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Issue: "Blind exiled brave," Aug. 10, 2013

Last year, AJ served people from 27 countries of origin. Kimberly Spagui, a staff attorney who also runs a private practice, handles the organization’s immigration clients, many of whom come to AJ for help with tax or custody disputes. AJ lawyers learn their status while gently probing their situation: AJ can help undocumented immigrants obtain a visa if they have a relative in the United States or are victims of abuse or trafficking. Spagui also works with trafficking victims who often “come in lawfully with a visa, under a promise that they’re going to be working in a certain place. And then they end up working in a sweatshop ... or in the sex trade.”

REAL ADVICE: AJ volunteer attorney Pam Brunkalla helps two clients with paperwork.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
REAL ADVICE: AJ volunteer attorney Pam Brunkalla helps two clients with paperwork.
Raphael's portrait of Lady Justice serves as an emblem for the organization. The original fresco appears in the Palace of the Vatican.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
Raphael's portrait of Lady Justice serves as an emblem for the organization. The original fresco appears in the Palace of the Vatican.
Executive Director Bruce Strom at work in his office in Elgin, Ill.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
Executive Director Bruce Strom at work in his office in Elgin, Ill.
Clients must make an appointment before meeting with a lawyer. Because of the high number of Spanish-speaking clients, the group employs bilingual receptionists.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
Clients must make an appointment before meeting with a lawyer. Because of the high number of Spanish-speaking clients, the group employs bilingual receptionists.
Nikhil Mehta has served as a volunteer attorney at Administer Justice since January.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
Nikhil Mehta has served as a volunteer attorney at Administer Justice since January.
Administer Justice provides counsel and representation for disputes involving immigration, taxes, Social Security, housing, and more.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
Administer Justice provides counsel and representation for disputes involving immigration, taxes, Social Security, housing, and more.
Bruce and Helen Strom with twin sons Daniel (left) and Joseph, both 14.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
Bruce and Helen Strom with twin sons Daniel (left) and Joseph, both 14.

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Listen to a report on Administer Justice that aired on The World and Everything in It:

Follow this year’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition and vote for the ministry you believe deserves the 2013 award .

Money Box

• 2011 income: $1.61 million

• 2011 expenses: $1.68 million

• Salary of executive director Bruce Strom: $70,000

• Employees: three full-time, nine part-time

• Volunteers: A network of 250 volunteer attorneys and 450 volunteer non-attorneys who help with mailings and publicity, pray with clients, and bake fresh cookies to place in the organization’s waiting room

• Website: administerjustice.org

Court coaching

Inside the red brick Kane County Courthouse in Geneva, wooden benches line a tall, dimly lit hallway. Here, outside the brass-handled door of Room 150—mortgage foreclosure court—AJ staff attorney Pam Tan sits at a small table every Friday to cheer up troubled homeowners.

Last year banks filed nearly 5,000 foreclosure cases in this court. Many homeowners arrive pro se—without a lawyer—and hope the judge will explain what to do. But the judge isn’t supposed to offer legal advice, so he often sends them to Tan for free coaching on what papers to file.

A man in a bomber jacket, Indian immigrant Syed Husain, missed a deadline for filing a court paper and asked Tan what to do next. Husain, 54 and married with two teenagers at home, lost his travel agency job and was unemployed for two years. Tan told him, “Don’t pay for loan modification forms. They charge you $3,000 [or] $4,000 to fill out forms you could fill out yourself.”

Husain is temporarily rehired: “Less pay, of course. More bills, less pay. It’s a sign of the time.” He has a mortgage for over $250,000 but said his four-bedroom house in Aurora isn’t worth that much. His bank twice rejected an application for loan modification. Asked what he’ll do if the judge allows foreclosure, Husain smiled and shrugged. —D.J.D. 

Coyote hunting

For most of her life, Maria has lived in fear. Born into an impoverished family of nine in Mexico, her father died when she was 5, and when she was 10 her mother abandoned the family for more than a year. When she returned, she was abusive and made Maria drop out of school. There was barely enough money for corn, much less shoes or underwear.

Maria longed for escape. (WORLD is withholding her full name to protect the safety of her family in Mexico.) An older brother she loved had immigrated to the United States, but she was only about 15 years old and had no legal way of obtaining a visa. So she asked a coyote (a human smuggler) to take her across the border.

The coyote arranged for her to hitch a car ride with another family through a checkpoint, where immigration officials overlooked the extra passenger. In Texas she found not freedom but a nightmare: The coyote took her to a hotel room, raped her, and handed her over to the owner of a Houston cantina. There she was expected to work off her smuggling debt.

The cantina owner compelled Maria to serve beer to drunken men, drink with them, dance, and offer herself to their wishes. Marijuana and cocaine were rampant. Maria cried and looked up at the sky, praying for escape and strength to carry on.

She was able to call a cousin, and after three weeks in the cantina, he picked her up and brought her to his house for protection. But before long the coyote showed up with a group of friends or relatives and surrounded the house, brandishing guns and daggers. He demanded $1,500 and threatened to take Maria back by force if she didn’t pay. Her family members scraped together enough money to pay off the coyote.

Maria moved to northeast Illinois to be near two siblings, and later married. For a decade she kept mostly silent about the abuses she endured, not realizing they were crimes, and afraid of revealing her illegal status. She has suffered from depression and anxiety as ugly memories resurface.

It wasn’t until Maria came to Administer Justice in 2012 and spoke to immigration attorney Kimberly Spagui that she realized she had legal recourse. The organization helped her apply for a special visa available to trafficking victims and file a report against the coyote and cantina that enslaved her. The Houston Police Department is investigating.

Maria, now 25, has obtained her visa and a driver’s license, and will be able to apply for permanent residency in two years. She’s taking classes to learn English and has received counseling from a local Roman Catholic church she attends.

“Now I am much closer to God,” she said: “I bring my daughters to church. We participate in church activities with the women and the youth programs. I am thankful for all the blessings I have now and that I am able to stay in the United States.” —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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