This interview is a Q&A with Nora Phillips, Legal Director, Al Otro Lado.
As the alarming impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities (particularly disabled people of color) quickly became clear, the Disability Inclusion Fund (DIF) launched a $200,000 rapid response funding opportunity. The funding provided support for organizations on the front lines serving people with disabilities during this crisis, including mutual aid and support for organizing, policy, and systems-change advocacy, Al Otro Lado was among the recipients of this grant. In the following Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity, Nora Phillips, legal director of Al Otro Lado, shines a spotlight on what the DIF rapid response grant enabled the organization to accomplish and why disability-inclusive funding is more crucial than ever.
Can you share a bit about your work/the work of your organization?
Al Otro Lado (AOL) is a binational legal services and advocacy organization (501(c)(3) in the United States and Asociacion Civil in Mexico) with offices in LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles; Maywood, CA; San Diego; and Tijuana, MX. We provide holistic, trauma-informed legal services to refugees, deportees, and other migrants at each of our locations. We engage partner organizations and thousands of volunteers to connect our clients with free legal, medical, mental health, and social services.
Can you share a bit about the work your organization has been able to accomplish with the DIF RR grant?
The Disability Inclusion Fund’s rapid response grant has supported our work with people living with disabilities and asylum-seeking clients coming out of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Many of our clients are from Africa – some of the folks we have helped get out of ICE were former slaves in Mauritania. They journey for 16+ months on foot from Brazil, facing horrors along the way, turn in at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana (often assisted by AOL Tijuana staff), and spend anywhere from 6 months to years in ICE custody. If they manage to get a bond, it is typically between $5,000-$70,000 with the requirement of wearing an ankle monitor (sometimes two) for months or even a year. These clients are living with a multitude of disabilities, including schizophrenia, complex PTSD, renal failure, bipolar disorder, congestive heart failure, diabetes, paralysis, and limb differences.
AOL started a “catapult of love” for these individuals, an actual welcome to California (not the welcoming they received by CBP at the border), providing them with immediate post-release housing, food, clothing, toiletries, a duffel bag to replace the trash bag that ICE provides for their belongings, masks, a team for mental health support, review of medical records prior to release, immediate telephonic support from doctors and nurses who are AOL volunteers, and a whole lot of love and solidarity. Our clients typically stay in Los Angeles for 1-2 nights and then fly to their final destination. We also coordinate with Miles for Migrants for airfare and go to TSA at the airport with the client if they lack identification. Once they are at their final destination, AOL staff provide assistance with medical referrals, benefits enrollment, and pro bono attorneys to represent them in their immigration cases.
Why is it so important for grant makers to center disability inclusion in their work?
It is extremely important for grant makers to center disability inclusion in their work because it will promote more justice for individuals living with disabilities, both as clients as well as staff. One of AOL’s main areas of litigation is against violations of human rights for individuals living with disabilities, such as Fraihat v. ICE, where we challenged ICE’s failure to provide medical care or adequate accommodations to individuals who are in ICE custody and living with disabilities. We also have staff with a variety of disabilities, which makes for a far more inclusive workforce whose work automatically takes disability into consideration, rather than disability being an afterthought.
What can funders do to ensure their grant application process is accessible?
Funders can share opportunities widely and invite new organizations to apply, along with making the application simple, accessible, and easy to follow, compatible with screen reader technology, and ideally available in multiple languages. Funders should also consult counsel regarding questions posed to organizations in the funding application process relating to staff’s sexual orientation and staff living with disabilities’ medical conditions.
What do you most want funders to know about the overall impact funding has on disability-focused work?
Disability-focused work ensures that the disability community has a voice, that we are seen, heard, and recognized for our contributions, and that we are treated as equals. At Al Otro Lado, we have focused our limited legal representation resources on detained individuals who are living with a disability or are medically vulnerable, which is especially
important during the COVID-19 pandemic. We engage in advocacy beyond legal work to ensure that people have access to adequate medical care and accommodations, which
ranges from class-action litigation to compel response, to working with individual officers in detention facilities. We operate a robust Healthcare-Legal Partnership at LAC+USC
Medical Center (outpatient pediatrics) serving patients and staff with their immigration legal needs and training healthcare providers on immigration trauma, ICE custody, and
the immigration legal process as well as public benefits access and public charge. This training also focuses on vicarious trauma for healthcare providers, particularly in the era
Disability advocates work with individuals who are also oppressed for other reasons, including their race, immigration status, gender, LGBTQIA+ status, formerly incarcerated status, unhoused status, veteran status, as a single parent/guardian, deportation status, and many other reasons. By funding organizations whose work focuses on individuals living with disabilities, they will be helping individuals who face numerous other types of oppression as well.