When Michon Hinz ’85 J.D. wasn’t finding much use for her Spanish major in her home state of Iowa, she picked up and moved to San Diego, California, seeking a change of pace. There the stay-at-home mom found an outlet for both her bilingualism and her law degree: helping immigrant women who have suffered domestic abuse.
Hinz volunteers at the Casa Cornelia Law Center, a public interest law firm that provides legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations with a specific focus on immigrant communities. She helps the women she works with find a path to citizenship through statutes like the Violence Against Women Act.
“A lot of times they have had a lot of horrible violence happen—incredible violence,” Hinz says. “Because they will be the spouse or girlfriend of a citizen, and sometimes the citizen will bring them into the United States and will abuse them and their children for years, thinking, ‘Well, this person will never tell, because otherwise I’ll let the authorities know that they’re not a citizen, and they’ll be thrown out.’ A lot of times these women won’t know they have a legal right to establish citizenship on their own if they’re the victims of this. It’s almost like human trafficking.”
Hinz’s primary job is to interview the women who walk into the clinic and determine whether they have a case, a task that requires attentiveness and a great deal of emotional fortitude.
“They’ll be crying telling their story, and it’s so horrible sometimes that I don’t want to ask them and yet I’ve got to establish the factual basis for their cases,” she says. “And sometimes their children will be in the lobby, scared and sad. And I’m so glad that there is a way to help them.”
Hinz’s desire to help these people comes in part from her Catholic upbringing but also has been influenced by her family’s history. Her ancestors immigrated to the United States from Ireland around the time of the Irish Potato Famine. Her great-great-grandfather, Daniel Hegarty, ended up in Illinois, where he worked with Abraham Lincoln. Another relative’s great-grandfather drove Lincoln’s carriage. Tales of Lincoln’s kindness toward her family have been passed down through the generations.
“He never treated our family as anything or anyone lower, even though we were immigrants,” Hinz says.
This kindness in turn has affected the way Hinz and her family view their obligation to help others.
“The story that we took away from actually knowing him is a story of a hand up to people in need and people that are different from you,” she says. “When I see those people who are having such a hard time, I try to give them a hand up like the many, many people who gave my Irish ancestors a hand up.”
In her clients at Casa Cornelia, Hinz sees struggles that echo throughout history—and the history of her own family.
“I realized how much a part of these people I am,” she says. “That’s my story too.”
To learn more about the work the Casa Cornelia Law Center does to provide pro bono legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations, please visit casacornelia.org.