For more than 50 years, Wisconsinites seeking free help with civil legal matters like eviction, foreclosure and bankruptcy have turned to Legal Action of Wisconsin. The nonprofit clinic has served hundreds of thousands of low-income residents since its founding in 1968.
But because they receive funding from the Congress-created, publicly funded nonprofit Legal Services Corporation, one group of people is generally barred from those services: people without legal immigration status.
That’s why, after 10 years at Legal Action of Wisconsin and a year as director of the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Eviction Defense Clinic, attorney Erica López launched her own nonprofit law firm, The People’s Law Center, in September. The pro bono firm, which is not funded by the Legal Services Corporation, explicitly welcomes undocumented clients.
Many attorneys concerned about the welfare of immigrants go into immigration law. But López, who was raised in Southern California by Mexican parents who were undocumented until Ronald Reagan’s sweeping 1986 immigration law granted amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants, is proud to focus on housing.
“Housing is the number one social determinant of health, the one the number one most stabilizing force in a person's life,” she said.
The new firm has already begun taking its first clients through contracts with local groups like the Tenant Resource Center. With a staff of just one part-time attorney and one paralegal, López currently serves as executive director and litigation director.
López spoke with the Cap Times about what she’s learned in eviction court, why she doesn’t believe her clients will get true justice, and what it means to succeed anyway.
When was the moment you knew you wanted to become a lawyer?
I initially resisted becoming a lawyer even though, all of my life my family has told me that I should become a lawyer. I've always been really logical and rational when advocating for myself. I was always upset that my brother had certain limited responsibilities in terms of domesticity but expanded freedom when it came to everything else.
So I did a lot of reasoning with my parents about gender roles. My mother has a sixth grade education, so it’s harder for her to learn English. As a result, I've been an interpreter, I read letters from government agencies and the school growing up, and I've always been able to speak on behalf of my family or myself.
Initially I thought I was going to get a Ph.D. in human development. But (after graduating college), I was in a lonely attic in a Victorian mansion (working for Yale University’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy) doing a lot of writing and reading. It was fantastic, but it was not a lot of human interaction and connection.
And so when I did some data collection for the immigration and education study I worked on, when I began to talk to the families and community members, everyone said, “I need a lawyer.” I'm sure they were referring to immigration, but there are plenty of immigration lawyers. I saw the real need for civil legal aid, because civil legal aid usually manages access to basic needs.
What did you learn or see in eviction court that you think more people need to understand?
The very first time I walked into court, it was unmistakable. At that time, a few years ago when I went in person, all of the commissioners were white. The bailiffs and court staff were white. The landlords were all white. And it was a sea of color for the tenants. The face of eviction in the state of Wisconsin, (as we know from) Matt Desmond's book “Evicted,” is a single female head of household, but the fastest growing (group facing eviction) is a female person who’s Latinx and likely undocumented.
The other thing is that small claims (court), the exclusive place for eviction actions, is meant to be accessible so that people can represent themselves. It doesn't have a lot of the procedural rules that regular circuit court has. But frankly, getting the evidence together for a case that has a hearing on a Tuesday and a trial on a Friday — it's an impossibility. It's impossible to do alone.
Our mission is to increase access to the legal system by providing marginalized, low-income people with the necessary support to at least meaningfully participate in the legal system, to address the inherent power imbalance, not just in the legal system but also between landlords and tenants. Landlords have an extraordinary amount of power over their tenants because the only decision that a tenant ever has is the decision to move in. Once they've made that choice, they have very little leverage to try to balance the power dynamic.
When did you start taking your first cases at your new firm?
I think our contracts started the week of September 26, and we already have a slew of cases. When I was at UW, we took pretty straightforward cases (since) students obviously have limitations on their time. Now I'm back to taking cases that are far more complex, with people that need more support. They're challenging and rewarding. A lot of my cases are for people with disabilities, people experiencing intimate partner violence, and certainly people that are undocumented or being exploited. It runs the gamut of different kinds of people that need my help.
What's your success rate in your eviction cases?
Success is an interesting word choice for that. I don't believe that there's any real justice for people that are marginalized. “Justice” is nowhere to be found in our mission or vision. But what I can do is walk with people together in collaboration to provide access to meaningfully participate in the legal system. So all of my cases are successful in that way. I participated in 128 cases at the UW that I participated in and I believe, due to a disability, one of my clients did get a writ (of eviction), but I was able to get that writ overturned.
I am persistent and dogged in my pursuit of access for my clients. But just having an attorney does work to diminish the power imbalance between landlords and tenants and the legal system as a whole. There are so many rules, procedures and deadlines that people just don't know about, so having a lawyer walk through the process with them, I think that's success by itself, even if the case were to be unsuccessful.
Anything else you want to add?
One of the things that I've been talking a lot about (lately) is how immigration has always been racialized, from the start of our country and the very first immigrants, whether that’s the Chinese that came and built our railroads, the Bracero program that ultimately deported U.S. citizens to Mexico, or Italians and Irish that came here and were not (considered) white. It's always been racialized, and now the race that it's associated with are Latinx people.
Even though Latinx people make up only 70% of people that are undocumented, they have much higher rates of deportation or other negative consequences. Because of that, they are more likely to be exploited, which makes our community unsafe. People don't want to call the police to get help because they believe that they're going to get deported.
I had a client who, because of the pandemic, lost her job and began working for her property manager – not even for wages, I think it was just for rent. She wasn't getting paid what she was due, so there was wage theft there, but also sexual harassment and a lot of pressure from her landlord.
There was a study done in November of 2020 (about people living in a wildfire area). It found that (not having) authorization to be in the United States magnified and compounded the inequities that they already face. This specific population is the engine of our economy: the service industry, the meatpacking plants, the dairy workers in our Wisconsin farms, anything that you can imagine — undocumented people are working in those fields.