Brought to the U.S. illegally at age 1 by his parents, Luis Cortes grew up being told at times to stay indoors and look after his siblings. He’s now a lawyer, one of only a handful nationwide with such a background.
Before lawyer Luis Cortes visits clients at the Northwest Detention Center, defends them in court or accompanies them to check-ins with immigration officers, he lets a colleague know. That way if he doesn’t come back, someone will look for him.
Sometimes it hits the 28-year-old Kent attorney: “I’m in front of an immigration judge who could very well be ruling on my case,” he said. “It’s a little surreal.”
Like Daniel Ramirez Medina, his client whose February arrest made national news, Cortes is a Dreamer. He was about 1 when he came here illegally with his parents from Mexico.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, launched by President Barack Obama, gives Dreamers like Cortes a two-year, renewable work permit. But the Trump administration has stressed, in the Ramirez case and others, that such authorization can be canceled at any time.
Cortes said he pushes through the fear to advocate for his clients. He’s come to consider it a strength that he can tell them, “I know what you’re going through.”
He’s one of only a handful of attorneys nationwide known publicly to have come to the U.S. illegally. But even in the law profession, where they are not entirely welcome, some live in the shadows.
Sergio Garcia, the first undocumented immigrant admitted to the California state bar since it began asking about status in 2008, estimates that thousands like him have quietly gotten law licenses around the country, many without having to answer compromising questions. (Garcia now has a green card.)
Mark Rosenbaum, a prominent Los Angeles attorney working on the Ramirez case, said Cortes was the first colleague he’s met who’s a Dreamer. Or so he thought. After the case made the news, others revealed their status to him — “including some lawyers I’ve known for a long time,” he said.
Keeping the secret
When Cortes was in the third grade, his parents decided to go back to Mexico. They had come here thinking they would stay six months and save money. But that wasn’t easy in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area, where they settled, his dad working at a fast-food restaurant, his mom cleaning houses.
Then the principal of Cortes’ school called, informing his parents he had been selected for a gifted program.
They canceled their plans to return home. “This is the future for our children. We don’t count anymore,” his mom said she told her husband.
Staying had its costs. Fear of being found out was the main one. “Don’t go outside,” his parents would tell Cortes amid nearby immigration raids. If anything happened to them, they added, “make sure you take care of your siblings.”
The three of them, all born here, were U.S. citizens. Yet as the oldest, Cortes would be responsible for them, no matter his status — which was then, years before DACA, simply undocumented.
He didn’t fully realize it, though, until he had the chance to go on a school trip to Europe in the eighth grade. He sold chocolate to raise funds — a lot, he remembered.
“At the end of the day, my mom said, ‘No, you can’t go.’” And she told him why.
When he told his schoolmates, they made him their own version of a green card, out of paper.
His mom “got super upset,” he said. Not at what his classmates did, but what they knew.
He had a second realization: His status was a secret.
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A few years later, his dad, succumbing to “notario” fraud and an empty promise of asylum, was deported.
The rest of the family stayed, but Cortes lost interest in school and friends. He started listening to punk rock and grew a mohawk.
His mom, aghast, felt she had to do something drastic. One night, in the middle of a shouting match with Cortes, she called the police, hoping they would talk to him.
They did, and it wasn’t a big deal — except that Cortes saw his siblings, who had already lost their dad to deportation, crying and afraid.
“I need to stop messing around,” Cortes said to himself.
“Don’t bend, keep walking”
What was he doing in the middle of Idaho? The question hit him on a snowy November day in 2010.
He had made it to the University of Idaho law school, no small feat. After high school, he couldn’t apply directly to a four-year college because he didn’t have a Social Security number. So he first went to a community college, which gave him a student ID he could use to apply to San Jose State University.
Still, his status made him ineligible for financial aid. To afford law school, he scraped together scholarships and odd jobs.
Then he read a story about Luis Perez, an undocumented UCLA School of Law graduate who likely wouldn’t be admitted to the California Bar because of his status.
Some, like syndicated Washington Post columnist Ruben Navarrette, weighed in strongly against undocumented immigrants becoming lawyers. The whole idea of the profession is “about respecting and adhering to the law,” he explained in a recent interview.
Navarrette takes a softer stance when it comes to Dreamers, noting that their work permits and deferment from enforcement action are only temporary, but saying that if states are OK with granting them law licenses, he has no objection.
Federation for American Immigration Reformspokesman Ira Mehlman does object. “Their status is still technically illegal,” he said.
In 2014, the California state Supreme Court ruled that immigrants illegally in the U.S. could practice law in the state, reasoning that law-school graduates were unlikely targets for enforcement.
But that hadn’t happened yet when Cortes called his mom from his car, crying.
“I feel like I want to throw up,” he told her. “I’m leaving.”
“No Luis, don’t bend. Keep walking,” she said. Whatever he learned in law school, no one could unteach him, whether he practiced or not.
She was firm. “Don’t you come back here,” she said.
He did what his mom said.
Still, he told few people his secret. Close friend and then fellow law student José García remembered trading confidences with Cortes one day. García came out as gay, Cortes as undocumented.
Both friends had the same thing to say to each other: “I knew the whole time.”
Jeffrey Dodge, the law school’s associate dean of students, had a different reaction when he learned of Cortes’ status in the young man’s last year of school. “I was astounded that someone could get this far,” Dodge recalled.
Cortes was a valued member of the school, the administrator said, active in a Latino student group, an immigration clinic and an annual event that brought law students to Eastern Washington to offer pro bono help.
He was, however, out of money when he sought out Dodge. Cortes had tapped out every scholarship he could get.
“We took care of it for him,” Dodge said of the remaining tuition, which the administrator called “minuscule” compared with what Cortes had managed to raise by that time. “I would have given it out of my pocket if necessary.”
That same year, Cortes recalled, “DACA fell from the sky.”
He applied and was approved. “I felt a significant shift in my personality,” he said. DACA “provided me such a missing part of what had been taken away from me — the ability to share my story.”
It didn’t entirely solve his problems. He still couldn’t get admitted to Idaho’s state bar, which takes the position that a rule requiring members to be “lawfully admitted to this country” makes Dreamers ineligible.
Cortes researched Washington State Bar Association rules, finding they neither explicitly permitted nor forbade Dreamers. (Contacted by The Seattle Times, an association spokesman were not able to say what their policy is.)
Idaho lawyer John Barrera hired Cortes anyway to help start a Seattle-area branch of his firm. Barrera said he was looking to hire a Dreamer. Born in this country of Colombian descent, he had seen family members struggle with immigration issues.
Even with no license, Cortes could work on legal briefs and pro bono cases. And if he could find just one state to give him a license, he could work in Washington state as an immigration lawyer. Wherever they’re licensed, attorneys can practice in the federal immigration court system.
Cortes applied to California’s bar, now one of a handful that explicitly allow undocumented immigrants to be lawyers. After a prolonged period of studying for the famously tough exam, he got his license last September.
Meanwhile, he’s been steadily building up Barrera’s client base in Seattle, according to his boss.
“He’s got an unbelievable work ethic,” Barrera said. Also, the Idaho lawyer added, Cortes “comes off as being very honest, and that’s key in our business.”
Cortes got his biggest case yet when Ramirez’s brother contacted him. The government says the arrested Dreamer admitted to being a gang member, though the 24-year-old father and former farmworker insists he said no such thing.
A bunch of high-powered lawyers have since signed on to help. But it is Cortes who has forged the closest bond with Ramirez.
The lawyer visited his client often in the detention center. “Look, I have DACA, too,” Cortes shared early on.
Rosenbaum remembered that at a bond hearing in immigration court, the government called on Ramirez to testify. Defendants don’t usually do so at such hearings, and Ramirez was not prepared.
“He just exchanged looks with Luis,” Rosenbaum said, “and then he went to testify.”