Briefing Room


3L spends summer helping immigrant workers in Illinois

September 12, 2016 | Students

Law school was always in the plans for 3L Madison Mackay. An opportunity to study abroad during her undergraduate studies, however, provided the catalyst to helping her find an area of the law she’s most passionate about – immigration law.

“I always knew exactly what I wanted to do. I went to undergrad at Dennison University where I majored in political science thinking I was going to get into law and then I majored in Spanish as well – I just thought that would pair pretty nicely. I studied abroad during that time and that helped me pick exactly what part of law I want to do – immigration law,” she explained.

Eager to gain experience in the field from the first day of law school, she connected with Amy Bittner ‘07, a partner at the Columbus-based firm of Muchnicki & Bittner, to begin pursuing internship and work opportunities. Mackay said Bittner told her to come back after her 1L year if she was still interested in working for the firm, an opportunity Mackay made sure to follow through on. After she passes the bar following graduation in the spring, Mackay said she plans to join the firm full-time.

Hoping to continue broadening her horizons in the field of immigration law, Mackay also completed an internship at the Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF) in Chicago this past summer. The nonprofit represents indigent clients on immigration issues as well as in several other areas of practice.

“I really appreciated the opportunity because working with low-income clientele was a completely different experience than the firm work I’ve done. I was able to experience more of the life situations the clients were going through,” Mackay said.

One project she had the opportunity to work on during her time at LAF was the Illinois Migrant Worker Project, which involved Mackay accompanying other interns and supervising attorneys on trips out to farms around the state, speaking with migrant workers, and educating them about their rights.

“We paired with the employment practice group at LAF, and they brought employment claims on behalf of migrant workers working in fields, on farms and in factories around Illinois on migrant visas. They make sure they’re being paid properly and they’re being treated properly. If they’re not then they get them some type of employment relief and then the attorneys use that employment relief as a means for getting the clients a visa, a long term visa, here in the U.S,” she explained.

Most of their clients were victims of a crime – many times involving unfair labor practices. “Typically we would see assault, domestic violence, things of that nature, but now there are issues like wage theft or obstruction of justice by their employers. We were looking at these problems in new ways to find clients relief,” she said.

But the work wasn’t simply attending community meetings and events to inform migrant workers about their rights. Most of the time she and her colleagues were hitting the road and traveling to personally meet with employees on the job.

“We would travel around the entire state of Illinois and walk up to farms, hopefully on the employees’ lunch breaks, so they weren’t in the fields, and just say ‘Hey here are your rights, here’s some information, call us if you feel like you’re not being treated all right,’ and then a lot of times we would end up representing them,” she said.

“Some of the people were being treated fine and had all the right documentation, and then other people would tell us they had been coming back to the same place for 20 years and things weren’t going as well as they should be.”

One of the most memorable cases she took on during her internship, however, involved an ice cream vendor who had been the victim of a crime. Inundated with cases, Mackay said the LAF would not have been able to take the case had she not done all of the initial work for it, interviewing the client, gathering documentation, and preparing his file. That experience not only gave her confidence in her skills to do this kind of work going forward as a practicing attorney, but also helped her better understand the importance of a good working relationship between a client and their attorney.

“I think I gained more empathy this summer. I took a social movements class here with Professor Amna Akbar and one of the main things we discussed was being an attorney gives you a privilege over your clients, and so understanding how that works into how you represent your clients is important,” she said.

“Being responsible for that final case really gave me the ability to see how hard it is for some clients. It wasn’t just filling out forms; it was listening to their story and writing their story out for them. Because of our federal funding, we could only deal with clients that had been the victims of crime or human trafficking. So no one was coming to us saying, ‘I just would really like to be here.’ It was more like ‘I have this really awful story, can you please help me?’ I believe the needs of the clientele really opened my eyes to how immigrants are treated here unfortunately, and, how people get here.”

While The Ohio State University wasn’t initially on her radar when looking at law schools during her last year in undergrad, Mackay, who serves as president of the Immigration Law Society and vice president of the Latino Law Students Association at Moritz, has enjoyed the plentiful opportunities available here to pursue her passion for immigration law and the people she’s met along the way.

“I’ve really enjoyed the level of intelligent conversations that go on here, and I appreciate the ability for them to happen in the classroom,” she said. “I came from a small school and I thought coming to Ohio State would be very intimidating, but it’s pretty similar here. It’s really class discussion based, and I appreciate that the professors are willing to listen and have the dialogue open for everyone.”