[Member Spotlight] Legal Empowerment in Practice: Justice in Motion

This member spotlight features an interview with Justice in Motion. The organization is dedicated to ensuring cross-border justice for migrants in North and Central America.

Migrants face overwhelming legal and practical barriers in their destination countries. Their migrant status makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from employers and government officials. Given the unfavorable conditions, many give up their rights and do not pursue justice. Many others, who flee abuse, violence, and persecution in their countries of origin are unable to remain in safety due to the lack of evidence to support their claims. These migrants need “portable justice”: the right and ability to access justice across borders.

Justice in Motion protects their rights by enabling just that. The organization is dedicated to securing portable justice through legal, educational, and policy initiatives in the United States (U.S.), Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Essential to this transnational model is the Defender Network, a unique partnership of human rights organizations in Mexico and Central America. The network helps Justice in Motion make sure that wherever migrants go, their rights follow. Legal empowerment has been core to their mission since the organization was founded in 2005. The Defender Network, which is the primary vehicle of their legal empowerment work, was founded in 2008.

The Legal Empowerment Problems They Solve

Migration fuels our globalized world but often migrants’ rights stop at the border. For too many migrants, crossing a border means forfeiting their rights. Justice in Motion is working to change that through cross-border partnerships.

Migrant exploitation, abuse and rights violation: In the U.S. and Canada, Mexican and Central American migrant workers tend fields, work in factories, and care for children. Isolated by language and geography, burdened by debt to recruiters or smugglers, and fearful of losing their jobs, these workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Some employers cheat workers of pay and deny them their rights. Because their stay is temporary, workers are unable to defend those rights in court.

Migrants in the U.S. may face rights violations during arrest, detention, and removal, and forced labor in detention centers. They are often deported before they can defend their rights. Deported migrants who have suffered civil rights abuses are also cut off from support. They need access to justice across borders to challenge violations and harmful policies. U.S. lawyers need to reach migrants even after deportation to be able to fight their cases. However, many deported migrants do not realize that they are entitled to redressal for violations committed by U.S. officials, while lawyers lack the resources to work efficiently with deported persons.

Immigration relief and cross-border coordination: Many migrants also cross borders to escape persecution, but working on their immigration cases gets immensely difficult. For instance, once in the U.S., it is nearly impossible to compile immigration-related documents, because that requires contact and coordination with the countries they have escaped. Children who flee abuse may be eligible for immigration relief but for that to happen, court documents must be served to the parents who abused or abandoned them in their country of origin.

Defender Network members at the Justice in Motion Defender Summit. (Photo credit: Erick Klee 2019)

How They Use Legal Empowerment to Address Migrants’ Issues

In 2018, Justice in Motion assisted with 201 legal cases in the U.S. to help more than 1067 migrants access justice for labor, immigration, and civil rights violations. The following example demonstrates the pivotal role local partners play in securing access to justice.

Nearly 100 migrants traveled to the U.S. to work for a landscaping company under temporary work visas. However, their employer failed to pay them the legal wage. The workers found legal assistance, but 46 individuals returned to Mexico while the case was still ongoing. Afraid that those returned migrants would not receive the settlement they were entitled to, their lawyers reached out to Justice in Motion for help. We connected them to Juan Francisco, a seasoned community advocate in rural Mexico.

Juan Francisco was tasked with locating the 46 migrants and helping them claim the settlement. He traveled for more than 15 hours to reach their community, and through tenacious sleuthing found all of them. Next, he had to help the workers understand the purpose and benefits of joining the case. At first there was suspicion–some thought he was trying to extort them while others feared that participating would decrease their chances of getting visas in the future. In response, Francisco created a Whatsapp group that had all the workers. This tac tic gave them a smooth communication channel, allowing Francisco to address questions collectively and build trust.

As a result, more than 40 of the migrants joined the case. Because of Francisco’s work, migrant workers realized they were entitled to justice for stolen wages irrespective of their location or migrant status. Now, they will receive the due wages: more than $300,000 in total owed to more than 50 workers.

Strategies They Use to Ensure Long-Term Sustainability of Work

Justice in Motion helps migrants secure portable justice through an innovative model of cross-border partnership. The core of our work is the Defender Network, an alliance of 43 human rights organizations across Mexico and Central America.

  • We support Defenders – on-ground lawyers and community advocates – by providing them with in-depth trainings and resources on Canadian and U.S. legal frameworks. Defenders then provide accurate information and refer legal cases for people in their communities, whether they are evaluating the legitimacy of a work visa offer, or seeking justice for a civil rights violation during detention or deportation. Defenders work closely with migrants to equip them with knowledge, resources, and connections to defend their rights, no matter which borders they cross.

  • We draw on the skills and local expertise of Defenders through our flagship legal action program, which focuses primarily on cases for migrants in U.S. and Canadian courts. Justice in Motion helps U.S. and Canadian lawyers overcome the procedural, technical, and logistical challenges presented by cross-border cases, such as serving legal documents in countries of origin, finding evidence for asylum claims, tracking down missing plaintiffs, or facilitating remote testimony. We assist U.S. and Canadian attorneys with concrete cases for their migrant clients, train them to overcome barriers when working with migrants, and help them partner with lawyers and community paralegals in Mexico and Central America.

  • We also create spaces to foster collaboration and connection between Defenders, so they can share knowledge, strategies, and developments from their region. Justice in Motion and the Defender Network leverage cross-border perspective and on-ground legal expertise to launch timely policy initiatives, on local, national, and regional scales.

Justice in Motion Defender Core Team. (Photo credit: Marcos Montenegro, 2018)

Tips and Advice for Fellow Practitioners

The most significant lesson we have learned in over a decade of legal empowerment work is the importance of cross-border collaboration. As migration flows swell across the globe, the legal systems to protect migrants cannot stop at the border. Rather, human rights infrastructure must be as mobile and transnational as the populations it serves. In pursuing portable justice, Justice in Motion has learned various strategies to optimize transnational civil society collaborations.

One lesson is the importance of building real trust among partners. A key objective of our Defender Network is to cultivate trust among members. When bringing partners together in-person, time feels precious: it is easy to overload agendas with programmatic content and trainings. However, we have learned that it is just as important to build in time to share stories, understand one another’s motivations, and grow the trust to inspire and sustain future collaborations. Trust in each other’s commitment to our shared purpose has carried us through numerous crises, from family separation to migrant caravans. It is a grounding force in a chaotic landscape.

A more prosaic lesson is that when working with partners in different countries, laws and legal practices vary widely. It is therefore essential to establish a shared vocabulary and understanding of tasks. In launching our civil rights project for deported migrants, we brought U.S. lawyers and Defenders together to co-design the project. They educated one another about detention, deportation, and repatriation in their various contexts. For instance, they practiced interview techniques in small groups to elicit specific details that were required by U.S. lawyers to present cases successfully. Defenders talked U.S. lawyers through the details of the arrival process for migrants deported to their countries. This in-depth, mutual education helped to avoid future miscommunication and prepare for successful collaboration.

If you have questions or thoughts about this member’s work, please share them below.


_Member Spotlights are short interview profiles focusing on members of the Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues, or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network at #memberspotlight.

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