Civil Rights Director Speaks at Chicago Bar Association Panel on Legal Advocacy
In a two-hour panel, legal advocates representing Chicago's minority groups discussed issues from the economy to immigration and how they were affecting the people that live in Chicago. The program was titled "Agents of Change: Changing and Empowering our Communities" and hosted as a part of the Chicago Bar Association's Building Bridges, Breaking Barriers seminar for attorneys. Stephanie Seay Kelly, an associate attorney who deals with employment discrimination, moderated the panel.
She introduced the panelists by saying, "these are the people that inspire us to be better, and to be better legal advocates in our community."
The panel included Karina Ayala-Bermejo, Ricardo Meza, Myron Dean Quon, Senator Kwame Raoul, and Christina Abraham.
Kelly began by addressing the current recession, saying that "it is hitting our communities the hardest" and asking the panelists how they can help their communities.
Appointed to take U.S. Senator Barack Obama's vacancy in the Illinois Senate, Senator Raoul described the subprime mortgage crisis. "We all watched the nice deals and how people were buying homes they really couldn't afford...and as a result we have what we have today," said Senator Raoul.
Myron Quon, the Legal Director at the Asian American Institute, stressed proposing healthcare especially during times of economic downturn. "In lower-income communities we are seeing people choosing to eat food rather then take their meds, and that is a huge problem," said Quon.
Christina Abraham, the Civil Rights Director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations Chicago, discussed ways attorneys can help employees secure their rights in the workplace, such as ensuring they receive benefits and making sure they inquire who else is effected by a layoff, to ensure that it isn’t only minorities who are targeted.
Ayala-Bermejo, the Executive Director of a local Lend-A-Hand to Youth Program, described some of the causes of employment. "High school dropouts are 72 percent more likely to be unemployed," said Ayala-Bermejo."85 percent of the minorities in Chicago are low-income, so they are six-times more likely to drop out. It's an epidemic here in Chicago."
In encouraging communities to exercise their right to litigation Abraham said, "If you see something unfair, don't be afraid to take it to the boards."
As an example, Abraham explained, “it wasn't until [the government] started getting slapped with thousands of lawsuits that they started changing their policy [on immigration delay].,"
Meza, the Midwest Regional Counsel for Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, agreed with Abraham and provided another example.
"We try to encourage legislators to put the money where it is needed … predominantly Latino schools that are completely overcrowded."
Ricardo Meza cited a 2006 Northern Illinois University study, showing that although the graduation rate for white students was at 85 percent, the rates for Latinos and Blacks were at 54 and 49 percent respectively.
Meza also discussed concerns about local law enforcement inappropriately targeting immigrants. "The message to the community is that you probably don't want to call the police because the person is going to ask you what your status is," said Meza.
Quon described the backlog of family reunification cases his organization faces. One of his clients has been waiting for nearly twenty years to reunify with her sister in the Phillippines.
The legal advocates on the panel concluded with advice to the audience of attorneys on how they can become agents of change in their communities. They suggested that attorneys take on free cases and do whatever they can to help those less privileged.
"You will run across occasions where you are frustrated by the state of the law. Don't let it end there,” said Senator Raoul. “Unless you communicate that frustration, nothing is going to be done to fix that."
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