Q&A: Mirella Ceja-Orozco, Co-Executive Director, Minnesota Freedom Fund

Mirella Ceja-Orozco, along with Elizer Darris, was recently appointed co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund. MFF’s mission is to end cash bail in the State of Minnesota and provide bail relief in the interim. The group, once operating on a shoestring, made national headlines last summer when it received more than $30 million in donations in the wake of the civil unrest following the brutal killing of George Floyd.

Ceja-Orozco, an immigration attorney in St. Paul, is an adjunct professor with Minnesota Law’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic. She recently answered a few questions about her new position, clinical role at Minnesota Law, and work as an immigration attorney.

How did you get involved in the Minnesota Freedom Fund?

I started out as a pro-bono attorney looking to have a bond paid for a detained client. Most of the time, they’d run out before being able to pay my clients’ bonds. Then asked to serve on the board as an immigration attorney.

Can you describe what you will be doing in your new role as co-executive director?

It’s a totally different organization than it was when I first joined. Now, we are able to assist so many more people in the community, and actively work towards ending cash bail in Minnesota. 

What are some of the current challenges and opportunities for the organization?

Nobody knew who MFF was before last summer. Yet the organization gained notoriety following the murder of a member of our community. Now we must use that to effectuate change which is both the challenge and opportunity. 

If you had to identify and dispel one common misconception about the Minnesota Freedom Fund, what would it be?

A growing misconception is that MFF hasn’t found its place in the community to address the harms of cash bail. But that is why Elizer (my co-executive director) and I are here now. We’re about to change all that. 

What types of cases do you handle as an immigration attorney in St. Paul?

The majority of my work revolves around removal defense before the immigration and appellate-level courts, and assisting individuals seeking humanitarian-based protections like asylum or U-Visas. 

What drew you to immigration law in the first place?    

I am the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who chose to cross the border illegally in search of a better life. I watched how the immigration system impacted members of my family, including members being displaced or deported, living in fear without status, but willing to risk everything for the “American Dream”

How, if at all has COVID impacted your practice? 

COVID completely changed my practice. It changed how I interacted with clients, the ways in which I could advocate for my clients—particularly those in detention, and also the growing concerns of working with clients desperate for COVID-related support and information to keep themselves and their families safe. 

Can you describe your work as adjunct professor at Minnesota Law’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic?

I work alongside my long-time mentor, Ben Casper Sanchez, and groups of students handling cases before the local immigration court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, and now the U.S. Supreme Court. I supervise their work and assist them as they develop the skills to represent clients on their own in the future. 

Can you share a meaningful memory of your time so far working with the clinic?

One of the greatest, yet most challenging, memories I have in working with the clinic has been serving as a member of the Somali 92 litigation team. Blood, sweat, and tears was never literal in my year of practice until that case. 

What do you enjoy most about working with Minnesota Law clinics and students?

I absolutely love working with students and getting them excited about the possibilities after law school. Serving in the clinics grants students an opportunity to learn by doing and experiencing the impact of their work, which is something a book can never teach. To see their excitement when they can tangibly see the fruits of their labor is priceless. 

What advice would you offer to a law student interested in making a difference in immigration law?

Be patient, but be persistent. And remember that you are human, secondary trauma is real, so be kind to yourself and take self-care seriously. 

How do you like to spend your free time?

Free time is something I’m learning to experience more recently. The last few years have been exceptionally difficult as a removal defense lawyer. COVID forced me to slow down and appreciate the people around me. I’ve relearned my love from arts and crafts and cooking. My tinga and carnitas are on point!

Immigration law is stressful. How do you maintain wellness?

I’ve been a hot mess for the last four years. I found I maintained my wellness through being outdoors and (no joke) using my state parks permit like nobody’s business. My goal was to hit every state park by the end of 2020. I did not succeed, but still planning to earn that DNR plaque 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thank you for your willingness to share my story. I am only as good as the people around me, so I know that as I step into this new role, I carry the weight of my community and my people. I believe in justice and in changing the systems of oppression and this is only the beginning.