Vega, a law student at the University of Idaho, has seen firsthand how government persecution can lead to violence in migrant communities.
By Timothy K. DesJarlais, University of Arizona
Growing up in a farming migrant-worker community, Maria Vega used her talent and knowledge of the English language to serve as a translator for many of the Spanish speakers in her group.
Now, as a law school student and prospective lawyer, she is undertaking a new kind of translation work, ensuring immigrants can properly understand the United States legal process and their rights.
Vega grew up in the rural community of Salinas, California, as the daughter of migrant farm workers. From a young age, her knowledge of English made her a key asset to many of her Spanish-speaking neighbors, and early on, she was involved in serving her community. After being the first in her family to graduate from high school, she attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she double majored in Political Science and Latin American Studies.
Like many college students, Vega was uncertain what she would do after graduation. She considered several options, like social work, but it wasn’t until her junior year that she studied abroad in Spain and developed a concrete idea of what she wanted to do. While studying abroad, Vega witnessed a lot of the immigration problems that Spain, like the rest of the European Union, was dealing with. Previously, she thought immigration was only an issue that Americans and, in particular, Californians, faced. However, the trip made her realize that the issue was beyond the scope of one country.
After traveling back to the United States, Vega began participating in community-service activities and getting involved with student organizations on her campus. “I think that was the defining moment for me, because I realized just how much I loved talking to the community about access to higher education and domestic-violence services, access for farm workers and access to labor-law information,” she says. Drawing a parallel to her work as a translator while growing up in Salinas, she adds, “It was empowering to me because it brought me back to what I’ve always done—translating complicated information and simplifying it for the community.”
This was a pivotal point for Vega, and it was here that she first considered becoming a lawyer. She did not view this change as a big jump. “For me, law school was never a farfetched idea or goal, because it’s intrinsically tied to what I do and what immigrant communities are accustomed to doing.” For Vega, immigrant communities have the goal of trailblazing for those that follow.
“We pave the way for others, and we facilitate the process for our own,” she says.
After graduating from undergrad, Vega began to consider law schools. Although she was determined to keep an open mind, she was leaning toward immigration law. Looking for schools with some of the best immigration-law clinics, she applied all over the country and was accepted to the University of Idaho School of Law. Since starting law school, Vega has been able to participate in the school’s law clinic, where she has been exposed to cases involving real clients who were going through issues in the immigration system.
Oftentimes, navigating America’s complex legal system can be terrifying, even with the best and brightest retaining good lawyers to help. However, imagine the same scenario, except you are an immigrant in a strange land. The confusion is bound to increase.
At the University of Idaho, Vega had the opportunity to help with the case of a juvenile from Central America, who had immigrated to the United States as an unaccompanied minor. Because of the juvenile’s age and status, the case was more complicated than a standard immigration issue. In the end, though, Vega was able to enjoy a success, as her clinic successfully resolved the case.
“It’s been really satisfying to help someone as vulnerable as my client,” she says. “It was the most satisfying thing because, one, I feel like I like did something awesome, and two, I feel like I learned a lot. I gained a lot of knowledge in how to deal with cases that are sensitive and delicate.”
After she graduates from the University of Idaho College of Law this May, Vega plans to move to the state of Washington, where she has a job lined up with an immigration-aid center. Looking forward, she says, “I see a lot of potential in the work that needs to be done with migrant farm workers and Washington’s immigrant communities in general.”
Vega is becoming an immigration lawyer at a pivotal time in history, when America’s newly elected president, Donald Trump, has consistently promised to pursue an aggressive immigration enforcement policy and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
His promises have led to an increased amount of distrust from immigrant communities in law enforcement and federal authorities in particular. Vega acknowledged that distrust, and she noted that what she saw happening was not so much the law itself changing, but rather the way people viewed immigration law and what their perception of it was. This perception has also led to rampant fear and constant confusion, especially regarding immigration law itself, since it affects so many immigrant communities across the United States.
Vega is aware of this newfound distrust, and cautions against the negative consequences of such fear. “I think that it’s unfortunate because there are a lot of people who are scared of calling the cops when their husband comes home and beats them up, because they don’t know if they’re going to be deported, even though they are the victim.”
Despite this bleak outlook, Vega has managed to stay optimistic. “It’s also a very exciting time to be an attorney, because there’s just so much work to do.”