Thalia Acosta ’22 is well acquainted with what it means to live undocumented. She has experienced it first-hand as the daughter of undocumented parents. From an early age, Acosta’s goal was to become an immigration attorney. Beginning her law school journey elsewhere, Acosta committed to transferring upon learning of LMU Loyola Law School’s deep roster of offerings in the subject area, particularly the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic (LIJC), which represents clients on issues related to U visas, human trafficking, asylum seeking, unaccompanied minors and much more.
Joining the LIJC in fall 2021 under the supervision of Marissa Montes ‘12, the clinic director and founder, Acosta was assigned a client who, as a victim of a crime, was seeking a U visa. But as Acosta met with the client, delved into the case and listened to the client’s life story, she realized that there was another angle from which this case could be approached.
With an eye for issue-spotting, Acosta examined all possible remedies and concluded that the client’s best chance at success was to file the case as labor trafficking (T visa). “This was extremely eye-opening because a lot of these clients are dealing with a lot of trauma and are not aware that they have been trafficked,” recalls Acosta.
Participation in the LIJC is more than about just learning; it’s also about teaching. Students lead discussions and workshop case challenges. “I feel really privileged as a student to be able to listen to our clients’ stories and to learn how to work with trauma survivors, which LIJC does a really good job at teaching,” says Acosta.
Another tenacious student, Yurie Blons ’23, has also found in the LIJC a place not only for learning but also for community “with like-minded people.” Blons was born in Japan and was raised in San Diego. As an immigrant, she was undocumented for more than 20 years. Like many undocumented students, Blons grew up not knowing what being undocumented meant or what the consequences of that were until she went to college and realized she couldn't access many services students take for granted such as federal loans or financial aid.
Notwithstanding that, Blons attended UC Berkeley, where she was involved in undocumented student activism; she had ruled out continuing her education at law school given her status. But as she was completing her bachelor’s degree, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program commenced and, soon after, the California bar admitted their first undocumented law graduate. Blons was galvanized to pursue a career in immigration law and chose LLS because of the experiential learning opportunity at the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic.
In her first year at LIJC, Blons has developed her skills as an immigration attorney by handling five cases. Her first case was representing a domestic violence survivor client under the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA). She was able to file the case in February and is awaiting the results. Blons has also completed two DACA renewals and, is currently handling a case involving two unaccompanied minors. Her experience in the Immigrant Justice Clinic has been transformative because “not only are you learning hands on how to work with clients; the clinic also is teaching us about trauma-informed lawyering, how to address survivors of violence and just all the little nuances and details of how to interact with your clients that you wouldn't really learn by just learning the black-letter law.”
During the second semester, LIJC students are assigned an advocacy project. Acosta and Blons both were interested in working on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) because this is a subject that strikes close to home: Acosta’s brother could not receive DACA benefits due to technicalities, an injustice that Acosta keeps in mind as she assists DACA recipients file paperwork for renewals. Acosta has found it “very fulfilling to be able to talk to clients as they develop this trust where they understand that we are law students who want to help them.” Blons knew she wanted to work on this project because she remembers her undergraduate experience and the lack of accessibility to resources for undocumented students. “It's interesting that a lot of people still don't understand what undocumented people can and can't do and I could point some of those things out,” said Blons.
In addition to being assigned DACA clients and assisting them to renew, the core of their advocacy project has immersed Blons and Acosta in substantial legislative work. Since January 2022, Blons and Acosta have worked closely with the Western Center on Law and Poverty to draft legislative language for Assembly Bill 2004, which creates loan forgiveness programs for Dreamers attending CA public universities.
This week, Blons and Acosta, accompanied by LIJC Professor Montes, had the opportunity to culminate their project by traveling to Sacramento to present the draft bill to California legislators.
Summing up her experience, Acosta shares that “this has been an extremely insightful, humbling and fun project to work with alongside Yurie.”