Each year, the Women’s Foundation of Greater St. Louis (WFSTL) provides grant funding of up to $15,000 to organizations serving women in the St. Louis region. Grant recipients show a commitment to increasing job and living wage access to women, increasing support for working families, and/or increasing family well-being by eliminating barriers to success for women.

Last year, we awarded a grant to the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project (MICA Project). The MICA Project utilizes a combination of community outreach and legal services to promote the voice and dignity of immigrant communities. Their combined approach addresses the surplus need for immigration legal services in immigrant communities by taking a proactive approach, providing immigrants with the information and resources they need before legal issues arise.

We wanted to know more about how the MICA Project is supporting women, so we decided to interview one of their staff who leads efforts to support their clients.

WFSTL: Hi, Maria! We’re so excited to learn more about what you do. To start, can you tell me about yourself and your role at the MICA Project?

Maria: My name is Maria Torres Wedding and I am the Director of Client Support Services. As a child I moved to the United States from Mexico with my family. I feel very passionate about the health and wellbeing of immigrant communities because I know from personal experience how the language barrier, documentation status, and xenophobia can have such a great impact on health. My goal is to foster interdisciplinary work that centers immigrants and raises the standard of care.

The Client Support Services Department works alongside the legal team to ensure clients can actively engage in their legal case. Our department has developed tools to walk clients through a trauma-informed process of writing their trauma narratives for their legal case. Additionally, we provide clients with external referrals to therapy services, primary medical homes, and appropriate programming at partner non-profit agencies. We also help clients connect to tangible resources such as food, clothing, and financial assistance, whenever possible. 

WFSTL: You mentioned clients; who does the MICA Project serve?

Maria: The MICA Project provides legal representation to immigrants seeking a more stable form of documentation status. Most undocumented immigrants are ineligible to apply for status. However, exceptions are made when extreme trauma is suffered in the home country or in the US, as is the case with asylum and U Visas. Currently 60% of the organization’s 719 active cases fall into this category. The rest of the clients are fighting to prevent family separation from their loved ones through family-based petitions or DACA applications. The majority of our clients come from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. 

WFSTL: What are some of the barriers migrant women in St. Louis are facing that most people don’t know about?

Maria: The asylum seeking process can last anywhere between one to five years. During this time, asylum seekers must report to a private company called Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP). This company is contracted by ICE to surveil clients and ensure they attend their final hearing. The methods of surveillance range from paternalistic to abusive. Asylum seekers must stay home one full day a week in home arrest for a home visit from ISAP staff and they must have a monthly check-in at the ISAP office. Asylum seekers are forbidden to bring their legal counsel to these monthly interviews. Worst of all, asylum seekers are placed on ankle monitors with GPS for extended periods of time. Most commonly, they are on these monitors for at least a year, but we have seen many clients forced to wear them for over two and a half years. 

WFSTL: I never knew that was happening! What is the impact on women who are forced to wear ankle monitors?

Maria: These GPS monitors have economic, physical, psychological and social consequences for the person.  

The monitors are extremely stigmatizing and create yet another opportunity for discrimination. It leads to the loss of employment opportunities even when they have work authorization (some asylum seekers are eligible for work authorization while their case is in progress). They must also be charged regularly which means that they are constantly organizing their day in a way where they can have access to an outlet. 

They cut into their skin, cause rashes and swelling in their ankles and feet. After being worn for so long, they alter a person’s gait, leading to back pain. Many clients have reported that the monitors cause them to be shocked whenever they touch metal.

The monitors also emit random sounds throughout the day signaling that something is wrong – such as low battery. These sounds are so loud and annoying that they cause a lot of embarrassment if they are out in public, or they disturb their sleep. For women who have experienced a loss of agency in their home country and sexual abuse, being forced to wear a foreign object on their body creates a lot of anxiety and symptoms of depression. 

Lastly, it is common for asylum seekers to have a support system comprised of individuals who are undocumented or have mixed-status families. The presence of a GPS monitor surveilled by ICE leads to very difficult conversations and decisions about how they can share space. For example, a woman who recently arrived in the region may be told by family members that she cannot live with them for fear that the GPS monitor will lead to an ICE raid in the home of individuals without status. The monitors instill fear in homes. It makes home an unsafe space for loved ones. 

WFSTL: How is the MICA Project helping?

Maria: We are working to advocate for the monitors to be removed as soon as possible. We write letters of support and refer clients to a partner agency, Interfaith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA), that provides accompaniment services to the ICE office. We write letters explaining why the monitors should be removed and IFCLA provides interpretation and volunteers to accompany our clients so they don’t have to go alone. This process has forced ICE to review individual cases and assess them for “de-escalation.” While it is not always immediately effective, I do believe it has reduced the average time worn. It is also important that our clients be heard when they identify this as a major challenge in their life. While we don’t have the power to stop this abuse overnight, we are doing the best we can to raise awareness of the issue and to walk with clients as they advocate for themselves. 

MICA has also partnered with University of Missouri – St. Louis and IFCLA to create a virtual space for anyone with present or past experience with an ankle monitor to receive and provide support. This creates the opportunity to exchange information and experiences with the monitor, and also fosters space for the group to engage in creative decision making. 

WFSTL: Wow, I love that. How have these support groups empowered women in St. Louis to create change?

Maria: We start our support group meetings by reminding them that while MICA, IFCLA, and UMSL want to do everything in their power to help, we just don’t have the answers. Asylum seekers are forced to wear ankle monitors and have conversations with ISAP staff in spaces where legal counsel is forbidden. All of our knowledge about ISAP and ankle monitors comes from our interactions with our clients. Therefore, they are not “participants,” they are our experts in this topic. We see them as experts and as leaders in the fight against abusive use of ankle monitors. I think this language was a little weird for them at first, but now, six months later, I can see how much more confident they are in the groups. They are starting to believe us when we say they know more than us, which is the truth. 

WFSTL: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us! How can people support your efforts or get involved?  

Maria: Reach out to IFCLA or MICA for volunteer opportunities. Or donate to our agencies to support our cause – IFCLA or MICA .