Rachel Rutter

A Warm Welcome for Young Immigrants

Rachel Rutter

Rachel Rutter

JD ’16

Founder and Executive Director, Project Libertad (Philadelphia)

Age 35

When children face deportation, Rachel Rutter knows, their legal woes are just the beginning.

Rutter first became interested in helping children while working at a youth center during her undergraduate days at Gettysburg College in southwest Pennsylvania. While earning her JD and immediately afterwards, Rutter worked for HIAS Pennsylvania, a nonprofit serving immigrants and their families.

As she helped people pursue legal status in this country, she saw the distinct challenges that immigrant children face.

“I was representing kids in immigration proceedings, and I saw so many kids who had all these other needs, outside of just their legal need to have immigration status,” she says.

Driven by a desire to help, Rutter took on her present role as founder and executive director of Project Libertad, a nonprofit that defends unaccompanied immigrant children against deportation and provides them access to needed social services.

Among immigrant youth, “one thing that comes up constantly is housing insecurity,” she says. Some of these “kids” may be over 18, but because of educational setbacks, they are still in high school. “They’re not really self-sufficient, or they might have a bad family situation where they don’t have stable housing. That comes up over and over.”

They also may need access to mental health services. “Many of them have had multiple, complex traumas throughout their lives,” she says. “Even for an English-speaking person with health insurance, it can be really expensive and really hard to access therapy services. You can imagine how much harder it is for kids who need to find a Spanish-speaking provider, who don’t have health insurance.”

Through Project Libertad, Rutter works to sort out immigration issues on the legal side, while a case manager helps to connect clients to community resources based on their particular needs.

The group connects with immigrant children through the schools, where facilitators hold assemblies to teach basic rights, such as what to do during an immigration raid and how to understand your legal status. Project Libertad also offers newcomer support programs to assist with adjustment and create a sense of community.

“Doing that through schools removes some of the barriers that keep them from accessing services,” Rutter says. “We go where they already are, and they have some level of trust with their school.”

The group has hit a couple of big landmarks recently. Rutter was named a 2022 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree. Project Libertad received a $20,000 grant to support its mission, and HBO Max produced a documentary about its work.

Looking ahead, Rutter is putting the finishing touches on a deal with a Norristown church that she hopes will serve as a shelter for young adults.

Project Libertad envisions a world where all newcomer immigrant youth have access to the services and support they need to thrive. Ultimately, Rutter would like the system to put her out of business.

“In my ideal world, kids could come here and have immigration status, without having to be in deportation proceedings for years at a time,” she says. “In the long term, I think it would be even better if we just weren’t trying to deport kids in general.”

Rutter says her co-op with HIAS, and subsequent employment there, were key in setting her up for success. “Co-op was my favorite part of law school. Through HIAS, I saw there was a purpose to all the work I was doing, and I started to think about how my education would be applicable in the future,” she says. “That was huge.”

How I Pay it Forward

I love working with law students and undergraduates who come to Project Libertad as interns or co-op students. I relish the opportunity to teach them and help them understand this complex field of law and how to navigate the emotionally difficult parts of the work, the way my mentors taught me during my co-op experience.

A nonprofit launched by Rachel Rutter supports the diverse needs of children fleeing countries in crisis.