Women’s History Month Spotlight: Hila Moss

By USCRI March 5, 2024

For Women’s History Month, we sat down with Hila Moss, Director of Legal Services at USCRI to talk about her career and the USCRI legal team’s work.


Q: What led you to your career?

Hila: I joined USCRI in November of 2015, I came on board as the immigration attorney under the Oak Foundation’s Nuevo Comienzo “New Beginnings” program.

When we initially got the Oak Foundation funding in 2015 in North Carolina specifically, the custody attorney and immigration attorney were hired as well as two mental health clinicians. I was the immigration attorney. I joined that two-year program to help unaccompanied children. It was an exciting opportunity for me to pursue.

My previous employment was at a small nonprofit here in North Carolina and somebody I knew, who was our custody attorney at the time here at USCRI, recruited me to apply, so I did, and it worked out.

We did really good work under that grant for two years and have been able to expand it ever since. And I quickly went from being the immigration attorney to also doing the immigration and the custody under the Nuevo Comienzo program because the custody attorney left within a year of the program, so I managed the entire rest of the immigration side- well, immigration and custody pieces of that grant.

Q: What was your first job in the legal field?

Hila: My first career job was after law school at a small nonprofit called The DEAR Foundation. It’s no longer in operation, but I was there for about two years as the sole immigration attorney, and I just fell into it.

It was a job posting on Indeed. I knew nothing about immigration law, but I figured I’d give it a try. I ended up kind of self-teaching through that process about what immigration law is, how to do immigration court, removal representation, and learned Spanish and worked my way up through that for the first two years.

And so that was really similar to what we do at USCRI, low bono or pro bono humanitarian-based applications for relief. I also did some custody and civil filings in that position as well. And then pursued this opportunity with USCRI once I was advised of it.

Q: Were you applying to a lot of different things, and it just so happened that one of them was immigration law, or was that something that you kind of had an interest in was seeking out in some way?

Hila:  Actually no. I went to law school and I wanted to be Jack McCoy, the District Attorney in Law and Order. Growing up, that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a prosecutor. During law school, I interned at two different county DA’s offices here in North Carolina and they were all set to offer me a job upon graduation, but then there was a hiring freeze, and so that prevented them from being able to do so.

Throughout law school, I was working at a little small firm that was just two blocks away, so I could walk easily and that firm had a mix of different types of law that they did and the criminal attorneys took me in. I worked with them for about two months doing defense representation as opposed to prosecution and then saw the job posting for the DEAR Foundation and took it.

I knew nothing about immigration law. It was not on my radar. I am a child of immigrants, but that was not anything I was looking to do, so it definitely came out of nowhere.

Q: What helped you get where you are today?

Hila: It definitely was kind of right place, right time I’d say as far as my promotions go. You know, getting to be in the managing attorney role was because the managing attorney that was here previously quit and then the associate director actually did as well, so I was able to kind of quickly move up, I think just based on that timeline of events.

But I think I’ve proven myself to be a hard worker and resourceful. I think I’m able to navigate things on my own and teach myself how to do a budget and how to write grants.

When I became managing attorney, the first task I undertook was to start writing grant applications to get more funding for our offices. And that was all self-taught, we did not have those resources here at USCRI at the time.


I think my willingness to kind of try it and see how it goes and fake it till I make it because if I don’t know something, I’ll try to learn it and to do it the best way I can.

Q: What is your day-to-day like at USCRI?

Hila: As the director, a lot of my day-to-day is program management, program oversight. Making sure that our grants are operating within the deliverables that we promised and that if we have sub-recipients on them, they’re also performing as they’re supposed to, that our funding is on track, reviewing financials, meeting with stakeholders; I get asked to do interviews from law school students, but then also other nonprofits; meeting with other kind of folks at nonprofits in similar positions who want to learn more about what USCRI does or ask us questions. I also get a lot of questions from PRS providers. I do a monthly Q&A with post-release services case managers. They’ll email me a few times a week asking questions about their kids.

I also still have some cases that I oversee and manage and then directly supervising our legal management team and making sure that our department is running as smoothly as possible.

We have about 10 current grant-funded programs and operations simultaneously right now, and making sure that those are being taken care of properly and that reimbursements are being submitted on time and reports are being submitted on time and just overall oversight and management I think are the big ones.


Q: You mentioned it’s mostly work with unaccompanied children. What’s it like working with that population?


It’s heartbreaking because we heard really, obviously terrible stories about why they were coming here, what they had experienced in their home country, familial issues with their parents or whoever was their caregiver. And unfortunately, to pursue any kind of immigration application, you really have to have a terrible story to tell that then gets you that relief since asylum is based on having experienced persecution. So having to talk to children about the harm they suffered and by who was really difficult.


But that’s what I think is so great about Nuevo Comienzo. We are fortunate that we have mental health clinicians that could—­ I say we kind of pull them apart and the mental health clinicians put them back together and then we have their case managers through PRS that help facilitate that too.

But I think the most rewarding piece about it is when they get approved for legal status. If they haven’t already gotten their green card, they’re now eligible to get their green cards or they’re pursuing citizenship. So it’s been great to see the progression of their cases.

When we started with them, they were preteens, if that, and now they’re adults and pursuing real careers and families and the American dream.

Q: Do you see a lot of them through it in terms of the legal aspect, or is it just as they move through the programs?

Hila: I’m their immigration attorney from start to finish, so I’ve seen them when we applied for whatever the underlying relief was, so asylum or SIJS [Special Immigrant Juvenile Status] or family-based petition; I filed that and then they’ve come back to get their green cards as well as citizenship. Most kids who are eligible for it come back here to get the services again from us.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of the job?


People getting status, helping folks who are scared alone, desperate, unsure.
Many have already paid an attorney thousands of dollars for a case to go nowhere, but we’re able to step in and get them status in the U.S. so they can get a good paying job, put their kids through school— and even if they are kids themselves, they get to be on their pathway to pursue the American dream.


So it’s probably the most rewarding piece about it and a close second to that is being able to have staff here that are able to also do that work and get that fulfilling feeling while keeping their jobs and having health insurance and providing for their families.
So it’s the clients we serve and the personnel that we employ, I think are my two biggest rewards when it all goes well.

Q: What are the biggest challenges of your role?


Immigration law is tough. It’s a really difficult area of law. It’s got a lot of nuances in it, a lot of government involvement. A lot of desperate folks needing help and there’s just not that many pathways to citizenship. There’s not a lot of eligibility available to clients. So I think it’s challenging to not be able to serve everybody we want to serve.


Unfortunately, our programs are implemented based on the funding that we can find and that we’re provided. Generally, federal government funding for legal services isn’t a thing.

It’s come out recently because of the Afghan contract that we have, ILSAA [Immigration Legal Services for Afghan Arrivals], but overall it’s not. It’s not anything that’s widely offered to non-specialized populations. So having to turn folks away or charge for our services is tough. And even at the low bono, pay payment plan, whatever they’re able to do model, it still leaves a lot of folks that just can’t be helped because we don’t have the ability to do it. The funding is not there to support it or we don’t have the capacity because we are in high demand, we get a lot of inquiries and we’re just not able to help everyone.

The government makes it difficult to get relief for certain clients when either processing times are three plus years out or erroneous denials leave a client six years later waiting for an application to be approved and the erroneous denial now puts them back at square one and we’re really having to be combative with government agencies. We’re having to argue with USCIS about their erroneous denial or a USCIS field office not receiving the filing that we submitted, even though we have tracking to prove that it was there, but they still denied the application.

So it’s those kinds of things that make it difficult because our clients blame us, when it’s not us, and I think about other areas of law, real estate and criminal and family court, they don’t have that kind of contentious relationship with USCIS or the immigration court or the Board of Immigration Appeals – the agencies that we have to deal with when we’re trying to get our clients status. We’re on the defense and the government is the prosecutor in that sense. So we’re opposing sides trying to help our clients out. It’s a struggle also because a lot of our funding can come from the federal government,
like our ILSAA contract, so we’re trying to walk that fine line too.

I think between making sure that we’re advocates for our clients, but that we’re also in compliance with the funding that we received from government state, local and federal agencies.

Q: How does the Legal Services program support women and girls?

Hila: I think one of the main focuses that we always try to keep an eye on when we’re applying for funding is the populations who need it the most, so single mothers, young women who have been victims of domestic violence, or parental violence, rape, torture, kidnapping, they’re always in the forefront of our mind when we’re applying for grants through the Department of Justice funding, like Office for Victims of Crime or Violence Against Women departments, and when we’re trying to determine who would be best served by the funding that we could receive.

For instance, in Detroit, we recently got a grant from the Office for Victims of Crime to provide legal services and case management services to survivors of human trafficking, both labor and sex trafficking, in the Detroit Metro area- that’s a three-year grant. It’s very exciting that we got that. That kind of goes back to the regularly scheduled programming of what we want to do and who we want to serve. Now, that may not be all female clients that enter that program, but it was geared towards survivors of trafficking, which are primarily female. We’re giving them case management services to get them out of the situations that they’re in and help them build their lives back for them and their children.

And we also have our Nuevo Comienzo program which focuses on unaccompanied children, both boys and girls. I think we have more female clients than male clients in that program because of the abuse, abandonment, neglect and sexual violence that can occur in homes with young girls.

Our overall goal is to meet our mission— better the lives of our clients towards pathways for citizenship. Looking at how best to do that and for the most vulnerable populations, I think is what we’re always looking for.

So undocumented men and women fall into that category, but we do see a lot of single mothers with young children who could not afford any kind of legal services or support if it wasn’t for our services.


Q: Do you have any advice that you would give someone who’s looking to go into immigration law?

Hila: I would say the real-world experience is probably the most helpful— interning or volunteering at nonprofits at resettlement agencies and private firms.

I think getting an opportunity to see all of those different types of immigration law is a great idea. You know, there’s the theoretical in school then there’s the practicality of it. And so getting your hands on actual applications to draft and clients to talk to and hearings to go to- really familiarizing yourself with the process as well as the law and how to follow instructions when it comes to filing applications.


And having a heart for it, and I think it’s one of those things where you don’t see a lot of immediate benefit, a lot of success from it, because it could take years to get an application granted or it’s erroneously denied or they just aren’t eligible for the services, so keeping in mind that you may not be able to help everybody, you won’t be able to help everybody. But even if you can help somebody, it’s worth it.


You know, it can be long hours. You’re underpaid. You’re overworked. You’re understaffed. All of those tropes are true, but if you have the heart for this and want to help people, it’s one of the most meaningful ways to do that. And we’re always looking for quality practitioners.

I think some attorneys get into immigration law because it’s lucrative. They can get a desperate client to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a case that may go nowhere, but attorneys can afford it and can write it off because they’re getting tens of thousands of dollars. But realizing that if we had more attorneys at nonprofits willing to do the work, maybe not at the salary they get a private firm, but maybe it’s more rewarding. There’s more of a value add than just the monetary portion of it.

While that’s important, because we have to keep roofs over our heads and food on the table, being able to be in the sector that can help the most folks who are the most desperate and the most underserved, hopefully, will be a reward in and of itself, even though clients can be difficult, the government decisions can be tough, processing times are long, but finding that balance and determining that this is still something that brings value to their lives.

Q: I just have one last question, what does Women’s History Month mean to you?


I definitely think women should be celebrated every day, every month, not just the month of March, but I think it does highlight the role

that women play in the workforce, while we’re also a million other things outside of our jobs.


I’m a mother. I’m a wife and having a family and having to balance those responsibilities, getting the kids to soccer practice on time or gymnastics or making sure they’re in school at the right times. But then also wanting to volunteer at their schools and be interactive and a recognized figure in their schools so that I can feel comfortable in who’s teaching my children, who’s surrounded by them on a daily basis, and they also feel like I’m there for them.

So needing to be present for them while also maintaining a 9 to 5 40-hour week job that can be high-stress and highly demanding. I think women are just incredible in that we can do that. We have so many expectations put on us simply because we are a woman and a mother and a wife and but also, I’m a director and I’m a leader and I’m responsible for almost 80 staff members and their employment here and so balancing all of that while hopefully keeping a positive attitude and being a good member of my work community as well as my home life and juggling that. I think women just don’t get enough recognition there, so I love that we have a month to celebrate all that women are and that we do, what we contribute.

I don’t think we’re valued the same as male colleagues with pay discrepancies and things like that— that’s overall, not at USCRI. Overall, in the world and in this country, I think we’re on our way there and we’re doing the best we can to show that women can really do it all. We can be Superwoman at home and then also Super-Director at the office. I am proud that the majority of our- at least our legal department- are female. But I love that we have men here too because it’s always kind of one of those comparative roles where you do think overwhelmingly, statistics-wise, you see more women in the nonprofit workforce than men. I think we’re about 75/25 here at USCRI, percent-wise in the legal department, but I love to see the hard work, the collaboration, the zealous advocacy that our staff attorneys do to promote women, but also knowing that we have all-gender dedicated professionals here as well.

So I want to celebrate everybody. I know that we have a lot of women that are juggling it all and doing the best they can. And I salute them.


USCRI has been serving refugees and immigrants by providing humanitarian-based immigration legal services since 2010. Our services include, but are not limited to, asylum processing, Green Card renewal applications, T- and U- Visas, work authorization, and naturalization. We have legal services offices in 14 offices throughout the United States. For more information, please visit our legal services page.


Other Women’s History Month spotlights: Dylanna Grasinger, AnnaMarie Bena


USCRI, founded in 1911, is a non-governmental, not-for-profit international organization committed to working on behalf of refugees and immigrants and their transition to a dignified life.

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