Melissa Samuels
Northwestern University School of Law
EJA Fellowship Recipient Summer 2001
Staff Attorney, AIDS Legal Council of Chicago

 
An Equal Justice America Fellowship helped her find a place where she not only did good, but helped right some of the wrongs suffered by people living with HIV and AIDS.
   

“I always knew I wanted some kind of job where at the end of the day I’ve done more good than bad in the world,” says Melissa Samuels. An Equal Justice America fellowship helped her find a place where she not only did good, but helped right some of the wrongs suffered by people living with HIV and AIDS.

In high school, Samuels worked with battered women and homeless adults. After she graduated from college, she taught English in Guadalajara, Mexico for a year and a half.

When she returned home to Chicago, Samuels found work at an immigration law firm, interviewing clients who had recently arrived from Mexico or other Latin American countries. Her work helped families reunite and obtain green cards. Samuels found she liked explaining the law to her clients, “so they could have the tools to make choices in their lives.”

After her first year at the Northwestern University School of Law, Samuels worked at the Uptown People’s Law Center, a small storefront legal aid office in a poor area of Chicago. There she worked mainly to resolve landlord-tenant conflicts, documenting substandard conditions and code violations. The area was being gentrified, she says, and in many instances landlords tried to force out longtime tenants by letting their properties deteriorate until they became unlivable.

The following summer, Samuels applied for the second time to the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago. The organization not only had a reputation for providing very good and immediate legal services to people with HIV and AIDS, Samuels says, but also handles advocacy work and class action lawsuits. “I really wanted to be at an organization that does both, because I feel like they go hand in hand,” Samuels says. While you’re trying every day to “put on a Band-Aid for the very same problems,” she says, attorneys should also be trying to fix the causes of those problems.

Working at the Legal Council, Samuels quickly discovered she could fill a much-needed niche: providing legal advice on immigration to people with HIV or AIDS. “I realized that there were very few, if any, people working on this issue.”

It’s a complicated legal realm. Generally, those who are HIV-positive are not eligible for a green card, she explains, but there is a “very narrow exception” for special petition. There is no appeals process once that petition is denied, so getting the help of an attorney is essential. Also, Samuels says, many immigrants believe they can never become citizens if they’re HIV-positive, which isn’t true.

Now a staff attorney at the Legal Council, Samuels also provides legal advice for clients on such issues as wills, custody, government benefits, employment and housing discrimination.

Acquaintances often say to her, “Working with people with HIV? That must be depressing.” Not at all, Samuels says.

Her job can certainly be daunting at times, she readily admits. “You think, shoot, you’re never going to be able to change the world.”

For instance, recently she was assisting a client who had hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical bills. He wanted to do what he could to resolve his debts, so his three children wouldn’t have to bear the burden after he died. “It’s very frustrating,” Samuels says, “because it’s the last thing somebody like that should have to deal with.”

But every day, she says, she’s able to assist an “astounding” variety of people from all over the world. Every time she obtains Medicaid benefits for a client, or resolves a conflict with a landlord, or helps someone take a step toward citizenship, she says, she knows she’s “really helping make an immediate difference in people’s lives.”

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