access to and delivery of information to asylum seekers and building bridges to legal and social services is the essence of our project.
What is your project?
Since July 2018, DVP has managed a private Facebook community exclusively for formerly separated families. This community is a safe online space where these families can process their common traumatic experiences and get support from knowledgeable attorneys and advocates. Through the online community, DVP disseminates culturally appropriate self-advocacy tools. For example, we explain to families how to track their immigration court cases by phone and online. We distribute “Know Your Rights” materials about the U.S. asylum system and post updated information about the federal litigation benefiting formerly separated families, which may affect their legal rights. In addition to providing general information, DVP uses the group to stay informed about the needs facing these families. We learn who needs counsel and where, link families to competent counsel, mentor and provide a stipend to that attorney as needed, and in cases where DVP attorneys are a good fit for representation, we provide individualized pro bono legal assistance. Our staff has increased social services referrals in response to rising need stemming from the pandemic. Our group has become a forum for the exchange of information on food banks, tenant resources, community funds, government assistance, court closings, dangerous scams, and rights for undocumented persons.
Who does your project serve, and in what ways is the project impacting their lives?
DVP serves immigrants made vulnerable by the United States government, and our project specifically serves the thousands of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. DVP staff help asylum seekers navigate the immigration legal system, provide the families with transportation to legal and social services, and represent them on emergency immigration matters. On one occasion, a parent reached out because she had an asylum interview the next day and could not find an attorney to represent her. Through phone calls, DVP staff prepared her the night before, enabling the parent to represent herself and succeed in her credible fear review, avoiding a final order of removal. On several occasions, staff prepared parents to represent themselves on their first court date and ask for more time to find an attorney. One of the most effective results of these preparations is that parents will later share their positive experiences with the rest of the group. This helps to reduce anxiety in other families and to dispel erroneous beliefs about immigration processes. Because of the unique networking and community-creating power of this ubiquitous platform, the group has allowed DVP to connect with isolated asylum seekers and provide them legal services they urgently need.
Which dimension of The Elevate Prize does your project most closely address?
Elevating opportunities for all people, especially those who are traditionally left behind
Explain how your project relates to The Elevate Prize and your selected dimension.
Our project elevates opportunities for often-overlooked aspiring Americans by using accessible platforms to deliver the information and connections they need to comply with government requirements, present their asylum case, and feel valued. By meeting asylum seekers where they are comfortable, our project elevates their plight by building awareness through reports and driving action through strategic partnerships. We also elevate understanding of and between people by bringing issues to the media. Finally, our project elevates opportunities for migrants by working to reduce the detention of asylum seekers who, the government argues (without statistical proof) will not attend court, if freed.
How did you come up with your project?
In 2015, I traveled to San Antonio to build the infrastructure of a new pro bono project serving mothers and children in immigration custody. One year later, the CARA Pro Bono Project had achieved freedom for hundreds of families. Once freed, however, these families were unable to find legal counsel and faced numerous obstacles as they tried to comply with their immigration obligations. This led to in absentia removal orders. Knowing that identifying pro or low bono legal counsel for the families would be impossible without government support or substantial financial backing from the private sector, I thought about a client-centered solution. From my direct legal services experience, I knew that smartphones had become ubiquitous and that my clients had Facebook on their phones. I decided to create and oversee a private Facebook community to fulfill the legal orientation needs of the released mothers. Thanks to that medium, we prevented in absentia orders and identified additional mothers who needed representation on motions to reopen. We wrote a report on the various obstacles that led to an in absentia order to combat the government’s “fugitive immigrant” messaging. Today, over 4,000 mothers participate in that group, which an ally organization now runs.
Why are you passionate about your project?
All countries have vulnerable or disadvantaged citizens, but among the most vulnerable on a global scale are those who leave their home, family and all that is familiar because they have lost hope in their home country’s ability to protect them and provide a dignified life. I know this well because this is my family’s story. While civil society, development, and humanitarian work seek to address the factors that force people to flee their countries, that work takes time and its progress is all too often rolled back. Indeed, over the past few decades, the United States has increasingly chosen to treat migration as national security issue and actively deterred people from seeking safety here. Deterrence in the form of detention, criminal charges, and, most recently, family separation, serves only to further traumatize people. Our project rejects the premise behind these policies and works to undo this damage for everyone’s benefit at a global scale, because traumatized people are often mentally and physically incapable of showing love to their family and contributing to their society.
Why are you well-positioned to deliver this project?
My background as a Latina immigrant who faced many of the same obstacles as asylum seekers, my experience in immigration direct services, advocacy, and federal litigation, and my skills in foreign languages, coalition-building, and oral advocacy render me uniquely positioned to deliver this project. Furthermore, in addition to my legal background, I was a Leadership minor at the University of Richmond and hold a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Georgetown University’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership. All of these factors inform how I lead and explain my ability to assemble and retain our DVP team of experts in different areas of immigration law such as asylum, children’s issues, and federal litigation and help explain why we maintain a stellar reputation.
I have a two-part approach to leading. First, I value cultivating confidence so all team members comfortably contribute their unique skills. I believe cultivating confidence nurtures others to grow into compassionate future leaders who think collaboratively and not competitively. As John Donne’s poem, “No Man Is an Island,” reminds us, we are all connected and professional team settings are no exception. Second, I believe a leader needs to adjust herself to team needs. Accordingly, I consider each individual in light of team dynamics to determine what type of leader the team needs—including if someone other than me should lead. Championship sports teams constantly evolve around player talents, and so should other professions.
Provide an example of your ability to overcome adversity.
In assessing the needs of asylum-seeking families in our Facebook group, DVP found that inadequate transportation presented a major challenge for families. Many families live in remote places far from immigration courts, government offices where they are required to appear in person, or the legal or social services they must access. Furthermore, these spaces have limited or no public transportation. Driving is not an option for them because, in most states, the families do not qualify under state law to obtain a driver's license, even though they have permission from the federal government to be in the U.S. Hiring a taxi is too expensive. Reliance on acquaintances for rides to these important appointments proved precarious. We faced an obstacle that we needed to resolve.
In 2019, DVP contacted Lyft, a rideshare company, seeking to partner and they agreed. Through this partnership, we have facilitated rides for families all across the country. Having reliable transportation resolved pressing and practical needs, but also gave families a sense of independence. Our partnership with Lyft was not only transformative for the families, it piloted Lyft’s Community Grants program, which now awards ride credits to organizations across the country making a difference in their communities.
Describe a past experience that demonstrates your leadership ability.
Leaving behind a large, loving family in Colombia to become a latchkey kid in the United States whose single mother worked late was not easy. Nor was being poor, enduring bullying and sexual assault at school, and witnessing domestic violence at home. Ultimately, caring teachers, counselors, friends’ families, and coaches helped me become an immigrants’ rights attorney. My life experience has shown me the difference community support can make in the lives of immigrant families.
Hearing about the immigration raids at the Mississippi poultry plants in 2019, I thought about the children at school or at home waiting for their parents in vain. The loneliness I felt coming home after school and waiting for my mother to finish working overcame me. Just as my mother eventually came home, I wanted them to experience their parents coming home, too.
In 2017, I had created a remote bond representation model allowing legal counsel located anywhere in the country to represent detained immigrants. I knew we had to replicate this model in response to the Mississippi raids because few options for representation existed in the desolate areas where immigration jails have proliferated. With partners, we launched this model and represented 52 parents.
How long have you been working on your project?
DVP began in January 2016
Where are you headquartered?Silver Spring, MD, USA
What type of organization is your project?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
CLINIC promotes the dignity and protects the rights of immigrants in partnership with its network of legal immigration programs since its 1998 founding. CLINIC’s network counts nearly 400 agencies and includes farmworker programs, domestic violence shelters, ethnic community organizations, and libraries.
After the 2016 election, CLINIC responded to the demand for removal defense services by establishing DVP as a project. As more immigrants became vulnerable to removal, CLINIC relaunched DVP as a stand-alone program in March 2019 to focus on removal defense, asylum, special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status, immigration consequences of criminal convictions, appeals, federal litigation, and remote response models.
Describe what makes your project innovative.
DVP has incomparable national reach and works at all levels to effect change. Thanks to CLINIC’s network, DVP supports non-profit immigrant defenders across the country, thus encouraging them to represent immigrants in immigration court, on asylum applications, and on petitions for SIJ status. CLINIC’s established e-learning presence allows DVP to offer e-learning opportunities on removal defense. DVP staff create new corps of immigrant defenders through its in-person and virtual trial skills trainings for attorneys and accredited representatives. DVP issues written resources, including the book Representing Immigrants in Immigration Court, which provide both a thoroughly researched background on the current state of the law and practical tips for representatives to use immediately in their cases.
DVP’s litigation work is wide-reaching: affirmative federal litigation, including FOIA complaints, removal defense in immigration court, appeals to the BIA, petitions for review to U.S. courts of appeals, and amici briefings. CLINIC’s national presence makes us a valuable organizational plaintiff and has allowed us to obtain nationwide injunctions to prevent anti-immigrant changes to the law. Our network model has enabled DVP to identify plaintiffs for federal court cases, which have benefitted the individuals and the larger immigrant community.
Immigration enforcement can occur anywhere in the United States, but CLINIC is able to respond to the representation needs caused by enforcement actions regardless of the location, thanks to our creative use of technology and social media and understanding systems. These models provide DVP with data that we, in turn, use to message the immigrant story.
What is your theory of change?
My theory of change is simple—the fewer hurt, broken, and jaded people we have in a society, the healthier that society. People who have been hurt and traumatized to the point of feeling broken and jaded hurt other people, animals, and the environment. Ensuring that the vulnerable people who have experienced trauma have love, support, and feel dignity is the best way to ensure that societies put people above profits and we uphold a balance with the earth.
Select the key characteristics of the community you are impacting.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your project address?
In which countries do you currently operate?
How many people does your project currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
Today, the DVP team comprises nine full-time members and one full-time, short–term contractor with outstanding credentials, valuable experience, and significant accolades.
Since 2016, DVP has trained almost 5,000 attorneys and DOJ-accredited legal representatives who represent immigrants in court; published over 50 free and timely resources; issued 2 quantitative and qualitative reports; filed 16 cases in federal court, many of which had significant legal implications nationwide; and enacted 5 remote rapid response models to provide legal aid to victims of immigration enforcement (one model paved the way for a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union challenging unfair bond adjudications) and the so-called “Muslim travel ban.” Our BIA Pro Bono Project has secured pro bono counsel for over 1600 immigrants across the country—detained immigrants who would otherwise lack legal counsel. The Project continues to increase the number of cases placed with volunteer representation each year, with 142 cases placed in FY 2019. Since the summer of 2018, our online community has served almost 250 formerly separated families. DVP has data on 1,800 formerly separated families who we are contacting and adding to the group. DVP has placed over 120 asylum seekers with long-term legal representation, mentored pro bono attorneys through 76 cases, assisted a dozen families on changes of venue, and have facilitated rides to more than 150 individuals. The number of immigrants we serve in the next five years will depend on the needs, which will depend on the policy choices made by whoever wins the next presidential election.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
DVP wants to ensure that the immigrant story not only persists, but also thrives in the next five years. To realize this vision, DVP will pursue four goals: 1) provide immigrant defenders with skills in the areas of removal defense, asylum, special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status, and criminal consequence; 2) challenge anti-immigrant policies and regulations through federal litigation; 3) create remote-based response models to immigration enforcement; and 4) raise public awareness of the human toll on those affected by anti-immigrant policies.
Our approach to achieving these goals depends greatly on who our President is because of the power the executive branch has over immigration matters.
If President Trump is re-elected, DVP will increase its litigation presence and expand its remote response models. DVP expects Trump to decimate most humanitarian avenues to legal status, which, over time, may reduce the need for our immigrant defender support work. However, because removal proceedings are likely to become more adversarial, DVP expects increased demand for our court skills trainings.
If Vice-President Biden wins, DVP anticipates our litigation presence to remain the same as we try to reestablish the rights immigrants lost under Trump. DVP believes our private Facebook group and remote motions to reopen will remain relevant because of the increase in absentia removal orders under the Trump administration. DVP predicts that our immigrant defender support will increase because, DVP hopes, a Biden administration will reestablish the asylum system, reinstate humanitarian avenues to legal status, and prioritize humane immigration reform.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
The barriers DVP faces in the next five years will depend on the President, Congress, and public opinion on immigration. Another Trump term will almost certainly decimate the already languid asylum system. DVP, along with ally organizations, can continue to challenge the attacks on the immigration system in federal courts. However, as of the time of writing this, President Trump has filled every federal court judicial vacancy. For this reason, relying on Article III of the U.S. Constitution will likely prove insufficient. We need Congress to pass immigration reform, but this won’t happen with the current or a similar future composition of Members. We also need the majority of the public to understand that for most immigrants, no line exists to seek U.S. citizenship, that asylum seekers cannot seek asylum from a U.S. Embassy abroad, and that DACA recipients are Americans. We need to change public opinion on immigration, to change hearts and minds. However, the best way to change hearts and minds is through personal connections and exposure to different cultures yet creating new personal connections in a COVID-19 world is difficult. Instead, Americans may become even more insular and, while at home, rely on opinion channels for their information. Those opinion channels often have a political agenda and demonize people of color. Then, as the economy weakens, Americans will direct their anger at immigrants and vote for politicians who promise safeguarding resources for “us” against “them.”
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
During the past four years, DVP has proven nimble and visionary, but as a 501(c)(3) non-profit we are essentially prohibited from any political action work that would target Presidential and Congressional elections. Therefore, our two main audiences are judges and the public. Many judges, even many of those appointed by President Trump are interested in ensuring the independence of the courts and have been willing to defy his executive policies. Through our remote motions to reopen project and our BIA Pro Bono Project, DVP plans to pursue petitions for review before courts of appeal thus allowing us to transcend the politicized Board of Immigration Appeals within the Executive Branch. DVP also plans to continue presenting high quality cases in federal courts. Regarding the public audience, DVP plans to use the remote representation projects combined with FOIA to gather our own data to counter the government data and tell the stories of immigrants. DVP will tell the story of immigrants through media, reports, and churches.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
Our formerly separated families remote project partners with Innovation Law Lab, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), Al Otro Lado, Annunciation House, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), RAICES, Catholic Legal Services in Miami, and Catholic Charities of Central Florida, Lyft, and Seneca Family of Agencies. The project has also partnered with class counsel in the Dora v. Sessions, Ms. L v. ICE and Ms. J.P. v. Barr class action lawsuits.
Our Mississippi raids remote bond project partnered with Lawyers for Good Government Project Corazon, the Mississippi Center for Justice, and Southern Poverty Law Center.
On the first iteration of our motions to reopen remote representation project, we partnered with ASAP primarily, but also with Advocates for Human Rights, Central American Resource Center - Los Angeles, Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Human Rights First, Immigrant & Refugee Appellate Center (IRAC), Lichter Immigration, RAICES, Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), Masa Group, and Tahirih Justice Center.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
CLINIC seeks sustained donations and grants and engages in investment capital. Last year, DVP began selling our products and services. While DVP offers most written resources, such as the practice advisories and the SIJS Administrative Appeals Office Index, free of cost, we contract with the American Immigration Lawyers Associations (AILA) to update and edit the “Representing Clients in Immigration Court” book. DVP also conducts a monthly webinar and we offer tiered pricing (figures per person): $35 for CLINIC affiliate agencies, $60 for non-profit agencies, and $80 for private attorneys and staff. We have also begun charging low dollar fees for our trial skills trainings and legal writing e-learning series.
If you seek to raise funds for your project, please provide details.
Membership Fees - $90,000
Other Services/Contracts - $80,000
Training Registration Fees - $50,000
Grants - $800,000
Donations - $250,000
Donated Goods and Pro Bono Services - $200,000
CLINIC Convening - $15,000
Total Revenues $ 1,485,000
What are your estimated expenses for 2020?
Staff Compensation - $830,091
Fringe Benefits - $204,773
Travel Expenses - $45,826 (will be lower depending on COVID-19)
CLINIC Convening - $26,851
Supplies - $3,000
Equipment Rentals/Purchases/Repairs - $13,360 (will be higher depending on COVID-19)
Staff Development Costs - $7,180
Rents and Leases of Office Space - $22,275 (may be lower depending on COVID-19)
Outsourced Services - $271,222
Building Maintenance and Other - $230
Subs, Books & Reference Materials - $25,000
Program Development & Marketing - $310
Licenses/Practice Related Fees - $4,479
Communication Charges - $4,099
Insurance Charges - $8,839
Postage, Shipping and Freight - $10,000
Printing and Duplication Charges - $1,100
Uncollectible fees - $4,500
Total Expenses - $1,483,135
Why are you applying for The Elevate Prize?
I am applying for this prize because earning it would bring honor and recognition to the DVP team’s work ethic, brilliance, passion, empathy, strategy, creativity and vision. I am incredibly proud of the work our DVP team does and of our myriad victories on behalf of the most vulnerable immigrants in our midst. Moreover, this prize would also be a testament to the fortitude of the immigrant community to which I proudly belong.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?
Social media platforms that will allow us to safely reach more immigrant communities.
AirBnb and hotels to provide free or inexpensive, safe accommodations for families traveling to an immigration appointment or hearing or to meet with legal counsel or mental health services.
Amtrak, Greyhound, and rideshare services to continue to expand transportation options for immigrants.
- Ms. Michelle Mendez Director of the Defending Vulnerable Populations Program, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.