AILA proudly welcomes this blog post from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee Law Student Scholarship recipient Gerardo Villegas Juarez, part of a series intended to highlight the important ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion inform immigration law and policy. More information about AILA’s DEI Committee and its important work is available on AILA’s website 

 I dedicate this blog post to the undocumented students who came before me and shined a light on our situation. Your unrelenting spirit, courage, and resolve laid the foundation for my generation to speak for you today. I hope to work to your mold; to ensure that future generations of undocumented communities may untap their full potential. Your efforts are not forgotten—thank you for making a difference. 

In the Fall of 2012, I stood before a federal judge in a U.S. District Court and argued a negligence case. I was there as the lead attorney of my high school mock trial team—it was a fictitious case and we lost. These valuable spaces were made available to undocumented students, like me, after the seminal case Plyler v. Doe guaranteed the right to free public education for undocumented children. Plyler was decided in 1981, thirty-one (31) years before the Napolitano Memo that created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) in 2012. I benefitted from these two events through good fortune and mere circumstance. DACA made litigating a real case ostensibly possible for me. Now, as law school graduation nears, and litigating in court becomes probable if not inevitable, I realize that the challenges facing undocumented and DACAmented attorneys practicing immigration law are becoming much more acute.

Liminality is a psychological process of transition; it largely represents a state of ambiguity and disorientation. Liminality characterizes the lives of undocumented and DACAmented professionals as best documented in Roberto R. Gonzales’ Lives in Limbo, a quantitative and qualitative account of the outcomes within these communities. Roberto R. Gonzales’ book follows the lives of 150 undocumented “college-goers” and “early-exiters” in Los Angeles; it concludes that despite community connections and support systems, professional outcomes remain similar for the undocumented youth who graduate college and those who drop out of high school.

Although the book primarily highlights the perpetual liminality that plagues the prospects of “college-goers” and “early-exiters” without DACA, DACA exacerbated and transformed liminality. As DACA-eligible undocumented youth pursue professional opportunities and reap the benefits of their educational efforts, it eliminates the larger problem that is highlighted in Lives in Limbo—lack of status.

DACA has elevated “college-goers” to positions of power and professions without absolving these professionals from liminality. DACA remains a temporary solution; its tempered relief overwhelms recipients in these positions because DACA opens the door but also tethers you to the prospect of removal. DACA recipients remain vulnerable to the now routine injunctions halting the program and the looming threat of an unfriendly, and competent administration that can properly unwind the program.

Luis Cortes-Romero’s journey to the Supreme Court is emblematic of the liminality facing this community of lawyers. Cortes-Romero is a DACA recipient and a lawyer. He was part of the team that defended DACA from the Trump Administration’s attempt to rescind it.

In a conversation published in Slate Magazine, Cortes-Romero recounts what it was like to defend the program at the highest-level while being “scared.” He got involved with the litigation after his client, a DACA recipient, was detained by ICE. He himself faced what many of these attorneys must face each workday, a constant reminder that their own transition is not complete. Undocumented people, DACAmented or otherwise, will not reach full resolve until they have successfully broken through the threshold of liminality. Until then, undocumented and DACAmented attorneys working in immigration are weighed down by their own circumstance which is inextricably one with the circumstances of their own clients.

Although there is value in relating to your clients, undocumented and DACAmented attorneys and law students pursuing immigration law are uniquely positioned. DACAmented and undocumented lawyers cannot only see themselves in their clients, but they are also their clients as they continue to be subjected to the very threats that they are seeking to advocate against.

DACA’s benefits cannot be discounted. However, its vulnerable and tempered relief highlights the need for sweeping immigration reform—a permanent solution for the undocumented youth and the original DREAMers, their parents. Otherwise, liminality will continue to plague our community regardless of our preparation, education, or prestige.