Volunteers bring hope to those suffering from legal problems throughout our state.
Jennifer shares her story of volunteering to bring immigration assistance to her community in Humboldt.
Jennifer Alejo is a student at Humboldt State University and a Justice Bus Project volunteer
Jennifer Alejo was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Currently she is attending Humboldt State University pursuing a double major in Political Science and International Studies with a minor in Communications. Jennifer enjoys advocating for immigration rights and works every day to dismantle systems of oppression. She is also a co-founder of Finding Resources and Empowerment through Education (FREE), the on-the-ground partner for a recent Justice Bus Trip to Humboldt County. When she’s not busy with school, work, and organizing Jennifer enjoys spending time with family and friends. We are honored that Jennifer allowed us to interview her for this guest blog post, one of our series during National Volunteer Month.
Jennifer, why did you volunteer with the Justice Bus trip to bring services to Humboldt County?
I love volunteering to be able to help those who are not represented. While I currently live in Humboldt County, I grew up in Los Angeles County, and my family is still there. Living in Humboldt County has been really different not only because of the environment but because unlike Los Angeles, Humboldt County has no resources for underrepresented communities. My community in Humboldt really needs access to legal assistance, particularly for immigration services now that there is the new immigration relief program for youth who came to the US as children (“DACA” or “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.”) However, for people living in Humboldt, the closest immigration attorney is 300 miles away. People already have trouble paying for a lawyer, now imagine paying for traveling and lodging on top of that. It was impossible for my community members to fix their immigration status in this situation.
So, during my last visit to Los Angeles over the holidays, I made it my mission to look for resources for my community in Humboldt. I called different non-profits, sent out emails, looked for networks on facebook – basically I did anything possible to see if I could find at least one organization to help bring immigration services into Humboldt County. The problem was that the organizations that I could find, don’t have enough funding to bring their services all the way to Humboldt. I refused to let this discourage me, and I am really glad I didn’t because someone mentioned that I should look into a project called Justice Bus.
Students from University School of Law traveled with the Justice Bus Project over 300 miles to Humboldt, where they partnered with Jennifer and FREE to deliver two days of free legal clinics.
The name itself already was interesting, and so I quickly contacted OneJustice and told them about Humboldt County’s situation. I remember being really worried about the money. I explained that I was a student and that I had no money, but that I would be more than willing to look for donors, I was relieved when Lauren, a Legal Fellow at OneJustice, told me that no money was needed.
The type of work that the Justice Bus Project provides for isolated rural areas is so important in so many different levels. It reminds people that there are amazing individuals out there who still care about them. It not only acknowledges them as humans, but acknowledges their struggle. We live in a time where humanity is not always seen and knowing that there is a group of future attorneys and attorneys out there who truly aspire to be advocates for human rights is empowering and inspirational. As I worked closely with the OneJustice staff to plan the Justice Bus trip, it reminded me that there are people who are willing to use their knowledge to help those in need and expect nothing in return. It inspired me to maybe even pursue a law degree and maybe one day be part of the Justice Bus and be the one helping families.
What motivated you personally to volunteer during the clinics in Humboldt?
People often ask me why I do the work I do, and I ask why not? It is my job as a citizen of this world to help those who are silenced, and as someone who holds privileges myself, it is important to be able to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves. When I see people who have been silenced, I think of my family and the barriers that they have overcome thanks to non-profit organizations in Los Angeles. I might not be able to eliminate the systems of oppression that my community members go through, but I can provide the tools they need to empower themselves and those around them.
What was the experience like during the days of the clinic?
Law student volunteers from University of San Francisco School of Law join OneJustice staff on the Justice Bus trip.
Busy! We were all running around everywhere trying to get organized. There were people waiting at the hall for their appointments, we were waiting for our Spanish interpreters to arrive, and just as everything would calm down, then more people came for appointments and more interpreters were needed. My phone didn’t stop ringing, as folks who needed directions were calling me, folks who were curious about the confidentiality level wanted to know more about the Justice Bus, and more.
Overall, the experience was fantastic! I don’t think there are words that could express how happy I was when people were coming in and out after receiving legal advice. A lot of my community members live in fear that their undocumented status will come to light with terrible consequences. Being able to see them willing to talk to attorneys was the first step many of them took to come out as undocumented. I was really proud of all my community members who took the risk to discuss their status.
Was there one particularly meaningful moment for you over the two days?
There were so many meaningful moments, but in particular there was one of a youth. She came to find me after she was done with her appointment, and she told me how happy she was that she was able to get advice on her case. She told me that suddenly she felt really strong and that the future wasn’t as cloudy as she thought. That’s exactly the feeling I wanted her to feel. I wanted her to be able to know that as a scholar she would be able to succeed in her education. What made the moment perfect was the big smile in her face, and the hope I could see in her eyes that she would have the proper documentation to be able to apply for a job. There was something about that moment that gave me so much strength to continue the work that I am doing. It wasn’t the thank you, nor the big hug, but the hope I could feel now embodied her—it was beautiful.
What would you say to lawyers and law students living in more urban areas who are considering volunteering for a Justice Bus trip?
Please please volunteer – you don’t know how much this means to misrepresented communities who don’t have someone to speak out for them or at least explain their case in a legal sense. Families feel so empowered after receiving this advice. It gives them strength to continue with their life regardless of what barriers are thrown at them. And even though at times some of the advice given is not positive, it is still important to them to know what their status is and what to expect from the future. To any lawyers or law students who are thinking about volunteering, please now that there are so many people who are need your help – and you can use your skills and knowledge to be the change in someone’s life! I can assure you that after volunteering with the Justice Bus Project you will want to do it again, because the work is so important and so rewarding. Thank you!
Jennifer, from all of us at OneJustice, thank YOU for volunteering and for creating real change in the world.
Thank you to Jennifer and all the amazing volunteers from FREE and USF School of Law!