The Opportunity Maker

By Tad Vezner

Photo By: Scott Benbrook

Right after college, Ruth Lopez-McCarthy (LAW ’09) started doorknocking. It was the community organizing, block club kind of outreach: pushing for more alley lights, safety patrols, better garbage pickup.

On the first day, she knocked on the door of a childhood friend. They talked about their childhood, growing up in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood of Chicago.

“I met friends and leaders who would share their immigration stories with me. I really felt a calling to answer, with my skills and lived experience. I know what it is to be a child of immigrants, with that understanding that [the life you built] could all go away,” Lopez-McCarthy says.

With a father who immigrated from Peru and a mother who immigrated from Colombia, Lopez-McCarthy—born in Chicago—didn’t learn to speak English until she was five. Her father was imprisoned when she was 1-year-old, leaving her mother and grandmother to raise her for a time. Her mother went back to school to become a public school teacher.

Her father, upon being released, had a deportation hearing. He received representation from immigration services and was able to stay, eventually becoming a tool and die maker and never breaking the law again. She thought a lot about her father as she decided upon a career.

“In Catholic school, I learned about liberation theology…but it wasn’t until I was in college that I really decided and thought about what I wanted to do,” she says.

Since then, Lopez-McCarthy has become a leader in immigration reform, working for major organizations both locally and nationally and most recently being appointed to a powerful state position by the Illinois governor.

Now that she’s done “the advocacy, the organizing, the direct lawyering, the policy and legislative work,” she admits, “being a mother in social justice work is very difficult, the pay isn’t very good. When your calling is a passion it can require a lot of yourself.…

“But I benefited immensely under a system that is now broken. Honestly I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Going National

After graduating from Chicago-Kent College of Law, Lopez-McCarthy traveled to Washington, D.C., to start working on immigration reform—a path that she has now followed for more than a decade.

At the time, a national push for comprehensive reform was kicking off under President Barack Obama, and Lopez-McCarthy, building on her community organizing skills, became a deputy field director for the Reform Immigration for America campaign. She coordinated campaigns and events and identified the swing votes in the United States Congress. In the end, the U.S. Senate passed a bill, but it did not pass the House.

“It’s never going to get easier for immigration in America. It [immigration work] takes a fortitude I’m not sure I have; it’s remarkable she’s done it as long as she has,” says Gabe Gonzalez, a longtime community organizer and activist who is now chief of staff at the Sierra Club. He met Lopez-McCarthy when she started organizing in Chicago and got to know her better in Washington.

“She works in a world where it’s very easy to get lost. In politics…you can become a gamer. Ruth is not like that, she’s completely grounded in her beliefs,” Gonzalez says.

Undeterred by the Washington stalemate, Lopez-McCarthy returned to Chicago in 2014 and began working at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a nonprofit focused on immigration reform, specifically an Obama executive order relating to Deferred Action for Parent Arrivals (DAPA).

The order was halted by a lawsuit in 2015. Shifting focus, Lopez-McCarthy then took a job at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, one of the largest nonprofits offering legal services to immigrants in Chicago.

She then became the managing attorney for an immigrant legal-protection fund created by a city grant—at a time when the Trump administration was making hundreds of changes to immigration legal code every year.

“You would wake up and say, ‘What’s different today?’” Lopez-McCarthy says.

In the first year, her office did 3,000 legal screenings. On top of managing the program, Lopez-Mcarthy had her own caseload.

Katarina A. Ramos, current managing attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, worked with Lopez-McCarthy when the protection fund was created.

“Ruth really created the project and made it what it is,” Ramos says. “One of the things I loved about working with her was she never lost that sense of humanity. When you’re working in a stressful situation, it can be really easy to just ‘get the work done.’ She checked in, made sure our health was OK.”

Still, Lopez-McCarthy often took a step beyond the job description. Ramos remembers her going to a hospital after hours to stop a police officer from turning over an immigrant to federal authorities.

“She went and stood between this officer and this person, started calling every contact in her book, and eventually did convince the officer he couldn’t turn this undocumented person over,” Ramos says.

“I think for people who are involved in social justice, there is the question of, do you work in a broken system or try to fix the system? Ruth was always more of the ‘how do we fix the system’ school,” Ramos adds.

Pushing Boulders

Still, the work took a toll on Lopez-McCarthy. She watched the immigration court dates backlog increase into the tens of thousands, gave birth to her third child, and decided to take some family time.

“It’s very frustrating; it’s a very hard field to work in,” Lopez-McCarthy says. “I felt like Sisyphus [of the Greek legend], pushing a boulder up and up. What I’ve seen is that the boulder has just gotten further and further. Congress hasn’t touched this issue [immigration reform] in 30–40 years in any substantive way. And since then our rhetoric has only worsened.”

But in that time of reflection, an opportunity arose. Her acquaintances told her about a new position created by Governor J. B. Pritzker in the Illinois Department of Human Services. The department’s senior Emerson immigration fellow would work with various state agencies to help them understand immigrant issues and concerns, as well as influence policy.

She got the job in 2021, and she has also served as a member of the Illinois Immigrant Impact Task Force, which authored a report calling for a full assessment of service needs in Illinois—particularly outside the Chicago metropolitan area.

It’s the state’s rural areas that are seeing the greatest proportional growth in immigrants, Lopez-McCarthy notes, and she’s working to identify services that can help.

“I think people have a lot of misconceptions about immigrants and why they immigrate. Our workforce is highly dependent on immigrants and immigration, high-skilled and low-skilled. They pay so much into our federal tax system, and those that don’t have status will never get that back,” she says.

In the end, Lopez-McCarthy notes, everyone agrees that the system is broken. How it’s broken is a point of contention, but from her perspective, she sees immigrant families waiting 20 or more years for a visa, with many hiding in the meantime.

“I do put myself in the shoes of others. I can see where people are concerned about change. I would ask people to see how things we’ve done in the past haven’t worked. Family members have died waiting to reunite. Our whole system is predicated on something that doesn’t work anymore…The system has to be made so it’s workable,” she says.

“We were all given an opportunity. That’s the reason why I continue to do the work I do.”