Lisette Diaz realized she wanted to be a lawyer when she was 6 years old. That was the year she moved from Chile to the United States with her mother, on visas the pair later overstayed. Through the years, Diaz watched her family struggle to resolve their legal situation with the aid of “many, many, many different attorneys,” she recalled. Some of their lawyers were good — honest, empathetic, familiar with the undocumented community — and some took her family’s money without fixing anything.
Diaz knew what kind she wanted to be.
She ended up going to Harvard University on a full ride, and, after her freshman year, received protection from deportation from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or DACA — which allows people who migrated to the United States without authorization as children to live and work legally. Today, she works as a paralegal for the American Civil Liberties’ Union Immigrants’ Rights Project. Diaz told VICE News, “I’ve been working toward this my entire life. I’ve done nothing else but dedicate myself to immigration.”
But now, following President Donald Trump’s decision Tuesday to phase DACA out, Diaz isn’t exactly sure what her future will look like. And she’s not alone. VICE News spoke to several DACA recipients who work in immigration law — or want to — who are now wondering not only what will happen to their clients but also whether they’ll be able to continue fighting for them in court.
In other words, ending DACA doesn’t just affect the immigration status of nearly 800,000 people living in the United States. It may also affect the vanguard of advocates able to navigate the labyrinthine U.S. immigration court system (which is currently backlogged by more than 540,000 pending cases).
It’s unclear just how many DACA recipients work in the legal field, since there’s little available data on where they’re employed. What is known comes largely from a 2017 survey conducted by Tom Wong, a University of California San Diego assistant professor of political science, that asked more than 3,000 DACA recipients in 46 states about their employment status and history. Wong told VICE News that many of the surveyed recipients said that they worked as paralegals or were majoring in specialties like pre-law and political science.
“Many DACA recipients work in immigration law as a way to give back,” Wong explained. “Their experience gives them a competitive advantage, and they are using their skills to help others stay in the U.S.A.”
“I am going to graduate from law school. I am going be an immigration attorney.”
“I came [to the United States] because of my family really wanted to keep us together and wanted a better life for us. I can understand that when people come and they tell me those kinds of stories,” said Juana Guzman, a DACA recipient and legal assistant for the Texas-based group Raices, which provides legal aid to immigrants. While working on deportation defense issues in college, she often saw attorneys who didn’t know how to relate to their undocumented clients — but Guzman, who came to the U.S. when she was 8, can bridge that gap. “I see it as an opportunity to join both worlds.”
Many DACA recipients who are interested in the law haven’t had enough time to become full-fledged attorneys, since DACA was only enacted in 2012 and its average recipient is just 25 years old, according to Wong’s survey. (Though some have begun practicing — Daniel Ramirez Medina, famously one of the first DACA recipients detained under the Trump administration, is now being represented by Luis Cortes Romero, an immigration attorney and fellow DACA recipient.) For Diaz and Guzman, Tuesday’s DACA announcement may have put their law school plans on hold.
“It’s definitely made everything feel much more urgent. Like everything needs to be done now, I need to prepare now,” Diaz said of the announcement. She had planned to go to law school next year, but now she’s trying to decide if she should just keep working at the ACLU until her work permit expires. “I need to save all of my money right now. I need to essentially prepare for a future where I don’t know how I’m going to figure out my financial future.”
“I really don’t want to think about going into that much debt and then not really being able to pay it off,” added Guzman, who’d just started to study for the LSAT before the announcement.
Karla Perez, a DACA recipient and a third-year law student at the University of Houston, still plans to sit for the Texas bar exam next July, but she doesn’t know how or when she’ll be able to actually get her law license and begin to practice. Right now, only California, New York, and Florida have specifically created laws that allow people to become licensed attorneys if they have DACA or are undocumented (though documentation requirements vary slightly from state to state). She’s prepared to leave the state if she has to.
“That’s something that I really don’t want to do because, I mean, Texas is home,” said Perez, who also serves as a board member for the young immigrant rights group United We Dream, whose members are overwhelmingly undocumented or “DACA-mented.” “I refuse to be pushed out of here.
“I am going to graduate from law school. I am going be an immigration attorney. It may not happen for me right away, [but] our fate is not decided,” Perez went on. She plans to do whatever she can “continue learning and preparing” to work in immigration, even if the work is unpaid. “This is just a moment where we double down.”
Diaz and Guzman echoed that sentiment: They may not necessarily know how they’re going to do it, but they do know that they’re not giving up on fighting for the rights of undocumented people. And even if they can’t, others will.
“People without DACA still have agency and they’re still able to advocate for themselves, and I think a lot of them do — otherwise it wouldn’t have gotten this far,” Diaz said. “Even if DACA-mented people have to take a step back, I don’t think the undocumented community would revert back to trying to hide at all. I think that a lot of people would step up and continue to fight.”
Noah Kulwin contributed reporting.