For Joseph Villela – the State Policy Director at LMU Loyola Law School’s newly established Sunita Jain Anti-Trafficking Policy Initiative – working with immigrants and underserved communities is more than a professional pursuit; it’s a personal commitment to empowering the underserved.
As an immigrant who came to California when the state’s political stance was largely anti-immigrant, Villela understands first-hand what it’s like to feel underrepresented and neglected by the system. This life experience inspired Villela and heavily shaped his personal and professional aspirations of working with underserved communities.
“I immigrated to California as an unaccompanied minor to be reunited with my family in 1994, when it was essentially an anti-immigrant state,” Villela said. “I’m trying to make California a model for the rest of the nation. I want to make sure that we have laws that recognize the humanity of immigrants and that provide them with opportunities to be part of our society,” Villela said.
Villela comes into the Director Policy role at Loyola Law School with a demonstrated ability of truly listening to the stories of those most impacted and advancing policy that delivers meaningful impact to their communities. During his 15 years working at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), Villela held a number of positions including policy advocate, senior policy advocate, and director of policy and advocacy.
While at CHIRLA, Villela was involved in the enactment of more than 55 proposals at the local and state levels, many of which impacted the California criminal justice system, strengthened immigrants’ rights, and provided access to education.
Villela helped advance Assembly Bill 60, which granted all eligible California residents — regardless of immigrant status — the right to apply for a driver’s license. This made roads safer, and more importantly, it allowed people to feel recognized by the state.
Other significant policies Villela has supported have involved reducing sentencing time of misdemeanors; allowing anyone — regardless of immigrant status — to be appointed to a board of commissions; and granting undocumented students access to in-state tuition and financial aid. Villela also worked on state budget allocation to assure resources could be provided to those in need.
“It’s not enough for one bill to be passed, we also wanted to make sure there were resources attached so that they would actually have significant impact in the lives of individuals,” Villela said. “We want to make sure that our state budget reflects our values and our diversity and that we invest in the communities that have been underserved for many years.” Under Villela’s directorship, CHIRLA helped increase funds for immigrant legal services from $10 million to $75 million over a five-year period.
Villela’s commitment to impact, understanding of California state policy and personal connection to the underrepresented will serve well in his new role with the Sunita Jain Initiative, which is designed to advance anti-trafficking and survivor rights policy reforms and engage law students to have a broader impact.
Many are unaware of the prevalence of human trafficking and the debilitating impact the criminal justice system has on victims. “Based on the numbers, California ranks as a top state where human trafficking occurs and thus, you would argue that California’s policies on human trafficking are not working. They lean toward heavy-handed enforcement, and there’s also a lack of understanding of how people fall prey to human trafficking,” remarks Villela on the current state of human trafficking in California. “What would be radical is to say that our policies have to be intersectional, prioritize prevention, and centered on the humanity and recovery of those victims.”
Working in concert with the Loyola Rights in Systems Enforced (RISE) Clinic, the Sunita Jain Initiative joins a progressive anti-violence movement focused on survivor empowerment against individual and state perpetrated violence. By foregrounding survivor voices, whose victimization may be complicated by their own criminality due to race and gender-based subordination, the Sunita Jain Initiative opposes punitive legal regimes and seeks system transformation through survivor rights representation.
Villela aspires to work alongside colleagues and experts to bring a thoughtful perspective and reshape the narrative on human trafficking. “Work will be guided and informed by the expertise at the university and also by the experience of those who are being impacted to bring the change needed so that systems are centered around the humanity of people,” said Villela. “It’s not only important that we speak for those who are affected, but that we find a way to speak with or next to those who are most impacted.”