Four Women who share a Passion for Justice
ILJ Network relies upon the experience and knowledge of four consultants for our advocacy work: Pictured, clockwise from top left: Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors Executive Director Tessa Lemos Del Pino, Northern Illinois JFON Executive Director Claudia Marchan, Tennesse JFON Advocacy and Education Coordinator Hannah Smalley, and Arizona JFON Executive Director Roxana Aguilar.
To begin our discussion, we asked them to share a little about themselves and why they chose to pursue immigrant justice work:
My parents came to the U.S. to find their dream and build a family together. I was only a few days old when I arrived. I grew up in a border town, so basically, I grew up in Mexico. From my father, I learned unconditional kindness; he saw kindness without strings attached, and this is my core value.
With her first degree in sociology and psychology, Roxana has worked extensively in the fields of racial justice, equity, and alternatives to incarceration.
Noticing a distinct lack of diversity in management, she went on to pursue a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership and also an MBA.
But it is her father’s legacy of unconditional kindness that she carries with her every day at Arizona JFON.
My mom crossed the border and left me with my grandmother in Mexico when I was nine months old. She called me every day because she didn’t want me to forget her. My grandmother didn’t have a telephone, so she would have to run to a neighbor’s house to take the call. My mother is my role model. She needed to leave me, but she had a plan. I was four years old when she returned, and I did not forget her.
Claudia has lived most of her life as an undocumented immigrant—a status that only recently changed. She understands what it means for an immigrant to feel voiceless and how empowering it can be once they know they are heard. Claudia has years of experience advocating on immigrant issues at the local, state, and national levels.
I am the child of migrant farmworkers. My parents were in the field in diapers, and all their siblings were, too. My parents knew that education was the only way to get out of the fields…and to be able to fight for migrant workers.
I went to law school and realized quickly that I didn’t want to practice law. Others had told me that the only reason I was accepted to law school was because I was Mexican American— despite my high-grade point average, LSAT score, and leadership activities. This was when affirmative action was first under attack in the courts. I knew I had earned my seat, so I stayed in law school and made sure I passed the bar.
Tessa practiced law for a year, before realizing that being a lawyer wasn’t the way she would work for change. She then went on to hold a variety of positions in development, grant proposal writing, higher education, and policy work. These were all the pieces she needed for her present role as TN JFON’s executive director. She is also a member of the church where TN JFON began!
Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill. But then I look to the side and see one person who now has legal status because of our work. And I realize the rock doesn’t roll down all the way each time.
Born and reared in Nashville, Hannah returned after her college graduation to work in the field of language justice. Some of her clients were speakers of indigenous languages. Hannah was struck by the intersectionality of lack of language access with the difficulty of obtaining health care and affordable housing.
We all recognize that battling the continual onslaught on our asylum system—most recently with the Biden administration’s proposed asylum ban—is undoubtedly our most urgent advocacy priority. But what other priorities are on your list?
Among our four consultants, Claudia lives in the state most receptive to pro-immigrant legislation. She acknowledges that their victories in Illinois cannot be duplicated everywhere. But NI JFON can provide a blueprint for how they achieved a positive change and how it might be replicated elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, we do spend so much of our time reacting rather than acting,” she laments. “But I really loved our #AllOfUs (Citizenship for All) campaign from 2021. We were able to train people across the network on how to handle legislative meetings, write op-eds and letters the editor, and host vigils and other amazing events. Our sites learned a lot from these trainings. We need to continue to give people tools to respond and adapt to any issue.”
“Immigration rules and policies change so quickly,” adds Roxana. “In our Defense of Asylum webinar last week, you could see that people really want specific information on policy changes how to contact members of congress, and how to present their objections with facts.”
For Roxana, however, the single most important advocacy objective—and the most long-term—is dismantling the racist structures built into our immigration laws. It isn’t that the immigration system is broken, she argues, but that it was specifically designed to keep out Black and brown immigrants while catering to Europeans or immigrants with money.
“Hannah and I have said more than once,” interjects Tessa, “that we both work within the system…but that we have to change the system. ”
“And it is critical for everyone to hear the voices of impacted individuals, instead of just the other side, “ states Roxana. “We need to hear why people are fleeing their countries. They may not be pretty stories, but we need to hear them.”
For Hannah, this brings up the lack of language access confronting so many asylum seekers, many of whom speak one of the many indigenous languages of Central America. “Language access intersects with so many other issues, such as detention and asylum,” she reminds us. “You are so much more likely to have a worse outcome if you aren’t allowed to express yourself in your primary language. It’s truly one of the worst injustices.”
A scarcity of language access also hurts immigrants who are already established in the community. “Hannah has been taking the lead in collaboration with other Nashville nonprofits to increase language access for driver’s licenses,” says Tessa. “Right now, it is limited to only five languages—Spanish, German, Korean, and Japanese. So none of our Afghan clients is able to take the test.”
“Another priority,” she adds, “is tuition equity for all undocumented students.”
The consultants resoundingly agree that the breadth and diversity of our network—19 sites spread across the county, serving cities, towns, and rural communities in 20 states and the District of Columbia—is our greatest strength. But how do we magnify our collected voices in the national discourse on immigration issues?
“The differences, the similarities, and the richness of our ILJ sites make our network unique and powerful,” says Claudia.
In 2022, the network served over 6,000 clients from 124 different countries.
“It isn’t just that we rely on each other, but also on our local partnerships, “ Tessa explains. “When we work against something like the asylum ban, we have our national office and national partnerships. But each site also has contacts with other local organizations. That amplifies our impact.”
“We can only create change if we are united,” she adds. “As long as we are isolated in our own silos, we won’t make progress.”
“Not making progress is not an option,” Roxana insists.
“Relationship building is important, but having access to so much legal knowledge is also key,” reflects Hannah. “I think our advocacy is strengthened by that aspect—it informs our work when we can ask our legal colleagues what is hurting their clients the most right now.”
“Consistency, structure, resources, networking,” Roxana says, ticking off her fingers. “None of this can happen without thinking and planning. Our national office has the larger view. They can ensure we are developing an inclusive organization unapologetic for anti-racism work.”
Tessa has the final word: “And we are all here,” she says softly, “to learn from each other.”