Student Juan Quevedo

For love of the law

Originally published in Tennessee Law, Spring 2015

“I have fallen deeply in love, not with a human being, but with the law. Not with walking the dog or gazing at the stars or watching the sunset, but with seeking equal justice, organizing for civil rights, and advocating for genuine representation of the low-income and undocumented immigrant community.”

That’s not some unusual Valentine from the Hallmark down the street. Instead it’s a sentiment shared by UT Law student Juan Quevedo in a letter to his wife. The twist is that he hasn’t met her just yet.

Quevedo wrote the letter last year to his “future wife,” subtitling it, “Will you seek immigrant justice with courage and devotion with me?” Appearing first on an immigration law blog and more recently on Huffington Post, it’s a poetic essay about love requiring practice and how, as an attorney, Quevedo plans to practice the law with love—selfless, compassionate consideration for the well-being of immigrants in need of legal representation. He hopes to find a wife who will be his “partner in defense…and advocacy,” someone who will seek “immigrant justice with courage and devotion.”

It’s easy to appreciate Quevedo’s compassionate words about justice for immigrant people even more when you talk to him in person, especially knowing his background. Growing up, Quevedo learned what it meant to be an undocumented immigrant in America. Today, he is considered a lawful permanent resident, still on the road to full citizenship. Immigration law hits very close to home for him, so it’s easy to see why he’s planning a legal career built on compassion and wants his future spouse to share this compassion.

“Love has always been a very big deal in my life,” Quevedo says on a
February afternoon at UT Law. “My mother taught me that love for anything comes with a great responsibility, which is to help protect it.”

Quevedo was five years old when his family moved from Mexico to Los Angeles in 1991, migrating by foot and by train. A year or two after their arrival, Quevedo’s father was detained by police following a domestic violence incident and was forced to return to Mexico. Quevedo never saw his dad again. “My dad ended up getting into a fatal car accident, so I never really got to know him,” he says. “A single mother who had to raise six children—it was difficult for her. And when you have no immigration status, you can’t work, you can’t apply for public benefits—overall our situation wasn’t ideal.”

When Quevedo and his twin brother, Marco, started high school, the family continued to struggle to make ends meet, and Quevedo’s mother struggled with her memories of domestic abuse. With Quevedo’s encouragement, his mother joined a support group, through which the family learned about the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which offers protections to undocumented immigrants, especially women, who have faced severe forms of trafficking and violence. Quevedo decided to take a closer look.

“I vividly remember going through, reading the law, which was like a completely new language to me,” he says. “I remember trying to discern what the elements for the law were and thinking we could qualify for this type of immigration relief.”

Quevedo and his mother met with attorneys, who turned them down again and again. They finally found the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which took their case and filed a petition with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The petition was successful, and USCIS granted work authorization cards for Quevedo, his twin brother, his sister, and his mother.

“My brother and I started working our junior year in high school, which helped out a lot,” he says. “We were able to drive, work, and provide a little bit for our family.”

An appreciation of the law was born.

Meanwhile the boys were determined to graduate, and they made sure they enjoyed high school. In their first year at Palmdale High School, the brothers made the varsity track and cross-country team and immediately excelled, making it to numerous championships. By their sophomore year, they were competing in the National Indoor Track Championships in New York.

Despite their success, the brothers weren’t concerned with an academic future beyond high school. “My brother and I graduated effortlessly. Our GPAs were well above the average,” Quevedo says. “But when we graduated high school, it was kind of like, ‘That’s it,’ and we didn’t think of attending college at all…I sometimes go back and think, ‘Why did I not consider attending college?’”

Quevedo says when he and his brother did make it to college, it was “almost by accident.” A friend invited them to run with the cross-country team at Antelope Valley College on a Saturday morning. “We weren’t that fit, but we were keeping up with the lead pack, and the coach said, ‘Who are these guys? I want them on my team!’” says Quevedo. The coach asked the brothers to join the team, and they agreed. “He said, ‘Well, you have to go to college,’ and we were like, ‘Huh, college…okay, we’ll do it!’”

After two years at community college, the brothers were ready to look at their future. “Many schools wanted to recruit my brother and me, but we decided to focus on our academics and not pursue a running career,” Quevedo says. However, because of his immigration status, Quevedo didn’t qualify for financial aid, including scholarships and loans. He decided to work and continue attending community college, alternating each semester between part-time and full-time enrollment. Two-and-a-half years later, he had saved enough to pay for the remainder of his college education at California State University, Northridge.

That diligence paid off. “I was able to graduate without taking any time off because I had saved enough money to pay for it all,” Quevedo says. Although he didn’t have a major in mind at first, he had been slowly getting more involved in immigrant rights. That interest led him to political science, which then led to an interest in law school.

The expense of law school meant that Quevedo would need financial aid and federal loans, but he still didn’t qualify. While he and his brother were in college, USCIS granted them U visas, intended for nonimmigrants—like their mother—who are victims of crimes, as well as the victims’ immediate family members. The brothers immediately applied for lawful permanent residency to receive a Green Card, leading to a long, multiyear process. However, by the time Quevedo was ready to apply to law school, he had yet to receive a Green Card. Holding only the U visa, Quevedo remained out of luck when it came to financial assistance.

Ever the optimist, he held out hope. “I decided to apply to law school anyway and hope that I was offered a scholarship or that USCIS would approve my lawful permanent residency application,” he says.

One challenge he faced during his application process: Most law schools typically don’t include the option to enter a U visa number in their applications. Because of Quevedo’s application—not to mention his insistence—several law schools added a U visa option to their applications.

Just a month before receiving admission letters from a variety of law schools, Quevedo received his Green Card, allowing him to apply for loans and opening wide the doors to law school.

Today, Quevedo is about to begin his third year as a UT Law student. Unsurprisingly, he is active in pro bono work.

“Juan is one of those rare individuals who you immediately know will do great things,” says Brad Morgan (’05), the college’s pro bono coordinator. “It was evident from the beginning that he was interested in how he can use his talents to serve and help others.”

Quevedo works extensively for the college’s Immigration Clinic, where the casework initially led to some déjà vu: “I wouldn’t say I was able to do [the work] with ease, but it wasn’t something foreign to me because I had looked at all these forms when I was coordinating my family’s immigration case.” In addition to his clinical work, Quevedo serves as a Spanish–English translator and interpreter and has done pro bono work with local attorneys interested in immigration rights. He even appeared on the Spanish-language MundoFOX TV network to participate in a debate on immigration reform.

“I try to help as much as I can because I’ve been on the side of the petitioner and I know how difficult it is to seek genuine help,” he says.

“He’s not doing this for his own self-interest,” Morgan says. “Because of his passion, his genuine concern, his knowledge of the law, Juan has literally been able to change the course of people’s lives.”

Looking toward his future as an attorney, Quevedo is applying for post-graduate judicial clerkships. Later, he hopes to join either a law firm or a nonprofit organization. Also ahead is full citizenship in the country he calls home. Soon after he graduates from UT Law, Quevedo will be eligible for naturalization. The same goes for his brother, also working toward a college degree.

“Growing up an immigrant has allowed me to understand that residing in America and being an American citizen is the greatest benefit and privilege that America can offer,” says Quevedo. “Not everyone deserves to be here, but I would argue that America can benefit from a large majority of undocumented people already contributing.”

Quevedo argues regularizing more people’s immigration status offers both economic and societal benefits. “Family unification is actually the cornerstone of American immigration law and policy—yet we remove people who have lived in America most of their lives, have American family members, but lack a way to regularize their status,” he says. “And we have thousands of undocumented young people who study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods, befriend our kids, and pledge allegiance to the American flag. They are American in every single way but one: on paper.

“Unfortunately they have no path for eventual American citizenship at this time,” he continues. “I hope some type of reform comes sooner rather than later.”

In the meantime, Quevedo plans to hold the law close to his heart and use it to love his fellow man, helping those in need of legal help wherever the need is greatest. There’s a quote by journalist Amy Goodman that he keeps in mind as a reminder of the type of practice he plans to pursue in his law career.

Although originally applied to reporters, it perfectly summarizes Quevedo’s philosophy as a future lawyer:

“Go to where the silence is and say something.”