She will work on the new medical–legal partnership between Kids in Need of Defense and the Cambridge Health Alliance.
Stephanie Bonilla (’17) has joined a distinguished group of young lawyers who will begin their careers as a part of the Equal Justice Works Fellowship program. Each year, the program chooses a small number of passionate lawyers eager to serve in areas of need. Bonilla, a recent graduate with a passion for immigrant law, will continue her work with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
Identifying with her own immigrant background, Bonilla was born in California but moved to Honduras at a young age. She returned to the United States when she began her undergraduate studies at Bentley University in 2008. Originally a business major, she shifted her sights and graduated with a degree in global studies. It was during her time at Bentley that Bonilla says she grew attached to the Greater Boston Area. “I moved to Waltham when I was 18 and that was my first real connection with the United States, and I just fell in love with Boston,” she says. “The city is gorgeous; I love how everyone is somehow involved with education and it has a very rich immigrant community.”
Before beginning law school, Bonilla worked two different jobs, both heavily involved with serving youth in the Boston area. The first, More Than Words, was a social enterprise organization that helps youth that are court involved and/or in foster care by encouraging them to take charge of a business. Bonilla’s team was tasked with helping a local bookstore. Following her time there, she took a position as a case manager with the Old Colony YMCA in Brockton, where she primarily helped families and children struggling with homelessness.
It was during her time at the YMCA that Bonilla began to consider law school. Wanting to stay in the Boston area, BU Law stuck out to her early on. “BU is one of the higher-ranked schools,” she says, “and it has a reputation for diversity, so it just felt like a good fit.”
At BU Law, Bonilla steered her coursework toward classes relating to immigration law and human rights. One of her most useful courses was Immigration Law with Clinical Instructor Sarah Sherman-Stokes. She says it gave her the solid foundation to move forward in her career. “I definitely think that Professor Sherman-Stokes made my interest in immigration law blossom in a way that made me want to pursue it as a career,” Bonilla says. “She really explained things well and I appreciated that.”
Bonilla also took advantage of the International Human Rights Clinic while at BU, an experience that took her to Mexico on a fieldwork trip to visit with migrant shelters and various other organizations helping migrants. “I think that seeing those images of people who are struggling was a really eye-opening experience for me,” she says. “You know that coming to America is hard, but you don’t understand it until you interact with these people and see their reality.”
Bonilla spent her summers pursuing internships that would strengthen her experience with youth and immigration law. During her 1L summer she worked with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), focusing on children in the LGBTQ community. She made first contact with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) during the fall of her 2L year. She started searching for organizations in the Boston area working in immigration law, and came across Elizabeth Badger (’05), a senior attorney for the KIND Boston Office. After reaching out to Badger for an informational interview, Bonilla was quickly placed into the internship application pool and was offered a position for her 2L summer.
KIND, an organization that works with unaccompanied migrant children, offered Bonilla just what she was looking for. That summer she observed hearings, handled intakes, drafted affidavits and paperwork for KIND cases, and was even given the opportunity to argue in front of the Essex Probate and Family Court for one of the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases. “I love KIND, and Elizabeth Badger is an amazing mentor,” Bonilla says. “I just knew that I didn’t want my relationship with them to end after that summer.”
With the EJW Fellowship, sponsored by Microsoft Corporation and Pfizer, Inc., Bonilla will return to KIND and work on their new medical–legal partnership with the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA). The partnership creates a path for KIND to refer children dealing with both mental and physical issues stemming from their immigration to health care providers in the CHA network, as well as for the CHA to refer children to KIND. “Often times for immigrant children, health care providers are the first interaction that they have with the American system,” Bonilla says. “Having this partnership allows KIND to give the most holistic care to children in need.”
Bonilla will split her time between the KIND Boston office and various CHA provider locations around the Greater Boston Area, giving one-on-one help as well as conducting presentations for students, parents, and school and medical staff on the various forms of assistance that are available to migrant children.
Beyond her fellowship, Bonilla plans to continue working in immigration law for the remainder of her career. One day, she hopes to become a senior attorney at an organization like KIND that provides either pro bono or extremely low cost legal representation.
“I’ve always felt a connection to youth,” Bonilla says, “and being an immigrant myself, I want to be able to give back—to help families get out of poverty and create a new life.”
Reported by Matthew Fils-Aime (COM’17)
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