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In the fight to defend ‘Dreamers,’ this lawyer has a personal stake

Nearly 800,000 DACA recipients are waiting for Congress to reach a decision on the future of the program that has protected them from deportation. Immigration lawyer Luis Cortes, who spends his days defending “Dreamers,” is one of them. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano speaks to him about coming to terms with his own legal status and his work on immigration law.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Immigration lawyer Luis Cortes Romero’s day begins at 6am at Seattle, Washington’s federal immigration court. Today he’s here to defend a 14-year old Guatemalan boy who arrived unaccompanied in the United States after witnessing his father’s murder.

    At 2pm, Cortes Romero is 30 miles away at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center to defend a former gang member from being deported.

    By 5pm, he’s finally arrived at his law office just south of Seattle where he meets with the family of a woman for whom he’s helped secure refugee-status.

    So far, that’s pretty par for the course. But what sets Cortes Romero apart from other immigration lawyers is that–like most of his clients–he too is an undocumented immigrant.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What were you told about your status growing up?

  • LUIS CORTES ROMERO:

    I definitely knew what it felt to be undocumented, though I didn’t really know what it meant. Because– in where we were living, there were a lot of ICE raids. It was—it wasn’t uncommon to hear about it at our neighborhood store or the apartment complex we were living in. And so that fear was very real. But i didn’t really know like what the outside consequences was of being deported.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Cortes Romero was brought to the United States in 1989 from Mexico when he was just over a year old. But it was only when his father was deported in 2004 that the realities of being undocumented in America began to sink in.

  • LUIS CORTES ROMERO:

    At this point, I was in my beginning stages of high school, and so you know, I was forming my identity. And so it was difficult to deal with from an identity front. It was difficult to not be mad at my parents. It was difficult not to be mad at the immigration system. It was difficult not to be mad at my peers for having this privilege of them not having to think about it.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Cortes Romero also faced difficulty applying to colleges, most of which required a social security number, which he didn’t have. He was eventually accepted to San Jose State University, which accepted his student ID from a local community college in place of a social security number. His college degree helped earn him a place at the University of Idaho, where he entered law school in 2010.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    You’re studying law, legality. You’re supposed to uphold the law. And here you are with this secret—an undocumented status.

  • LUIS CORTES ROMERO:

    Yeah, you know, it– it’s definitely a lot to– to try to decipher. And ultimately what I– what I really got out of law school I think at the end was that the law’s supposed to be fair.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    And then, in 2012, during Cortes Romero’s third year in law school, an announcement from the white house changed his world.

  • BARACK OBAMA:

    Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation off these young people.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals–or “DACA”–allowed Cortes Romero–and almost 800-thousand others like him who had been brought to this country as children–to apply for work permits without the fear of deportation.

  • LUIS CORTES ROMERO:

    It’s hard to explain the—the shift that it has on a person to be recognized. When you finally get your identity, it’s–it’s–it’s really something that I’ve never experienced since then or even before then. And it made me so much more confident. I, you know, I—I wasn’t scared about being deported. It changed who I was.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Cortes Romero graduated law school in 2013. A year later California’s Supreme Court ruled that undocumented immigrants could practice law under the state’s constitution. Cortes Romero was granted a California law license in 2016, which he can use to practice federal immigration law anywhere in the country.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    When you’re going into these spaces, in immigration court– do you take any special precautions? Do you ever feel fear?

  • LUIS CORTES ROMERO:

    The time that I think about it most interestingly enough is when we win cases. Because– there are situations where I will win a case for my client, and now he’s in a better position than I am walking outta that courtroom than when we both walked in there.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But this past September, Cortes Romero found himself worried about deportation all over again when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would end the DACA program in March of this year.

    Two weeks after the attorney general’s announcement, six DACA recipients filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration–and one of the lawyers representing them is Luis Cortes Romero.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What is the argument? What’s the complaint?

  • LUIS CORTES ROMERO:

    President Trump said on various occasions even after he was elected, you know, “I’m gonna treat the DACA recipients with big heart. DACA individuals have nothing to worry about.” And he said it over and over and over again. So people made plans on that. People renewed on that. People applied for the first time on that. And so to say, “Nope, joke’s on you. We’re taking, now we have all your information. Thanks. And we’re gonna take this away–” is something that is not just unfair, but unlawful.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Whether or not the president’s actions are unlawful is debatable–and the case may be dismissed if congress is be able to pass legislation protecting DACA recipients before the March deadline. In the meantime, Cortes Romero continues his work, defending the undocumented—and in the process, defending himself.

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