Lawyer Maria Woltjen is the director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago Law School, which recruits and trains child advocates for children going through deportation proceedings. She single-handedly piloted the program in 2004, and ran it on her own for three years; now, the organization has eight offices across the country. She is also an avid knitter, Great British Baking Show enthusiast, and winner of the 2017 UNICEF Chicago Humanitarian Award. Here, she talks about her “quite balanced” life, taking time off work to be a mom, and why it’s okay that her work makes her angry.
I NEVER ENVISIONED RUNNING AN ORGANIZATION of 40 people. When I first started this work, it was just me—I was the one who traveled down to the border to train child advocates, and the one who went to court. I was in the children’s shelters all the time, in the trenches, and I loved it. I do miss that aspect of the job. Last spring, I spent a day in immigration court with our team of attorneys in Houston, and I watched the judge spend half an hour explaining to the kids what it meant to be in immigration removal proceedings. He’s a good judge, and he cares about the kids, but the children were just wide-eyed and terrified and couldn’t understand what he was saying. Then a 17-year-old girl came in and told the judge that her school wouldn’t allow her to attend unless she had a letter from him. We were able to explain her rights to her, and that she didn’t actually need a letter from the judge to go to school. That direct contact with the kids was a big reminder of why we do what we do.
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