As an undergraduate student, she studied Spanish and psychology, and she developed an interest in pursuing a master’s degree in social work. She also found herself drawn to help the Latino community.
After obtaining her degree, she spent time abroad, volunteering with youth in Chile and teaching English as part of a fellowship program.
“The more I reflected on it, the more I felt the way I could best affect change for that community would be to have a law degree and be able to walk with folks as they seek more permanent outcomes,” she said.
In 2012, Cortes graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a law degree and master of social work degree.
She and a classmate, Jessica Mayo, immediately put their education to use in founding the nonprofit Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project in October 2012. The organization’s mission is to work with low-income immigrants and help them overcome barriers to justice.
The MICA Project provides legal services to immigrants and also takes part in organizing, advocacy and education. Cortes said she and Mayo witnessed firsthand how clients with whom they worked at their internships were unable to access certain services, either because of their income or where they lived.
While in their second year of law school, they hatched the idea for the MICA Project, seeking out help from their mentors at the law school, nonprofit organizations and private attorneys.
Cortes said representation at MICA is based on the idea of “working with clients as opposed to for them.”
“We really try to put our clients in the driver seat and empower them with the tools they need to make decisions in their case,” she said.
Today, MICA has seven paid staff members and four lawyers; it also added a case manager in the past year.
From the start, their sense that they could fill in the gaps between existing services was affirmed, Cortes said. Quickly, they saw just how large the need for their advocacy remains.
“We still every week are turning away 10 to 15 cases we really could open if capacity allowed,” she said. “You want to fix things. You want to be able to address the problems we are addressing.”
In the past two years, she said, the needs of her clients have increased. Cortes said she’s been honored to stand at their sides.
“They’re not always victorious, but when they are it’s such a pleasure,” she said. “The stakes are so high, especially when a family is faced with deportation or sort of life-changing consequences. To be able to be there and walk a family through that is incredible.”
While the work can be difficult and draining, Cortes said her clients give her a new perspective on perseverance.
“It sort of pales in comparison to what my clients have lived through,” she said. “I draw a lot of inspiration from them.”