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#NBCLatino20: Adela Mason — A legal voice for immigrants

Adela Mason, director of the American Bar Association’s Immigrant Justice Project, is one of our #NBCLatino20 honorees for Hispanic Heritage Month.

As a child, Adela Mason was very concerned with fairness, and people used to tell her that she should become a lawyer.

“And they didn’t always say it in a complimentary way,” Mason said with a laugh.

Mason is the director of the American Bar Association’s Immigration Justice Project in San Diego. The project provides free legal representation to immigrants in need, including asylum-seekers.

“Now, to me ‘fairness’ is equity, and being ‘argumentative’ I would frame as advocating."

Adela Mason.Illustration by Aaron Fernandez for NBC News

While immigrant detainees have a right to counsel, they don't have a right to government-appointed counsel. That means that most detainees have to navigate the complexity of the U.S. immigration system on their own.

The Immigration Justice Project runs a legal orientation program for detainees without lawyers, helping about 3,500 to 4,000 detainees annually.

Of Mexican-American heritage, Mason has legal experience in both the public and the private sector. Her work at the project can be frustrating, even demoralizing at times, she said.

“But for every person we help, that is a life changed, that is a family changed," Mason said. "It can be the difference between life and death — and that is amazing.”

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