When I Decided To Become a Public-Interest Immigration Lawyer

This was my personal statement for my application to the University of Michigan Law School, where I will begin as a J.D. student in August 2017. This will also be my last blog post on this site; I invite you to visit my website ImmigrantDignity.org or browse my list of published writing.

Source of cover photo: ScenicVT.com

 

Lorenzo and I were sitting in my car, wordless, hearts racing, on the snowy shoulder of a northern Vermont road, with Sergeant Allen’s red and blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror, waiting hours for U.S. Border Patrol agents to arrive, when I decided to become a lawyer.

It was 9:30am on Saturday, February 14th, 2015. I was a University of Vermont senior interning with Migrant Justice, a grassroots organization of Latino workers who power Vermont’s dairy industry. I was driving Lorenzo from his Grand Isle farm to a Burlington conference, where he would join a panel discussion about his and other workers’ deplorable labor conditions. I met Lorenzo that day; he was about my age, from Chiapas, Mexico. He had worked on Vermont dairy farms for three years, as long as I’d been in college. While I had the privilege to pursue my passions, spend two semesters abroad in Argentina and Tanzania, and learn from world-class professors, Lorenzo had been milking and cleaning up after cows and working 14-hour shifts for below minimum wage. Still, we became quick friends; we were chatting and joking in Spanish for a half hour—until I got pulled over. Lorenzo fell quiet.

Sgt. Allen, it turned out, was less interested in my speed than in the immigration status of my brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking passenger. After glancing at my license and registration and saying I’d been speeding, he signaled Lorenzo.

“Does he have any identification? Is he supposed to be here?”

We were both clenched with fear, and I with indignation. I was nearly certain that a 2014 Vermont state bias-free policing law forbade Sgt. Allen from demanding Lorenzo’s ID without probable cause. But I didn’t know how to act on that certainty.

“You’re not allowed to ask that,” I said “There’s a law—”

“I don’t have to follow that rule. I’m with the Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department, not state police.”

All I could do was translate the officer’s request to my petrified passenger, who handed over his only ID, his Mexican passport.

Watching Sgt. Allen call Border Patrol agents, waiting for their arrival, sitting helplessly as they handcuffed Lorenzo, following their van to a facility near the Canadian border, and waiting in the bare lobby during a four-hour interrogation, I agonized over whether Lorenzo would be punished, or deported.

Questions flooded my mind: What would happen to Lorenzo? Would he lose his job, be sent back to Mexico, be unable to support his family? And what business did I have being there at all? What did I have to contribute to immigrant rights? I am a white male from Colorado; both my parents are U.S.-born and have graduate degrees. Who was I to intrude on Lorenzo’s life and adopt his cause as my own?

But waiting in that facility, I remembered why I got involved with immigrant rights movements in the first place: to challenge and change laws that drive wedges between neighbors. Lorenzo was just as much a Vermonter as I was, and also just as human. Sgt. Allen had tried to push us into the chasm of racial division—but we were already building a bridge across it. Renewed resolve swept over me as I remembered people’s duty to defend one another when they are knocked down, regardless of race or class.

Lorenzo was released that day, with an indefinite date in immigration court. We never made it to Burlington. On the way back to his farm, we stopped for sandwiches. No words were strong enough to apologize for what had happened, but he understood.

Lorenzo and Migrant Justice filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission. I had graduated, moved to New York City, led a farmworkers’ rights demonstration in Times Square, and begun working for a community volunteer program that has a majority immigrant membership when I heard that Lorenzo had won his case. In a 32-page report, the Commission deemed that Lorenzo had been the target of illegal discrimination. Later, after I founded ImmigrantDignity.org, a bilingual tool that answers simple legal questions for immigrants to the US, I learned that the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department had settled with Lorenzo for $30,000, and Vermont legislators cited his case to strengthen anti-discrimination laws. But without federal reform, Lorenzo is still considered deportable.

February 14th, 2015 was the day I decided I wanted to practice law and represent immigrants in criminal, labor, and immigration cases. At the University of Michigan Law School, I am confident I will be able to acquire the knowledge, analytical skills, and clinical experience vital for me to pursue my mission to promote access to justice for immigrants via legal representation, community organizing, volunteer engagement, and user-friendly technology. For me, the practice of law will be a crucial tool to erase the lines that divide us.

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