Urban Innovator

Eugenio Mollo

Helping immigrants find equality in Toledo

Immigrants coming to the United States can face any number of hardships, from discrimination to unequal pay to sexual harassment in the workplace. As a managing attorney at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), Eugenio Mollo, Jr. works to protect immigrant workers' rights, with a focus on agricultural workers.

"I've always had a strong passion for social justice, and I think immigrant workers are amongst the most vulnerable and exploited group of individuals in the country," he says.

Although he's been a Toledo resident for 10 years, Mollo originally intended to stay only two. But he met his partner and "life sort of happened," so they're happy to call Toledo home.

Mollo is originally from Chicago. His undergraduate studies focused on education and social sciences, because he thought he'd be a teacher. While he says he would've been happy in that career, he was drawn to law, and decided to attend law school — even though he didn't know any lawyers at the time.

"Law school grew on me," he says. "I really enjoyed the challenges that it brought. I really enjoyed working with immigrant workers in a representational capacity."

He came to Ohio his very first summer in law school to work with migrant farmworkers in Fremont, Ohio. He did similar work in North Carolina, then found himself in Ohio again after applying for a fellowship with ABLE.

ABLE is focused on both family unity and keeping people safe, Mollo says. They provide services and advocacy for immigrants in a variety of ways, including case representation, legislative work and administrative advocacy work. While many people are familiar with immigrants working as crop or vegetable harvesters, they're actually a part of several industries in Northwest Ohio, Mollo says, including egg farms and processing plants.

"Regardless of the industry, the common threats that we see are wage violations, employment discrimination issues including sexual harassment, and civil rights concerns," he says.

While ABLE's clients need to be low income, there's no requirement that they be documented. This means ABLE can't accept some government funding. For example, the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit that promotes equal justice, stipulates that those who accept funds can't serve undocumented workers, though there are a few exceptions.

In addition to potential civil rights violations and employment concerns, immigrants risk being tricked by consumer fraud scammers. These scammers reach out to immigrants and say they'll help them with immigration programs for a fee, Mollo says. Undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable to these kinds of scams. That's where ABLE helps.

"We need to educate people on the forms of immigration relief that they're eligible and what they're ineligible for," Mollo says. "We need to get that good information out there to protect these immigrants."

Outreach takes place around the city to get the word out about ABLE and its services. This can take the form of a presentation after a Spanish-speaking mass at a local Catholic church, or websites where workers can get more information. Mollo says many clients are referred to them from community partners as well, like Adelente, Inc., a nonprofit focused on the needs of Latinos.

In addition to providing immigrants legal assistance, Mollo is a steering committee member for Welcome Toledo-Lucas County (Welcome TLC), which strives to make Toledo a welcoming place for people of all cultures through things like language access.

"There's a generous nonprofit organizational structure to support immigrants in Toledo," Mollo says. "That's not to say there aren't challenges and there aren't barriers, but there is this overarching group through Welcome TLC to help build a more welcoming and inclusive community."

Mollo is passionate about immigration reform, and says there's a "drastic need" for it. In a 2014 TEDxToledo talk, he urged people to think about where their own families originally came from. Mollo himself is the son of Italian immigrants.

"Family members before me came to the United States at the proper time," Mollo says. "They were from the proper country, they were the proper sex. If I'm not supposed to be here, how can I pass judgment on other people that are here?"

For Mollo, the subject of immigrants' rights is one of importance beyond individuals; it also impacts a community like Toledo overall. People are happiest when they feel a sense of belonging, Mollo says, which makes them better parents, students and employees.

In the end, Mollo says that those in the United States share the same future as a country: "We need to stop thinking in terms of us versus them and start thinking in terms of shared freedom and equality. If we can do that, we can do anything together."