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Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project is a 2014, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2020 SOS Grantee.  We interviewed Jessica Mayo, Co-Director and Attorney at MICA, to learn more about how the organization continues to evolve and serve the community with the help of our grants.  We hope you are as inspired by Ms. Mayo’s words as we are.

1. How would you describe your organization’s mission, in one or a few sentences?

The Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project (MICA Project) is a community organization committed to working with low-income immigrants to overcome barriers to justice. The MICA Project utilizes legal services, organizing, advocacy and education to promote the voice and human dignity of immigrant communities.

2. Briefly discuss your organization’s history in the community.

The MICA Project was founded in 2011 to meet a need for immigration legal services that existing nonprofits were unable to address. In the spring of 2012, the MICA Project obtained start-up funding, and it began operations that fall with a staff of two attorneys. The organization has now grown to 11 staff members working with more than 500 people on their legal cases every year.

The MICA Project has developed its niche serving many Latino immigrants and immigrants in rural, outlying areas of St. Louis who would otherwise be unable to access legal representation. The organization’s approach focuses on client and community engagement. First, the MICA Project provides client-centered legal representation to immigrants who need an attorney for issues related to their immigration status. Second, the MICA Project provides outreach to immigrant communities, including educational presentations, focus groups and workshops. Finally, the MICA Project’s Client Support Services program addresses clients’ needs that fall outside the area of legal services.

3. What changes or new developments are in store for the coming year?

Despite Covid-19, the MICA Project is operating at full capacity. Our clients’ legal cases continue to move forward. Policies continue to change on a weekly basis, requiring constant recalibration and sometimes emergency responses. Immigration policies are at their most restrictive in decades, making legal representation critical for our clients. We are being careful to exercise social distancing and safety protocols so that we are able to continue operating amid the pandemic.

The MICA Project’s Client Support Services Department recently added a second staff member, meeting an influx of demand for resources and support brought on by Covid-19. The Department has been busy providing referrals, direct aid, and healthcare navigation to the organization’s clients, who are in a particularly vulnerable and hard-hit population.

4. What are your current goals as an organization and/or in what areas would you like to grow?

Our primary mission-oriented goal is to provide high quality legal and supportive services in order to obtain the best possible outcomes for our clients. This requires a high level of competency and strategizing given the endless barrage of significant policy changes. Eligibility requirements for various immigration options are changing very quickly. We aim to continue this high level of representation in spite of Covid-19 and the challenges it brings.

In addition, the MICA Project has identified two focus areas for growth this year:

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: To ensure diversity, equity and inclusion at the MICA project, we are conducting an internal review of our policies, procedures and practices. We previously worked on our hiring practices, which has led to more than half of our staff identifying as non-white. We are also welcoming some non-English speaking former clients to our Board of Directors, which has required a lot of planning and will be an exciting improvement for the organization. Finally, we plan to initiate an external Equity Audit in 2021.

Reviewing our theory of systemic change: The majority of the MICA Project’s legal work focuses on individual outcomes. We are reviewing our current advocacy projects and determining the best way to maximize these outcomes.

5. How will/has SOS funding assisted you in serving the community?

The SOS grant has had a tremendous impact on the MICA Project’s growth as an organization.  The grant application process gives the MICA Project the opportunity to hone its message, using feedback from the site visits and individual members. The result has been a compelling and thorough description of the organization’s work, which has provided the MICA Project with many other opportunities to develop supporters and grant relationships.

The MICA Project has received at least three other grants (two of them multi-year awards) that were directly tied to our participation in the SOS grant process. We have also developed a network of supporters who are SOS members. Sometimes this connection isn’t even apparent until a later conversation reveals that yet another one of our donors found out about us through SOS.

The last two years of SOS funding also helped launch the Children’s Immigrant Advocacy Project (CIAP). The MICA Project must turn away many potential clients, but CIAP ensures that we have the funding necessary to prioritize children’s immigration cases. The fact that children are not provided attorneys in Immigration Court is a true betrayal of the idea of due process. Filling that gap is critical work.

6. In a paragraph or so, give us an example of someone who has been personally touched by your organization, perhaps in a life-changing way. (Feel free to use pseudonyms to protect the person’s privacy.)

One of our clients had suffered serious abuse from his father in his home country.  As a young teenager, he traveled with his brother to the United States, where he was reunited with his mother. His mother had also been the victim of life-threatening violence from the child’s father.

While working with CIAP, the young man and his mother successfully completed the paternity process, giving the mother full legal rights over her son. After this initial step, he was eligible to apply for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa. That application has also been approved. The young man now has to wait in line for a visa, but as soon as it is available, he will be able to take the next step of obtaining permanent resident status – a green card.

Due to past trauma and the stress of the immigration process, the son was screened to see if he would like therapy. He agreed. MICA’s Client Support Services Department was able to find a bilingual therapist with expertise working with children.

He has now completed his studies, obtained permission to work, and has a full-time job.  He reports much greater satisfaction and a sense of purpose in life, as well as decreased anxiety about the future now that he is safe from abuse and his immigration status is no longer at risk.

7. What has changed for your organization since you first received SOS funding?

The MICA Project first received SOS funding in 2013, our second year of operation. We started with just two attorneys, and SOS helped us fund equipment and training for a volunteer attorney.  We have now grown to five legal caseworkers, a two-person Client Support Services Department, and four other staff members. We work with more than 500 clients every year. We have been so grateful to have SOS supporting that growth over the years.

8. Tell us something about your organization and the work you do that might surprise us.

There are no public defenders in Immigration Court, even for unaccompanied children. The forms are all in English, and some of the eligibility requirements aren’t even listed in the forms. Only about one in 10 asylum cases is granted. For individuals with an attorney, however, nearly half of asylum cases are granted. Before court, we usually file 200-300 pages of evidence and legal arguments. Also, my 2023 calendar is filling up with court dates. The Immigration Courts are VERY backlogged.

9. What makes your organization different from others?

The MICA Project was created to fill in gaps in immigration legal services, so it was intentionally created to be different from others. We have a wider service area than other organizations, and we accept clients who are above the poverty line, which is the cutoff for some organizations to provide free legal services.

10. What is the biggest challenge that your organization has faced?

We continue to struggle with the fact that the need for legal representation is so much greater than our capacity. Even with more than 500 clients per year, we can only accept a fraction of the potential clients who contact us. We are constantly reevaluating to make sure that we are operating at as high of a capacity as possible while also maintaining high-quality legal services.

11. What drives and inspires you as an organization? 

Our organizational values are more than just something we hang on the wall – they really are foundational to our work. They are as follows:

Justice: We strive for justice by advancing fair and effective legal representation and social well-being. Justice is a prerequisite to the full enjoyment of human rights and human dignity.

Community: We cultivate community and connection through our work, in partnership with our clients and across our region. Connection knows no boundaries.

Dignity: We value dignity, recognizing that every person has inherent value and contributes to our community. No person is “illegal.”

Equality: We work with our clients, staff, community partners and the public so that all can achieve their greatest potential. We believe that equity leads to equality; thus, our work is grounded in removing barriers that impede success.

12. What makes the work you do so important to the people you serve?

As mentioned, there are no public defenders in Immigration Court, even for children. For some, deportation is a more serious consequence than they would receive in criminal court. In St. Louis, the MICA Project really is the “safety net” for legal representation. If we turn someone away, they often will not find another attorney, exponentially increasing their odds of deportation.

I think it’s also important that we recognize how important this work is for us, both as individuals and as a society. Our lives and our society are incredibly enriched by the immigrants who have made their homes here. They are superheroes in so many ways, despite the fact that they rarely receive such acknowledgment.

Profile Written by Jennifer Mann of 618 Creative. Photos via the MICA Project.

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