Three years after DACA, more undocumented youth have been able to access higher education and graduate school. It’s exciting to see a growing number of undocumented students enter and complete law school. Undocumented law students have begun to connect with each other, forming a network of law students, graduates, and yes, even undocumented lawyers! It is a challenging journey to embark on but I am hopeful that as more of us get a legal education, we can enable more undocumented students to attend law school or graduate school.
I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year of undergrad that I learned about the actual process of applying to law school. Here’s my first piece of advice for aspiring undocu-lawyers: get a mentor working in the legal field, someone who will be your champion while you’re going through the admissions process and law school. My mentor was a supervising attorney in my law school’s immigration clinic and I had been working with her for some time as an undergraduate intern before asking her to be my mentor. Be clear and intentional when asking someone to be your mentor; list your goals, and what you hope to accomplish together. My mentor and I set up lunches to check on my goals, review LSAT prep plans, and really make sure law school was what I wanted. Keep in mind that many of your law school classmates will have mothers, fathers, and others who will be helping them prepare for law school and to succeed once they are in law school. As undocumented people of color, we face many institutional barriers to higher education and face systemic oppression as we go through the education system. This certainly doesn’t change in law school and many of your classmates come from more privileged backgrounds that facilitate their success in the legal field. A mentor can help you chart law school waters, and give you the guidance and encouragement you’ll need to face these barriers.
My first semester of law school created a period of deep regret, loneliness, and restlessness like I had never experienced. Many people had prepared me for law school; giving me practical advice on outlines, exam preparation, and time management. Although much of this advice kept me afloat throughout the semester, no one discussed seeking counseling to cope with stress or anxiety. My second piece of advice for future undocumented law students: know that mental health resources, including counseling sessions, are available for free or at a nominal cost at most universities. A legal career is a stressful one, and it’s wise to start good mental health habits as soon as you can. It wasn’t so much law school reading assignments that created stressors for me but sadly, the shock of being in a space that isn’t particularly welcoming for students of color. I have owned my status as an undocumented person since receiving DACA in 2012 and have been organizing for immigrant rights since then, sharing inclusive spaces with queer immigrants and undocumented people of color. But in law school, I was the only person of color in one of my classes and I overheard conversations defending symbols of white supremacy and the “religious freedom” to deny same-sex couples the right to marry who they love. All the while, I saw my friends being spit on and assaulted in the news as they organized rallies against Donald Trump and his bigotry. I went from being an outspoken advocate for myself and others to feeling disempowered as I sat in my classes.
Don’t worry though; my first semester of law school did not end miserably. As the semester continued, I found solidarity from new people around me: a classmate who shared a good outline with me and throughout the semester, cheered on my work for the immigrant community; a career counselor who put in the effort to learn about what internships and fellowships I was eligible to apply for as a DACAmented student and who even went to a training to learn how to be an ally for undocumented students; and my psychological counselor, who also attended an ally training and has since helped me cope with my anxiety and fears about being undocumented in law school. A third tip for undocumented students: don’t be afraid to share your status with classmates, faculty, and staff who want to help you succeed. Sharing your unique story with people enables them to take action with and for undocumented students, whether it’s attending an ally training or making sure their colleagues are truly being inclusive in the classroom. When your educators and advisors know you are undocumented, it also gives them an opportunity to learn about the unique challenges we face and it better prepares them to help the next undocumented student they work with.
Aside from understanding how I should study for exams (it’s different for everyone and you use tools others share with you to come up with your own game plan), the biggest lesson my first semester taught me was to not isolate myself from the work and the people who empower me. “Why did I do this to myself?” was something I asked myself each time I felt overwhelmed by law school readings or was terribly embarrassed for not knowing an answer during class. It was hard to remember why I was in law school when I had disconnected myself from what had led to be in law school: fighting for the immigrant community. Many people had told me to focus on law school and I wrongly interpreted this as completely cutting out my usual advocacy work from my schedule. Wrong, wrong, wrong! After a particularly rough week, I decided to go to our local United We Dream office and offer to help with anything I could that afternoon. I ended up spending a few hours following up with immigrant youth who had attended an event and after finishing outreach calls that night, I truly felt cleansed. I was reminded of why I wanted to be an attorney and why I had fought so hard to get into law school.
Going into my second semester, I’ve had a few weeks to recharge and reflect on what I want to do differently this semester. I’ve had some great conversations with my amazing attorney mentors, my career counselor, and my psychological counselor. And can you believe it, I even made some pretty decent grades on my finals! Right now, I’ve set up regular check-ins with our student org for undocumented youth at the University of Houston (Youth Empowerment Alliance) so I can mentor new leadership during the semester. I am also setting up regular meetings with my mentor so I can really keep in touch with her. I’m applying for summer internships and will soon be a Board of Immigration Appeals Accredited Representative. Some of my books this semester are basically bricks, and the class readings are an increase from last semester but Spring 2016 already looks so much brighter.
Karla was born in Mexico City and moved to Houston when she was two years old. She is DACAmented and advocates for other immigrant students at the University of Houston. As the first member of her family to pursue a graduate degree, she is currently studying law so she can help more immigrants protect their rights and pursue their dreams.
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