To Do Something Useful
Jonelle Ocloo is dedicated to helping immigrants, both on and off the clock
Published in 2021 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine
on December 14, 2020
Updated on December 17, 2020
When Jonelle Ocloo immigrated to the United States from Ghana with her family, it was a relatively smooth process. “My dad was a university professor,” she says. “He was sponsored by his employer, and we came here with our green cards in hand.”
But for many immigrants, the path to citizenship is fraught with hurdles. Some people are seeking asylum, danger at their backs; others see their cases backlogged for years. Immigration law is on par with tax law in complexity—“the rules are constantly changing,” Ocloo says—and gaining access to legal representation can be challenging. “It can be really difficult for people who already may be dealing with a new country, a new culture, and, for many, a second language.”
So Ocloo goes out of her way to help.
“I recall my father saying, ‘Make sure you do something useful for society,’” she says. “You have these people who want to be part of America and they want to contribute to the fabric of American life. They want to bring their skills and contribute. … So I see it as something that I can do that’s good for society and also good for the clients that I serve.”
She got involved with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, organizing citizenship clinics in D.C., Virginia and Maryland, at which immigrants could meet with pro bono lawyers to help with their citizenship applications. As part of that project, she discovered FIRN, the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network. “I live in Howard County, my business is in Howard County,” Ocloo says. “So it just seemed a natural fit when I found out that there was this great nonprofit right there in my backyard.”
FIRN offers programs that help immigrants with things like counseling, health and social services, language translation and interpreting, and pro bono legal services. Ocloo has been on the organization’s board of directors since 2016, and this year has been focused on helping FIRN set its strategic plan, “looking at what’s on the horizon in immigration and how FIRN can best tailor services to be able to help,” she says.
Then there’s the Association of Ghanaian Lawyers of America, where she brings her immigration law expertise to the body’s monthly free legal clinics, alongside lawyers who work in other practices areas. And Catholic Charities USA, where Ocloo takes on pro bono immigration cases. “A lot of the cases I take from them tend to be victims of domestic violence,” she says.
She recalls one case involving a woman who was staying in a women’s shelter, whose husband, a U.S. citizen, had severely beaten and threatened to kill her. “And once he took away her cellphone, she’s basically cut off from whatever social network she might have built,” she says. The case took almost four years, but the woman was able to get a work permit and a job, then a green card. She finished school and even brought her children from her home country—another case Ocloo helped with—and they were able to go to college. “It really makes me feel good to know that I could change the course of someone’s life,” she says.
She gives monthly pro bono consults and produces weekly videos on her YouTube channel, LOJO Immigration, delivering information on immigration and the ever-changing rules, “particularly with the [Trump] administration,” she says. And, naturally, she takes on pro bono cases—which, she notes, can be more complicated, considering their circumstances.
One such matter involved an Afghani refugee who needed help bringing her children to the U.S. from a refugee camp in another country. The mother had been a child bride and never had the chance at an education. “So having to fill out 20-page immigration forms with someone who never learned to read or write in their own country before they came here, it’s tough,” Ocloo says.
Why does she do it?
“I firmly believe that to whom much is given, much is required,” Ocloo says. “Everyone deserves a fair chance at the system, not just people who can afford it.”
Want to Get Involved?
If helping build culture and community sounds like your idea of time well-spent, reach out to FIRN for more information on where your skill set might come in handy. Contact the Columbia office at (410) 992-1923 or the Laurel office at (410) 880-5917.