Interview With Megan Davis of Erie Neighborhood House, Chicago

CLINIC launched a new project called the Recent Arrivals Capacity Building Mentorship Initiative (RACMBI) in which leaders of existing community-based legal service organizations are invited to provide mentorship to aspiring Department of Justice representatives who are looking to gain accreditation and build up their legal service programs. CLINIC sat down with Megan Davis, one of the mentors who participated in the initiative, to hear about her experience serving as a mentor for the project.

Q: Can you tell me about your role and how long you’ve worked at Erie Neighborhood House?

I am the Director of Legal Services here at Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago. I have been in the position for 4 years, since 2020. I started at Erie House as a staff attorney in 2017. Erie Neighborhood House is a social services agency, providing comprehensive support to mostly the immigrant community on Chicago’s West and South side. It’s been around for 150 years.

Our services range across the board, from educational services, health and wellness, a housing project, mental health counseling, to immigration legal services. Our immigration legal services department consists of myself and another attorney, two fully accredited Department of Justice (DOJ) representatives, one partially accredited DOJ representative, 2 paralegals, a legal assistant, and a program manager who will also be seeking partial DOJ accreditation soon.

Q: What inspires you to do this work?

I have been drawn to do immigration law since law school. I knew I wanted to do legal aid and public interest law from the beginning, and during law school I had the opportunity to visit Chiapas, the southern Mexican state, where I got involved in a human rights organization and witnessed migration that happened in that part of the country. Seeing the dire needs of migrants there helped solidify my interest in the topic of migration and recognize the demand for immigration legal services here in the United States. I also speak Spanish, which lends itself well to this work.

Q: What prompted you to participate as a mentor for the RACBMI?

Silvana Arista of CLINIC reached out and pitched the program to me. She emphasized the  capacity building aspect to it, which was really interesting to me — the idea that through mentorship we can help other organizations get off the ground and expand their legal services capacity through providing one-on-one guidance. I think that is really important, as so many people are underserved in this area.

Immigration law is pretty daunting — it is constantly changing, there is a lot to know, and having a mentor to help you get your footing is really important.

It’s also very important to specifically help folks who are applying for DOJ accreditation. DOJ accreditation is an important path for providing immigration legal services that many folks don’t know about. It’s such a niche thing — that we can help people who don’t have law degrees be able to practice immigration by helping them get accredited through the government. It’s under-utilized and something that I really appreciate that we can help build capacity for.

Q: What has the mentor-mentee relationship looked like?

I have two mentees, both based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but from different organizations.

Our meetings have so far been virtual, because of location (they’re several hours away). For us it looks like a virtual meeting every week or other week. We use that space to answer any questions they have about legal practice, about their cases, about case management and best practices, ethical questions that come up in their cases or offices, etc.  

The conversation goes wherever they might have questions, which is great because it's tailored to their specific needs. It’s a space that allows and fosters good dialogue about the day-to-day work and how to approach it most ethically and efficiently.

Another thing we’ve been able to do is invite the mentees to do some virtual (Zoom) observation of our intake of clients and meetings with clients, and then they can see first-hand the case management that we use, and how we assess eligibility, put together applications, etc. I think it’s been very helpful for them to watch and observe in this way.

My mentees come from diverse backgrounds and types of experience — one mentee is from an DOJ recognized organization that has a DOJ representative in the office already, so this mentee has some prior experience supporting with immigration applications. Their office wants to expand and take on some more complex types of cases, so our virtual sessions focus on questions related to growing in that type of capacity.

The other mentee is a volunteer seeking to become DOJ accredited at an organization that is applying for DOJ recognition. So the focus of our meetings is how to build an immigration legal services program from the ground up. So a bit different.

It’s been great to be able to provide guidance to both mentees from diverse circumstances.

Q: How has mentoring aspiring accredited representatives impacted your program or community?

The more that I or others in the field can share our experiences to help others getting started only helps us solidify access to high quality immigration legal services. The more we can lift up and help others wanting to do this work will expand opportunities to serve immigrants in the community.

We know that there are different needs of immigrant communities from Chicago to Wisconsin, and therefore diverse legal needs, but it all is connected to strengthening the accessibility of quality legal assistance.

We at Erie Neighborhood House have grown over time too, so it’s a good way for us to reflect on what we’ve tried and learned overtime. And to share that lived experience with the mentees.

And it’s great to reflect on what I’ve learned throughout my own cases — what is it like to go to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices, how to do your due diligence, how to do background checks, request evidence, etc. It’s great for me to be able to share the tools and expertise that we’ve used and gained over time.

I think it can be really scary to be in this field without guidance — and if you don’t have enough support from your organization or are in an office that’s just starting out, you need a place to ask very specific questions about day-to-day practice.

Q: What advice do you have for DOJ accredited representatives or attorneys who may consider mentorship in the future?

I would encourage anyone who has experience as a DOJ or attorney to consider mentoring, because I think it’s part of giving back to this field. Helping to build up and strengthen other agencies is a really valuable part of what we can do to share and support one another. Not only to have good support as practitioners but to strengthen this area of law — there’s more need in this field than anyone can ever handle! We could probably use several hundred thousand more DOJ representatives to help meet the need. Every person we can help to enter the field and stay active and engage is just huge in terms of what we can accomplish for our immigrant neighbors.