Law grad becomes U.S. citizen, now dreams of aiding other immigrants

Karla Mendez was a young teenager as she sat in her home in Chattanooga researching immigration law in Tennessee.

At the time, she had only been living in the United States for one year. Her mother had fled Venezuela with Mendez and her younger sister as the country faced skyrocketing mortality rates, triple-digit inflation, and unmanageable levels of crime.

“There was scarcity of food at the supermarkets,” Mendez said. “Finding basic resources was a struggle. It was just not the future my mother wanted us to have.”

But the future Mendez faces now is one she and her family can feel confident about.

Mendez will graduate from the College of Law during this month’s commencement ceremonies at the University of Tennessee. The College of Law graduate hooding will take place Thursday, May 10 at 3:30 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena.

Mendez has faced plenty of obstacles on the path to realizing her dream.

As a 13-year-old immigrant, she found herself in an English-speaking middle school where she didn’t understand the language, couldn’t comprehend the school work, and knew no one who could help her. She recalls how she and her mother worked together for hours every night to complete her homework with the help of Google translator.

“Those first two years were difficult,” she said. “Me and my sister were essentially home-schooled.”

Mendez’s mother, who came to the United States to study for an MBA at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, decided after a year that the family should remain in the United States rather than return to Venezuela.

Throughout the next several years, Mendez became the researcher and point person for her family’s effort to formally immigrate to the United States. She was disappointed to find very few immigration attorneys in Tennessee, and to learn that their legal fees – multiplied by three for each member of the family – made them unaffordable.

“We had no choice but to do it ourselves. Mom had me do the research, and I ended up really getting into it. There were so many opinions about how to go forward because everybody has a cousin or best friend that did it this way or that way. It wasn’t easy to figure out,” she said.

When Mendez decided after high school to attend the University of Tennessee Knoxville, her course of study seemed clear. She would first complete an undergraduate degree in political science, which she finished in three years, and then apply to law school.

Financing her education became her next challenge.

Because establishing a line of credit in the United States is incredibly difficult for immigrants, Mendez had to raise the money she needed, and she took on odd jobs to pay for much of her education and living expenses. One of those jobs was with a Knoxville-based cookie store, and when the opportunity arose for Mendez to earn extra money selling those cookies at events at Neyland Stadium and Thompson Boling Arena, she jumped at the chance.

Her work as an Aramark vendor means there have been some nights when she didn’t sleep because she was busy baking. Between selling cookies, mothering her 18-month-old daughter, Camila, attending classes, and clerking in the Knox County District Attorney’s office, Law Professor Michelle Kwon said she’s not certain how Mendez has balanced it all.

“She worked her entire spring break last year researching and writing a brief for an immigration client with a criminal record. But she didn’t grumble,” Kwon said. “Instead, she said in her journal: ‘Helping people who thought they were beyond help reminds me what I am in law school for.’”

As Mendez takes her next steps after law school, she hopes to pursue a career in immigration law.

“For the people who are immigrants who need legal assistance, it’s a matter of life and death,” she said. “If you get deported, you can get killed when you get home. You’re marked as a target. No one should have to go through that.”

Mendez’s classmate Rebecca Ledesma, who has been inspired by her friend’s ability to overcome the odds, said she believes Mendez will make a difference in immigration law.

“If anyone can relate to these immigrants looking to become citizens in this country and better themselves, it’s Karla,” Ledesma said.

Kwon added Mendez has demonstrated “unyielding courage in the face of hardship.”

“To the extent grit is an indicator of success, I predict great success for Karla,” Kwon said. “Karla is one of the grittiest people I know.”

Mendez’s determination has helped her guide her family through the process of obtaining temporary green cards, permanent green cards, and recently – citizenship. After 11 years of working through the process and watching her relatives go through citizenship ceremonies, Mendez finally became a U.S. citizen on April 26.

“It’s such a relief to know that you no longer have something hanging over your head,” she said. “The United States is home to me, and it was home before, but now I can legally say that it is.”