January 13, 2023

Paving a Way for Non-Citizen Law Students

Alumni and students who founded UndocuLaw Northwest receive awards for “How to Apply to Law School for Non-citizen Immigrants.”

Lewis & Clark Law alums Jose Garcia-Fuerte JD 23’, Karla Marquez de Gaab JD 23’, and Diego Gutierrez JD 21’ joined Willamette Law alum Alyne Sanchez JD 22’ to receive the 2022 Oregon State Bar’s Public Leadership Award for their organization, UndocuLaw Northwest and its groundbreaking webinar, “How to Apply to Law School for Non-citizen Immigrants.” In addition, UndocuLaw Northwest was honored this year with AALS’s Organizational Changemaker Award. The award recognizes organizations that create structural and systemic change to increase access to legal education and diversify the legal profession.

UndocuLaw is led by current and former undocumented law students to support undocumented law school applicants. The organization hosts educational events to foster a community where DACA, TPS, undocumented, and any other non-citizen law school applicants can support one another. UndocuLaw’s network has developed a national scope, supported by undocumented law students and attorney volunteers across the country.

As current and former DACAmented students, the founders saw a significant need for information that helps other undocumented students navigate legal applications, education, and careers. Their own experiences had been that of trial and error. When they applied to law school, institutional information wasn’t geared toward undocumented students, and guidance on navigating their status was vague. “Law school is tough—academically, socially, and personally—especially for students who are not part of traditionally dominant identities. While law school environments are becoming better as a result of tireless student advocacy, there are still many ideologies and practices that may make groups of people feel unwelcome or excluded,” says Jose Garcia-Fuerte.

Starting in January 2021, UndocuLaw began organizing webinars to help address their community’s needs. “Our webinars cover issues unique to non-citizens such as financial aid, sociocultural considerations, and taxes,” says Jose. “Following the webinar, we hold a roundtable discussion space exclusively for non-citizen students. This is a safe space where UndocuLaw board members and volunteers provide tailored advice and guidance for prospective law students who attend the webinars. Mentorship relationships naturally build from these discussions, but we also provide mentorship to anyone in need that reaches out.” In addition, UndocuLaw provides 1:1 application support. “Many applicants benefit from an experienced perspective. We’ve gone through the process before and can help tailor application materials to best convey their situation and contributions to the legal profession,” says Jose. “This is a time to empower these students and remind them that they belong in the legal profession, despite everything about the process telling them that they do not.”

But UndocuLaw is about more than just admissions support. “We serve as a safe and trusting space for any non-citizen navigating the rough waters that are law school and the legal profession.” says Jose, “Many times, it helps just to talk with someone in a similar situation without needing to justify their experience to someone who may not fully understand. Bottom line, UndocuLaw Northwest is an organization created and led by non-citizens, for non-citizens.”

Co-founder Alyne Sanchez echoes this need with her own story. “When I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 2013, there were no undocumented attorneys so I put off applying to law school because I did not have a social security number and I was the first in my family to even go to college. After I started law school in the Fall of 2019, I decided to create a Facebook group for other undocumented students where I could share my experience and help others. Around February 2020, I was introduced to Jose, Karla, and Diego by Judge Darleen Ortega, as she knew my story, knew how lonely I felt, and was very supportive in helping me be open about my status. Once we all met, creating the space for the webinar just came naturally. We knew there was a need and we had the experience.”

The student-led nature of UndocuLaw made all the difference. According to Mimi Huang, Lewis & Clark Law School’s Assistant Dean of Admissions, UndocuLaw students led the charge every step of the way. They ran the programs, did the outreach, and continued to develop their processes. This gave the program an air of authenticity that established a safe, authentic tone only peers could have provided.

Part of UndocuLaw’s story also starts with Oregon’s policy regarding noncitizen attorneys. Oregon doesn’t ask for immigration status when lawyers apply to the Oregon Bar and the state has no such restrictions preventing undocumented lawyers from practicing in the state.