Alumnae Mayo and Cortés Serving Region's Immigrant Communities

While Congress debates comprehensive immigration reform in the nation’s capital, Washington University School of Law alumnae Jessica Mayo and Nicole Cortés, both JD ’12, are working to make life more just for the Midwest’s immigrant community. 

After passing the bar in 2012, Mayo and Cortés started accepting clients at the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project (MICA), a nonprofit agency they created to help low-income immigrants “overcome barriers to justice.” 

They began meeting their first clients in October, most of them initially through referrals from other immigration attorneys. They now have about 80 clients. While their clients are evenly distributed among outstate Missouri, the St. Louis area, and southern Illinois, their needs are diverse. 

“We have discovered a lot of demand for our types of services,” Mayo says. “Our cases range from naturalization to applications for visas for family members, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), applications for waivers and legal status for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens and legal residents, asylum cases, survivors of domestic violence, and removal defense.” 

Most clients are charged fees on a sliding scale, while a few are unable to pay any fees but still receive services from the nonprofit. Mayo and Cortés say that those who pay fees are proactive in keeping their accounts current. 

Mayo and Cortés’ work has not gone unnoticed. Last spring, they received Washington University’s Gerry and Bob Virgil Ethic of Service Award. The annual award is reserved for members of the university community—students, faculty, staff, alumni, retirees, and volunteers— “who exemplify a character of service and giving to the St. Louis region.” 

One important way MICA demonstrates its commitment to service is by providing bilingual legal assistance. Cortés, who worked with a community-based organization in Chile as a student, is fluent in Spanish, spoken by about 75 percent of the agency’s clients. Volunteer translators and interpreters help with the other languages they encounter, including Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. 

Meanwhile, MICA also is an organizational member of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA), and Mayo and Cortés are writing grants and seeking funds to hire an executive director. They had their first legal intern this summer, and have a six-person board of directors, a community advisory panel, and “lots of volunteers.” 

Looking toward the future, they plan to be active on immigration reform once it becomes clearer where that effort is headed nationally. They also spend about 25 percent of their time making educational presentations on immigration options and the rights of immigrants in the United States. 

“It’s exciting to be in this phase of growth,” Mayo says. 

By Timothy J. Fox