Stories of Justice: A Place to Call Home

CSJ Associate Jessica Mayo helps families navigate
the legalities of the immigration process through
her non-profit organization.

By Mary Flick, CSJ, Justice Office Coordinator


Associate Jessica Mayo grew up in Eureka, Missouri, on the southwestern outskirts of St. Louis, without ever thinking about immigration. Involved at the Newman Center at Truman State University, she graduated and married her college sweetheart, Ken, and followed him to Iowa, looking for a job in the non-profit sector. She landed as a community organizer for the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), with hardly an idea about what community organizing was.

But when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided a meat packing plant on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Marshalltown, Iowa, home of one of the CCI’s chapters, she felt personally affronted. “There was no dignity given to the people they took in the raid,” she remembers. “Family members didn’t know where to look for their loved ones.” That experience provided Jessica with a crash course on immigration and a passion to do something for those involved.

The soft-spoken English and biology major soon realized that she didn’t have the personality for organizing. “But I wanted to do more on the front lines with people,” she recalls. “I wanted to do something I’m passionate about.”

A visit with a friend who was beginning her law studies, and a book she read about a doctor who wanted to cure the world, led Jessica to law school at Washington University in St. Louis, with a newfound passion for non-profit immigration law. Early in her studies, she met classmate Nicole Cortes. “We realized we had the same career interests and we would either compete professionally or join forces,” she says. As their studies continued, they came to see the need for immigration law that is not being met.

“I realized that immigration law has an impact that moves people past a barrier,” Jessica says. “Getting legal status can help transform opportunities. That makes my work more sustainable for me."

Jessica and Nicole created the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action (MICA) Project.  Last year, had they clients from more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, but the majority of their clients are from Mexico and Central America.

Many of her clients are women with children, often victims of domestic violence and are afraid to go back.  When Jessica asked one mother seeking asylum if she was afraid of violence, the mother replied, "I am really afraid of not being able to feed my children." Jessica says, “Immigration law doesn’t cover that fear, but I have two children that are the age of her children. I felt her fear.”

She also represents families in court who are petitioning for a spouse to stay in the country. “I see the effects on kids, the insecurity,” she says. “Often, I must prove there is extreme hardship if the spouse doesn’t stay."

Jessica's says that having her own children informs how she practices law and helps her relate to her clients. "I see a picture of family life. I see how their immigration status effects them wholeheartedly. Hearing their stories and meeting their families is one of the benefits of this work."

MICA’s focus has been in Southern Illinois, where Catholic Charities of St. Louis and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri cannot go. Likewise, MICA reaches out to the undocumented, which is also off limits to other state agencies. ”We don’t need to look for clients,” Jessica says. There is plenty of work to be done, assisting immigrants with securing green cards, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) authorization, and citizenship applications.

As MICA has grown since its incorporation in 2011, so has Jessica’s need for the spiritual support she finds as a CSJ Associate. After graduating from Truman, she and her husband were part of a JustFaith group at their parish in Kirksville, Missouri. That moved them to spend a year and a half at Nazareth Farm, a Catholic service community in Appalachia.

Back from that experience, Ken was interested in finding a lay community. A friend referred them to a Sister of St. Joseph. “The CSJ charism and spirituality fit,” Jessica recalls. “Much of what we had learned at Nazareth Farm – prayer, service, community, simplicity and hospitality – was what we found with the CSJs.” 

Serving the dear neighbor is a goal Jessica finds animating her work with her employees as well as her clients. She finds support through regular meetings with Sister Sandra Straub, who formerly volunteered at MICA. “Sister Sandy gives me insight that helps sustain me,” she says.

And she also finds great support in her CSJ Associate group. ”I enjoy our Sharing of the Heart, and the ways we hold each other in our thoughts and prayers. I consider it my faith community,” she says, recalling how central her faith communities at the Newman Center, JustFaith, and Nazareth Farm Community have been in her own personal development.

Her association with the Sisters of St. Joseph, she says, “is part of my faith journey" --  a journey of faith and hope, renewed each day in working for the dear neighbors who cross borders to find a place to call home.


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