Time to stand up: Undocumented immigrants who chose careers in the law await Supreme Courts ruling
WASHINGTON – When the Supreme Court considers the plight this week of nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, one of them plans to be seated at the defense table.
Luis Cortes Romero, who arrived in the country at the tender age of 1 three decades ago, is an immigration lawyer. He’s also among the immigrants who could be deported by the Trump administration if it wins its effort to have the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program declared unlawful.
Cortes’ rapid rise in the legal profession may be unusual, but he’s not alone among DACA recipients. Others are prosecutors and defense lawyers, paralegals and law students, even plaintiffs in the three cases being heard Tuesday. Their experiences in a country that denies them a path to citizenship have led them to the law – literally.
“It affects your life so much that you become obsessed with how to fix it,” says Cortes, 31, a partner at the Immigrant Advocacy & Litigation Center in Washington State. “Being a DACA recipient and being so desperate for an answer really has me entrenched.”
They include people like Jose Magaña-Salgado, whose path to immigration law began when his home state of Arizona cracked down on financial aid for undocumented students.
They include people like Dulce Garcia, whose experience running her own small law firm in San Diego led her to become a lead plaintiff in the battle. When she worried that her prominence could endanger undocumented members of her family, she said, her mother responded: “It’s time to stand up, even if it means we’re going to get deported.”
And they include students at some of the nation’s most prominent law schools, from Harvard – where Mitchell Santos Toledo was motivated to apply because of the roadblocks in his way – to UCLA, where Lisette Candia Diaz will begin her studies next fall after working for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrant Rights Project.
“I don’t think there was ever a question for me that I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Diaz, 26, who arrived from Chile when she was 6. “I saw my parents struggle with their status and how they were taken advantage of by a lot of people.”
Like their hundreds of thousands of compatriots, these lawyers and law students lack credible options if they cannot remain in the only country they have ever known. Magaña-Salgado and Toledo were brought from Mexico when they were 2. Villalobos was 3. Garcia was 4.
“For us, it’s about life,” Magaña-Salgado says. “This is going to affect our careers, our decisions about higher education, even family planning issues.”
It’s not surprising that many of the “children” President Barack Obama sought to protect from deportation in 2012 are examples of the American dream – not just lawyers but doctors and engineers and teachers, with roots in their communities and children of their own.
To qualify every two years for DACA, they had to be students, high school graduates, holders of an equivalency degree, or honorably discharged from the military. They could not have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or more than three lesser misdemeanors.
Texas challenged the program’s legality in 2017 after successfully blocking Obama’s effort to extend protections to millions of undocumented parents. Noting that a deadlocked Supreme Court had allowed that ruling to stand, the state threatened to sue the Trump administration unless it rescinded DACA.
“Congress has never given the executive carte blanche to grant lawful presence to any alien it chooses not to remove, let alone benefits including work authorization, health care, unemployment, and a pathway to citizenship,” Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins argued in Supreme Court papers on behalf of 12 states.
Faced with the threatened lawsuit, the Department of Homeland Security decided to end the program, citing then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ assertion that it was unconstitutional and beyond the agency’s authority. It said it would not accept any new applications and would limit renewals.
“At best, DACA is legally questionable,” U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco told the high court in legal papers. “At worst, it is illegal.”
That’s not what federal district and appeals courts have found, however, resulting in three challenges from California, New York and the District of Columbia reaching the Supreme Court. The justices will hold 80 minutes of oral argument Tuesday.
“The administration could have left DACA in place,” Theodore Olson, who will argue the case along with California Solicitor General Michael Mongan, argues in court papers. “It did not have to end this humanitarian policy that allows nearly 700,000 people to stay in the only country they have ever really known. It did not have to eliminate the opportunity for these individuals to earn a living to support themselves and their families.”
‘This is why I practice’
The legal battle culminating in a second Supreme Court showdown this week has captivated one group of DACA recipients more than others: those making a career in the law.
Leading the pack is Cortes, who will sit at the counsel’s table with Olson, a legendary Supreme Court litigator, on Tuesday. Cortes, who was in high school when his father was deported in 2003, later went to law school in Idaho “to stop things like that.”
Soon after Trump entered the White House, Cortes was the first lawyer to get involved in the case of a Washington State DACA recipient threatened with deportation because of alleged gang ties that he denied.
“Because I have DACA, I had a sense of how alarming it was,” he says. Within days, major law firms and constitutional law professors had joined the case. When the Trump administration terminated DACA months later, they were among the first to go to court.
“It’s heavy emotionally, because this is a type of professional milestone that you can only dream about,” Cortes says. “It also feels heavy in responsibility.”
Garcia grew up “in the shadows” just miles from the Mexico border in San Diego, where her family lived in fear of being deported. Her younger brother was put in a detention center for a time. Her older brother was beyond the age limit to qualify for DACA.
“This is why I practice immigration law,” says Garcia, 36, who will travel to the nation’s capital for Tuesday’s oral argument. “There’s still a date when I become deportable, and no one knows what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court.”
‘I needed to be a lawyer’
Magaña-Salgado was a business major at Arizona State University when his home state cracked down on financial aid and other benefits for undocumented immigrants.
“That is what put me on this path,” he says. To help himself and others, “I needed to be a lawyer.”
He went to law school in Texas, interned with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and found upon graduation that without a work permit he could not sit for the bar exam. In 2012, DACA solved that problem.
Now 33, Magaña-Salgado owns a small consulting firm, helping nonprofits and others involved in immigration. But he worries about his future if the program is ended.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “the government has all of our home addresses.”
Like many of his fellow lawyers, Villalobos was motivated by the roadblocks in his path: first the lack of government loans to attend college, then not having a work permit to help pay the costs. When his parents became legal permanent residents, he was too old to qualify.
“I learned the importance that laws have on people’s everyday lives,” Villalobos, 28, says.
At the University of Texas School of Law, he set his sights on becoming an immigration lawyer, but he found it “hit a little bit too close to home. I felt like I would be too invested in every single person’s case and would burn out very quickly.”
Instead, he is nearing his three-year anniversary as an assistant county attorney – helping to maintain law and order in his adopted country.
‘Threats are very real’
Cinthia Padilla believed she was a U.S. citizen as she accumulated a 4.0 grade point average in high school, and she had Harvard in her sights. When she learned she lacked documentation, having come from Mexico as a 1-year-old, her sights shifted to a less expensive college, but her ambition remained the same: to fight crime.
Padilla, 29, graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., in 2011 and went to work as a legal assistant. She applied for DACA the following year and began law school in 2017 at Loyola University in New Orleans, where she will graduate next year.
In between all that, she watched helplessly as her father was deported back to Mexico. Her three younger brothers all are U.S. citizens. Only she and her mother are undocumented.
“I came to law school trying to find answers for myself,” Padilla says. “The threats are very real to me.”
Santos’ path to Harvard Law School passed through community college in California, then the University of California-Berkeley, where he majored in legal studies and authored a project on undocumented students.
“It was a personal thing,” Santos, 28, says. “I wanted to help other people in very similar situations to me.”
He will graduate next May and plans to take the bar exam in California next summer – just months before his two-year DACA protection requires renewal. Despite his background in the law, he says he’s “just as worried as anyone else.”
“The community of undocumented lawyers is very small,” Santos says. “It takes a lot to get to that point, considering all the roadblocks you have to overcome.”
Diaz’s path from Chile to her next destination, UCLA School of Law, went through New York’s Long Island. Once armed with DACA, she attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where she wrote a thesis on DACA’s impact on mixed-status families.
“I think DACA recipients are in such a strange position,” Diaz says. “A lot of us grew up here, grew up American, with all of these ideals of the American dream and what it means to make it.
“At the same time we’re being told all of that, there’s another group of people saying we don’t belong here.”