When she met him, he had promised her all the things that his home country offered – freedom, opportunity, and best of all, hope for a better life than the one she’d left behind.
But when those promises turned to threats and violence, she found herself alone and terrified.
America was now her home, and she didn’t want to leave.
He was quick to remind her that he was a U.S. citizen, and she was not. No matter how badly he treated her, she lived with the knowledge that he carried all the power.
If she dared to leave him, she’d have no money, no legal way to get a job, and a constant threat of deportation.She was trapped.
“When we’re working with women who are in an abusive relationship with a U.S. citizen, there’s a way to self-petition just for themselves,” said Jessica Mayo, co-director of the MICA Project.
“We often start working with them, and they have no access to funds, and no way out,” Mayo continued. “Through the immigration process, they obtain a social security number, and their residency, and that empowers them to get a job. Working with the client over the course of a year, they really just transform and it’s a complete life change. It’s one of the cases where it really makes the biggest difference in how they’re able to face the world.”
The MICA Project, a 2017 grantee of Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, is a community organization committed to working with low-income immigrants to overcome barriers to justice.
The organization, which began operations in 2012, utilizes legal services, organizing, advocacy, and education to promote the voice and human dignity of immigrant communities.
“Our primary project is providing legal services for low-income families in their immigration cases, but we also spend a significant amount of time in the community doing presentations on immigration,” Mayo said. “We also have a new project called the Client Support Services project where we have a case manager who works with the clients to connect them to other services.”
With recent changes in immigration law, the nonprofit has seen a significant increase in their caseload, Mayo said.
The MICA project typically serves 350-400 clients per year. As of 2017, they had increased to 500 clients.
“We expanded last year to try to meet the immigration needs,” Mayo said. “We started the pro bono attorney project and we also hired our case manager whose work often facilitates our work.”
Four paid attorneys work with the project, in addition to 15-20 pro bono attorneys who volunteer to handle one case a year.
The $20,000 grant from SOS ultimately helped fund the legal representation for the increasing number of clients, Mayo said.
“When we wrote the grant it was before the election, and at that point our immediate issue was that another nonprofit had just closed and had given all of their open cases to MICA,” Mayo said. “We had just hired our fourth attorney to cover all of those cases. But by the time of the final application and site visit that attorney position had become even more necessary as we were receiving even more calls after the election and anticipated policy concerns. We were expecting 350 cases and it ended up being 500 cases.“
In the last year and a half, the organization has grown from five to eight staff members. Even with the increase in staff, there are still more who could be helped.
“We still have more cases that we could take,” Mayo said. “We certainly have room to grow as our capacity increases. The need is there.”
The attorneys handle a wide variety of cases, from individuals who need help obtaining benefits when they become eligible to those who are applying for citizenship.They also handle cases for immigrants who have been victims of a crime, deportation defense, applications for legal status, and cases for asylum seekers.
Clients pay for their legal services on a sliding scale. While the majority of their cases involve adults, the MICA Project still worked with more than 100 children last year, Mayor said.
“A lot of our deportation clients are women and children who just arrived in the United States,” Mayo said. “We had clients from 57 different countries in 2017.”