MSU College of Law

New Skadden Fellow to Help Flint Immigrant Community

Monica Macias, ’17, has become Michigan State University College of Law’s latest Skadden Fellow. Her prestigious fellowship will allow her to work for two years as a funded public interest attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

She will advocate for the civil rights of immigrant children and families harmed by the Flint water crisis.

“This is a real credit to Monica for rising to the top in a very competitive process,” said Dean Lawrence Ponoroff.  “Our community is inspired by her vision and her commitment to serving justice. I am certain that she will do an outstanding job in a wonderful program.”

A Passion for Service

Macias herself grew up as an undocumented immigrant.  Her experiences living outside of the legal system have inspired her to pursue a career in public interest work.

She obtained legal status while in college, and became a U.S. citizen this year. Macias began her career as a social worker in the Arizona prison system, and quickly saw that knowing the law would enable her to better help her clients. “I could see that rights violations were happening, but I needed to know the law to make a real difference,” she said.

After two and a half years of working with prisoners, Macias decided to attend law school and moved from Arizona to East Lansing. As a law student, her passion for public interest law has kept her focused. She has worked as a judicial intern at the Michigan Supreme Court, a student attorney at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and a legal research intern for the ACLU.

Macias described her work as a student in MSU Law’s Immigration Law Clinic as “the most compelling part of my education.” Immigration Law Clinic students advocate for vulnerable immigrant populations, including unaccompanied children and indigent families. Working with faculty and staff attorneys, she navigated clients through a bewildering web of immigration laws and regulations. Her clinical work provided hands-on experience in using the law as a tool to change lives.

New Legal Needs in Flint

During Macias’s second year of law school, the public health emergency caused by lead-contaminated water in the city of Flint, Michigan, made national news.  As the Flint water crisis unfolded, she saw a new set of needs emerge for immigrant communities in the affected area.

“Michigan denies state identification to people who aren’t in the country lawfully,” Macias explained. “Lack of ID creates barriers to meeting their basic human needs – like safe drinking water.” In the case of immigrants in the Flint area, fear of deportation kept them from seeking bottled water from water distribution centers. The lack of Spanish-language public health information further compounded the problem by creating an information blackout for non-English speakers.

“Immigrant families need legal support to obtain access long-term healthcare and for children who drank the toxic water,” said Macias. “They’ll also need special education services, and in some cases bilingual special education.”

She will work closely with the ACLU of Michigan address those issues. Her plan includes direct outreach to immigrants, a “know your rights” campaign, strategic litigation, and using external communication to highlight the problems faced by the immigrant community.

Skadden Fellows: The Legal Peace Corps

Macias is one of 30 elite third-year law students and recent graduates from across the nation who will devote the next two years to public interest work. The highly-selective Skadden Fellowship Program, which has been described as "a legal Peace Corps," provides funding for graduating law students who wish to devote their professional lives to providing legal services to the disadvantaged, the elderly, the homeless and the disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights.

Hundreds of law students develop one-of-a-kind project proposals with sponsoring organizations, and 30 are selected to receive funded fellowships. 2017’s class of Skadden fellows will spend thousands of hours assisting homeless female veterans in San Francisco, representing former foster children in New York City, using new technology to support refugees across the U.S., and advocating for voting rights on behalf of citizens with previous convictions. They will work in ten states and the District of Columbia. 

Careers with Purpose

About 90 percent of Skadden Fellows continue to work as public interest lawyers following their fellowship.

Macias is the third Skadden Fellow to come from Michigan State Law in the last five years. Sarah Ladd, ’13, spent her fellowship developing a human rights-based legal protection program for human trafficking victims. She currently serves as Executive Director for Light of Hope Kenya, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering Kenyan girls through education and support.

Erin Hankins Diaz, ’15, is currently in the second year of her Skadden Fellowship. She represents low-income Detroit families whose children have disabilities to ensure their educational needs are met.

As a ’95 Skadden Fellow, Professor David Thronson, MSU Law’s Associate Dean for Experiential Education, knows the power of the experience. “Through its fellowships, the Skadden Foundation empowers talented new attorneys by giving them an opportunity to pursue their passions,” Thronson said.  “By supporting Monica and her project, Skadden helps launch a career in public service, leading to a lifetime of using the law to help society’s vulnerable.”