Mari Zellner, a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School, is a public interest lawyer dedicated to cultivating our next generation of attorneys, specifically undocumented pre-law students. Mari began volunteering on Immigrants Rising’s legal services team in 2009 and joined staff as an immigration attorney in 2012.
How has working at our organization impacted you?
Previously, I had a very binary view of direct client representation. I felt the majority of my job was to work hard, fix other people’s problems, and provide a service for somebody who wouldn’t be able to figure things out on their own.
Once I came to E4FC [Educators for Fair Consideration, now known as Immigrants Rising], I began to see that empowerment can work in a lot of different ways, and impact so many people for the better. A journey of self-actualization does not always begin and end with gaining legal status. It is essential to engage with people and hear what they want to create. Getting papers might be one part of that process, but not always. Having ‘documents’ is rarely the end of the story. Witnessing someone struggle, overcome and thrive, inspires others to believe in change too; to want to be a part of change – immigrants and allies. Hope and strength are at the core of Immigrants Rising, then and now.
I am a better lawyer and a better person because of my time at Immigrants Rising. Being an ally and advocate, I see more clearly now that I can’t approach services in terms of: “This is the way I’m going to do it because this is the way it’s always been done.” Rather, it’s about What are the world of possibilities? And if it’s not possible, how can we make our dreams achievable anyway? Being connected to Immigrants Rising has been an unending source of inspiration.
What is most unique about our organization?
So much of the Immigrants Rising legal services team is by and for undocumented young people. Other places might try to have a single DACA Fellow in their organization. Immigrants Rising has an entire legal services team with immigrants and allies whose lives are directly impacted by an undocu* narrative through its online free and anonymous legal service, and one of the reasons that the public trusts us is that our work is by and for undocumented young people.
And even though a lot of the people who are on the legal services team are non-lawyers, they hold themselves up to a really high standard. Our organization was able to gain Board of Immigration Appeals recognition, and Denia Perez—then one of our Legal Advocates, later our Legal Services Coordinator, and now getting her law degree—was the first person with DACA to gain BIA accreditation in the whole nation. Immigrants Rising, and the team members who drive it, are making change in our country, right before my eyes!
What’s important for us to keep in mind as we move forward?
One of the things that’s really valuable about Immigrants Rising, and having been around for 10 years, are the Immigrants Rising family who know what it was like before DACA. Diverse, talented and fearless community members who thrive and accomplish so much, then and now. The Immigrants Rising family are a bridge for the generations to come, not just providing inspiration and reassurance for ourselves that we are here to stay, but layer upon layer, sharing those stories publicly has been so essential throughout all our programs and making our entire nation a better place for all. Our voices together are just unstoppable.