The Woman Who Won't Stop Fighting for Immigrants' Rights

Tessa Petak
·6 mins read

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Badass Women celebrates women who show up, speak up, and get things done.

Marielena Hincapié wants you to know that your voice matters this November. The Colombia native and executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) migrated to the United States with her family when she was three years old and has gone on to have a lasting impact on our country’s legal system. After attending Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, Hincapié began practicing impact litigation during which she won four law reform cases, in effect establishing legal precedents that help protect low-income immigrant worker's rights. She has also worked with NILC on another dozen impact litigation cases, which have benefitted millions of immigrants throughout the country.

Most recently, Hincapié served as a co-chair on the Biden-Sanders Unity Taskforce on Immigration to write recommendations that will terminate laws that have placed restrictions on immigrants, such as the “discriminatory travel and immigration bans that have had a disproportionate impact on Muslim and African people” and “The Trump administration’s new public charge regulations, which have racial underpinnings and undermine critical access to public benefits and resources,” according to the Unity Taskforce’s Immigration Recommendations. “Anti-immigrant attacks are actually an attack on our democracy, says Hincapié. “[We] get to vote for people who don’t yet have a right to vote, like immigrants and children.”

With election day right around the corner, Hincapié says she is optimistic that America will see better days if we pledge to elect responsible leaders. “We need a system that allows us to have an inclusive policy where people have the freedom to thrive and fulfill their human potential,” says Hincapié. “This moment that we’re living in is actually a wonderful time to be alive because we get to help shape the future of our country by voting and electing leaders that actually believe in uniting us rather than dividing us.”

The American Dream: In the 1970s, Hincapié, her parents, and her nine siblings immigrated to the U.S. after her father was recruited to work in a textile factory in Rhode Island. Back then, it was much easier for immigrants to come to the U.S., so her father petitioned for the rest of the family to join him. “Many people don’t realize that the civil rights movement, in addition to providing necessary rights and the path to freedom for African American citizens, also included the 1965 Immigration Act,” Hincapié says. “[It] opened the doors to the United States by repealing national origin and racial quotas for the first time in U.S. history.”

When Hincapié’s family came to the States, her parents had no more than an elementary school education and spoke little English. So, they pushed for Hincapié and her siblings to receive higher education. Hincapié originally wanted to become an agent for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) because, she says, she witnessed plenty of drug-related crime and violence while growing up in Rhode Island in the ‘80s. She followed her brother to Northeastern University in Boston to study criminal justice. But, once there, her professors urged her to pursue a degree in law instead. “[I] started recognizing how much race and class played a role in who gets imprisoned in our country,” she says. “But at the time, I didn’t think that was what I wanted to do.” It wasn’t until she returned to Rhode Island post-graduation and landed a job working under a lawyer on anti-discrimination provisions of immigration law at a local refugee and immigrant service organization that Hincapié realized her true calling. In 1993, she decided to pursue her law degree and returned to Northeastern University with a plan to focus on immigration workers’ rights. “I was very aware of the amount of discrimination that my parents and older siblings faced in the workplace and even in our community, but I knew the problems were not individual,” Hincapié says. “I knew that I wanted to engage in policy changes and change society as a whole.”

Fighting for Rights: After graduation, Hincapié received a fellowship in San Francisco to start the Immigrant Workers’ Rights Project. Four years later, she was recruited by the NILC to head their labor and employment program, where she would fight for the rights of low-income immigrant workers. Over the past 20 years, she has taken on cases that would not only help individuals, but would also affect larger, systemic changes in the country’s legal system. One such case set a precedent that makes it illegal under federal law for an employer to contact federal immigration enforcement authorities or other government agencies in retaliation to an immigrant worker exercising their workplace rights.

“[In] a lot of civil rights cases people [take] the risk to file knowing that they’re doing it not just for themselves but on behalf of millions of other people. That takes great courage,” Hincapié says. “We think lawyers are doing the incredible work, but that’s actually not possible without courageous everyday people.”

Getting the Job Done: In true 2020 fashion, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a slew of new problems and exacerbated existing issues (like a lack of proper healthcare) for many immigrants. NILC and Hincapié have been working tirelessly, campaigning for federal, state, and local policies to include immigrants in COVID-19 relief packages so that immigrants can have access to healthcare services like COVID-19 testing. “The pandemic has showed us that we are interdependent. We rely on each other, and the only way we are going to emerge out of this is if we are all healthy,” Hincapié says. “Our collective well-being actually depends on all of us having access to healthcare safety nets.”

Furthermore, Hincapié points out that we have relied on immigrants a great deal throughout this pandemic and the subsequent quarantine. Approximately six million immigrants are working on the frontlines in essential fields, from healthcare to farming to the restaurant industry, according to the NILC. “The pandemic is exposing the pre-existing fractures in our society and showing us that we are dependent on immigrants,” says Hincapié. “With that unveiling comes an awakening. We are finally starting to see what has been invisible for all these decades: immigrants are paying taxes in our nation yet don’t have access to healthcare, basic services, and safety nets."

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Using Your Voice: “Often times we talk a lot about the United States being a nation of immigrants, but we forget that immigrants today come for the same reasons your ancestors did,” says Hincapié. “People come so their families and children have a better future or to seek safety and freedom in our country.” During her time as co-chair on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force — where she co-wrote a list of recommendations for immigration laws that were released in July — Hincapié realized she is very hopeful for the future. Should Biden be elected in November, she expects his administration to terminate travel and immigration bans, maintain Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), re-establish asylum procedures at the border, and more.

Regardless of the results of the election, Hincapié says there are many other things individuals can do to impact the future of this country like calling local elected officials and members of Congress and tapping into your own family’s history. “Tell your [family’s] story. “The way we are going to make progress in the long term is by reconnecting to our own immigrant stories,” she says. “We can send a loud and clear message that we are united around our shared dedication to freedom, equality, and justice for all.”