Empowering the immigrant community

Alumni Profiles: Nicole Cortés, AB ’06, JD/MSW ’12; Jessica Mayo, JD ’12

Alumnae Jessica Mayo and Nicole Cortes
Alumnae Jessica Mayo (left) and Nicole Cortés co-founded a nonprofit that provides legal and social services to low-income immigrants. (Photo: James Byard)

“We always wanted to practice immigration law, but we wanted to do it in a different way than a traditional firm,” says Jessica Mayo, co-director of the MICA Project. Based in St. Louis, the MICA (Migrant and Immigrant Community Action) Project — a nonprofit that Mayo co-founded with fellow alumna Nicole Cortés — provides legal ­services and community education for ­low-income immigrants in St. Louis, southern Missouri and southern Illinois.

Mayo, JD ’12, and Cortés, AB ’06, JD ’12, MSW ’12, came up with the idea for the MICA Project while they were students at Washington University School of Law.

“While we were working at other nonprofits, we started seeing gaps and seeing how big of a population there was that wasn’t getting served,” Mayo says. “We found each other relatively early in law school. I don’t think either of us would have gone out on our own. But by having each other, it was possible to dream and make it happen.”

Though not well known as an immigration hub, St. Louis is home to a diverse population whose immigration cases often fall outside the parameters of what traditional legal services can provide. This is where Mayo and Cortés step in.

“We’ve identified three gaps: geographic, income and legal status,” Cortés says. Many legal organizations can offer services only in a particular region. Other organizations require that clients be at or below a certain percentage of the poverty line (usually 150 percent). The MICA Project serves people who have nowhere else to go.

About half of the MICA Project’s clients are Spanish speakers, a group Cortés says is underserved in St. Louis. “As an undergrad, I got my first glimpse into the St. Louis Latino community,” she says. “Later, I realized there are not many Spanish-speaking lawyers around.”

Cortés primarily handles Spanish-speaking clients, while Mayo’s hail from all over the world. “Lately we’ve had a lot of Somalis, Burmese,” Mayo says. “Refugee populations are always changing.”

The MICA Project got off the ground in ­October 2012 after Mayo and Cortés won a $30,000 grant from the Daughters of ­Charity Foundation of St. Louis, an organization that funds socially conscious entrepreneurship. Mayo credits this award and the support of university faculty for their initial success.

“Our faculty mentors were an integral part of our ability to do this,” Mayo says. “The business school helped us with our business plan. Our professors referred us to practitioners in the community, who helped us with the incorporation process.”

Because the nonprofit relies on outside funding and charges clients on a sliding scale, volunteers are essential. About 90 percent of their student volunteers come from the university. Cortés says students from both the law and the business school have contributed to the organization’s success. “We’ve had great support from student involvement,” she says.

Mayo and Cortés plan to expand the MICA Project over the next five years. They hope to hire another attorney as well as a social worker. “We want our clients to be well connected to resources in other areas,” Mayo explains. “A lot of emotional trauma goes along with immigration cases, so a social worker’s role could be really important.”

Outside the office, Mayo and Cortés spend time with their young children and attend monthly meetings of what Mayo calls a “radical lawyering group.”

“We talk about how to challenge the way legal structures contribute to poverty and racism and injustice,” she says. It is a philosophy the MICA Project tries to carry out in practice.

“We want our clients to feel as if it’s their case, not just something for a professional to fix, but something that leaves them empowered,” Mayo says. “I’m not sure that’s always the result, but it’s our philosophy, our approach.”