Raising the Bar

A blue, green and white illustration of a male figure caught in a blizzard

D

enia Perez, JD ’18, set out to earn a law degree so she could fight on behalf of undocumented immigrants and one day change U.S. immigration policy at a systemic level. When existing Connecticut Bar Association policy threatened to derail her career before it began, Perez, with the support of Quinnipiac School of Law, chose to fight for herself.

Perez, a DACA recipient, spearheaded a successful initiative to amend the CBA’s bar admission language to include individuals covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects eligible immigrant youth from deportation. Under the amended guidelines, DACA beneficiaries meet criteria as lawful residents insofar as they are “legally authorized to work in the United States,” enabling them to sit for the bar exam and legally practice law.

“This provides hope for DACA students like me who previously may have felt skeptical about pursuing the legal profession in Connecticut,” Perez said. “It reminds them, too, that Connecticut is a welcoming place for immigrants.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported 690,000 DACA recipients living in the country as of September 2017.

The plight of the immigrant is one with which Perez is familiar. Her parents emigrated from Mexico when she was 11 months old, eventually settling in Santa Rosa, California. While the term “undocumented” did not enter her vocabulary until years later, Perez was made aware early that she was not born in the U.S. and that her family didn’t have “papers.”

“My parents have always been very honest with me about everything,” she said.

Perez remembers a particularly frightening period when she was 8 years old and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, was conducting employment raids in her area. Her mother and father did not hide the gravity of the situation.

“I remember that conversation well,” Perez said. “They told me what could happen, but that they had to go to work to put food on the table. They had to pay the bills.”

The possibility that her mother and father could be arrested and deported loomed over Perez each day, and she grew increasingly fearful of coming home from school to an empty house. The deportation scare would crop up again in 2010, when Perez was a student at Santa Rosa Junior College. Facing removal proceedings, her parents were unsure if they could afford to appeal.

Story Continues

“I had nothing greater to lose than my family. My experiences have really fortified me.”
Denia Perez
Denia Perez working in the School of Law library

Raising awareness

DACA recipient Denia Perez organized the law school’s first DACA panel through the Civil Justice Clinic to raise awareness of immigration issues. She graduated in May and passed the bar exam in September.

These experiences also motivated her to get involved. After graduating from college and being granted DACA status in 2012, Perez took a job as a legal services coordinator for Educators for Fair Consideration, an organization that assists undocumented youth pursuing higher education. In 2013, she became the first DACA beneficiary to serve as a representative on the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals, where she advocated for clients in immigration proceedings.

“I was exposed to the many flaws in immigration law,” she said. “It really spurred my decision to become a lawyer.”

Perez applied to Quinnipiac and was awarded the prestigious Dean’s Fellows Scholarship in 2015. As a student, she conducted “know your rights” workshops and did advocacy work for Connecticut’s immigrant community in New Haven. She also organized the law school’s first DACA panel through the Civil Justice Clinic, which brought together representatives from the nonprofit Connecticut Students for a Dream to share their stories and perspectives.

“Denia really raised a lot of awareness and formed great connections with students around the issues of DACA and immigration,” said Jennifer Gerarda Brown, dean of Quinnipiac’s law school.

Perez said she hadn’t thought about the issue of CBA’s admission guidelines until a conversation with mentor Maggie Castinado, JD ’98, a public defender in New Haven and board member of the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association.

“Maggie told me that CHBA was involved in an ongoing effort to change the language, but that its resources were stretched thin,” Perez said. When she was approached during her second year of law school by incoming CHBA president Alfredo Fernandez about getting involved, Perez agreed. “My outlook shifted,” she said. “I started thinking about this not just in terms of myself, but other young people who may want to pursue a career in law in Connecticut.”

Perez took on the work through the Civil Justice Clinic and approached Professor Sheila Hayre for help. Hayre had worked with students on high-impact advocacy projects in the clinic before, including the highly publicized case of Toto Kisaku, a Congolese performance artist and Middletown, Connecticut, resident who was granted asylum in 2018 after fleeing political persecution and almost certain death in his home country.

In Perez, Hayre recognized something special. “Denia really understood the importance of community context,” she said. “She knew how to connect with people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, and get them behind her to facilitate social change.”

By Perez’s third year, she was researching legal constraints and openings, as well as situations in other states along with Hayre and others in the Civil Justice Clinic. “In certain states students were applying and then fighting for years over whether they would be eligible or not,” Hayre said. “We needed to address this head on and push for a total rule change.”

In addition to the CHBA, their proposal enjoyed full support from numerous other organizations, including the Connecticut Bar Association’s Immigration Law Committee and its Diversity and Inclusion Committee. It also received the official endorsement of the deans of Connecticut’s three law schools.

“My support for the initiative was totally driven by my respect for Denia, my regard for the work she’s done and my expectation that she will be an incredible lawyer and leader,” Brown said.

On Feb. 16, 2018, Brown accompanied Perez and Hayre as they delivered the proposal to the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee in Hartford. Perez also recounted her story as both DACA beneficiary and hopeful lawyer, which resonated with the room of Connecticut Supreme Court justices, elite trial judges and the former president of the CBA.

“She gave them insight into the bigger picture,” Hayre said. “They saw how important and broad this issue was through Denia’s lens.”

Perez and Hayre defended the proposal twice more before the amended language was unanimously adopted by the rules committee of the Connecticut Supreme Court on June 15. On Nov. 2, Perez officially became the first DACA recipient to be sworn in by the Connecticut State Bar.

I am truly proud of what we’ve accomplished in Connecticut,” she said. “I was excited. I celebrated, but there is still more work to be done.”

Perez began a two-year fellowship with the Immigrant Justice Corp in September. She was placed at the Brooklyn office of social justice nonprofit Make the Road New York, where she does deportation defense work.

She knows she must reconcile her future plans with a precarious present. Her parents finally received their green cards in 2016, and her three brothers were all born in the U.S., so she remains the only member of her family without legal status. Her father petitioned for a green card on her behalf in November 2017, but it may take several more years to be approved. “My only hope is that Congress can get its act together soon,” Perez said.

Until comprehensive and humane immigration reform is passed, Perez goes to work each day with the ever-present threat of DACA being repealed and the subsequent loss of her work authorization. In the face of such insecurity, and amid divisive political rhetoric and increasingly disturbing news stories surrounding immigration, she simply follows the example her parents set for her many years ago.

“They never got stuck or felt sorry for themselves,” Perez said. “Their perseverance inspires me to push through really intense moments of doubt and uncertainty.”