Mary Sombra of Reno may be the living definition of irony.
Next year, if Sombra passes the bar exam, she will be an attorney specializing in immigration law, defending immigrants embroiled in deportation and related legal proceedings.
She understands their plight well: she, too, is an undocumented U.S. resident. If federal immigration authorities ever take her into custody, she will need a lawyer herself. And chances are she would be deported to Mexico, a country she left as a child and where she would be a stranger in an unfamiliar land.
“It makes me nervous,” Sombra said. “I’m grateful the people I work for know my situation. I will work on cases that don’t require me to go to court or to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention. I have been there as a student lawyer, though, and I think, ‘how can I protect my clients if I can’t even protect myself?’”
Mary Sombra is not her real name and some other details in this story have been changed to further shield her identity. However, the name on her Nevada driver’s license matches her Mexican birth certificate. Her parents brought her to California when she was 5. She went to high school in Nevada and attended the University of Nevada, Reno, on a Millennium Scholarship, graduating with a 3.9 grade point average. She is now a law student in California.
“In California, I can take the bar exam and be admitted to the state bar and practice law,” she said. “That’s an opportunity undocumented people don’t have in most other states.”
Her ability to become an attorney in this country, despite her immigration status, is the result of a 2014 California Supreme Court decision. In that case, law school graduate Sergio Garcia had been denied a law license because he had come from Mexico illegally when he was 17. He petitioned the California Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that a 2013 law passed by the Legislature allowed him to become a lawyer.
Rights of undocumented immigrants set by states
The paradox of Garcia’s and Sombra’s situations underlines the complex patchwork of federal and state immigration laws that persists while Congress neglects to repair the nation’s broken immigration system. Each state decides what rights undocumented people have within their own borders. Some jurisdictions allow such immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and be eligible for in-state tuition while attending college, and guarantee other rights. Other states and the federal government make it as difficult as possible for undocumented people to do the things most other residents take for granted.
Yet, there are an estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. with about 200,000 living in Nevada, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Many of them work in relatively low-paying jobs or in jobs that native-born Americans are unwilling to do. Others, like Sombra, are highly educated and find ways to work in their chosen fields. Most of those who work pay taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office, yet aren’t eligible for public benefits, although anti-immigration groups and politicians often accuse them of gaming the system. The American-born children of undocumented immigrants are citizens, however, so they, and not their parents, are eligible for entitlement programs.
Foreign-born children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents often call themselves “Dreamers,” a reference to the “American dream” of prosperity. In the last 25 years several bills were introduced in Congress that would have protected those individuals from deportation, but none became law. Instead, President Barack Obama in 2012 signed an executive order that was supposed to protect them in lieu of Congressional action.
About 690,000 undocumented immigrants are now covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Obama’s policy allowing individuals who were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday to work here. It also defers action on their immigration cases for a renewable two-year period. There are about 12,000 active DACA recipients in Nevada. In June, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA. The decision leaves open the possibility that the Administration could still end the policy if officials cite a proper justification.
Sombra applied for the program, but wasn’t accepted. “I didn’t match the criteria,” she said. “My parents took me back to Mexico to deal with a family matter… Under DACA, applicants have to have resided in the U.S. continuously since 2007 to qualify. I satisfied all the requirements but that one. So I’m a Dreamer, but not under DACA.”
When the Supreme Court’s ruling on DACA came down in June, Sombra said she celebrated with friends who are covered by the program, even though the decision had no effect on her status. “I was so happy for them,” she said. “I felt like it was my victory as well. We have to be united in this fight.”
She noted that DACA is a “Bandaid on a bleeding wound,” but helped a lot of people. “Obama did what he could, but Congress just couldn’t get it together.” The country needs immigration reform, she said, otherwise the chaos will continue.
After staying in Mexico for a few years, her parents came back to the U.S. under a tourist visa, but remained in Nevada after it expired. Sombra went to high school in Reno. “It was a second culture shock,” she said. “I had to polish my English all over again and I was in a place I didn’t know.” She learned fast. She got good grades, participated in a wide range of extracurricular activities and won a Millennium Scholarship. By law, all Nevada high school students were eligible to apply for the merit-based award, regardless of citizenship status.
She excelled at UNR as well, taking honors courses where she said she was often the only Latino in the classrooms. One of her classmates gained notoriety when a picture of him marching with white supremacists was printed in newspapers across the country. “He was pretty quiet after that,” she said.
Living in the shadows requires vigilance
While at the university she set her goal of becoming an attorney and helping others with immigration problems. “I applied for scholarships and just kept applying and applying,” she said. “I’ve been so lucky to be able to get those to finish my education at UNR and then to graduate and go on to law school. Without scholarships I could never have done that.”
Sometimes Sombra meets people who, assuming she was born in the U.S., want to share their views about undocumented immigrants. “Reno is OK,” she said. “I don’t feel a lot of prejudice. But outside of Reno, you see it; you see the Confederate flags on the trucks. Sometimes people tell me all sorts of outrageous things about people coming here from Mexico, how they are criminals and rapists… How undocumented people don’t work and get free services, even get free driver’s licenses by mail without having to take a test.
“Of course I know I have to go to the DMV in person every year and apply for a driver’s license and pay for it just like it’s the first time I’m getting it. The state is very careful about verifying identities. But I would just tell those people (who complain), ‘oh, really, I didn’t know that’ and move on. I can’t admit any first-hand knowledge.”
She said despite those experiences, she feels that prejudiced people are in the minority in Northern Nevada. “I love my state. People have been nothing but nice here,” she said.
She participated in internship programs in Nevada and sometimes her work would require visits to federal buildings. “I wouldn’t be scared when I was there,” Sombra said. “It was only afterward when I’d think about what could have happened, how things could have gone really wrong.”
“What if I’m in an accident and have to go to the hospital? I better not try to travel by plane or even consider leaving the country. I have to limit where I can go, what I can do, what jobs I can apply for, where I can work. I take summer jobs and positions with non-profits. I can still be an immigration lawyer, but have to be very careful how I do that job too.”— Mary Sombra, undocumented law student.
For most of her life she has lived in the shadows. She could not reveal her citizenship status to friends or classmates. Every decision is made based on her risk of being detected and falling into the hands of ICE. As a teenager, she avoided situations where she might be asked for identification. A misstep could endanger her whole family, she said.
“Even now, I’m extra careful,” Sombra said. “I see a cop and try not to get nervous. You never fully know what’s going to happen.” A friend recently asked her to attend a Black Lives Matter demonstration, but although she supports the protests, exposing herself to possible arrest and federal attention was too risky. Instead, she said, she donates to causes and speaks out online. There is a long list of things she doesn’t dare do.
She said that over the last quarter century Congress had plenty of chances to fix the immigration system, but toppled into an abyss of politics and failed to take action. She noted that polls show Americans on both sides of the political divide favor protecting DACA recipients, yet, Congress has done nothing to help them. “If you don’t want to help these kids, you really don’t want to help anyone,” she said. “The DACA recipients are the best of the best. If you don’t fight to help them, you aren’t going to help anyone else.”
She said spending the last year working on immigration cases has been an eye-opening experience. President Donald Trump’s continuing denigration of immigrants, families separated at the border, children in cages, asylum-seekers being sent back to Mexico or deported to their home countries where they may be imprisoned or killed, are issues that come up at work.
“It’s crazy. Every day we get new emails about what is happening to clients… I worry about the asylum seekers who have been here for a year and have been denied work cards and can’t feed their families or who are in danger of being sent back across the border. I think of the trauma they have endured already, then they are detained here and they get out and suddenly become homeless. They get deported and they face death. It feels like a losing battle sometimes. Then when there’s a good decision, like the one about DACA, we feel hope. That’s a happy day all around.”— Mary Sombra, undocumented law student.
She often talks to a friend who is a DACA recipient and a law student. “It’s so ironic that we are undocumented and we’re both becoming immigration lawyers and the immigration system failed us,” she said. “But we are helping people have better lives and that’s a good feeling.”
Going back to Mexico voluntarily – “self-deporting” as some politicians call it – isn’t an option, she said.
“I’m not caught between two countries. I spent most of my school years here, all of my high school years, university, and law school. I grew up here. I appreciate Mexican culture and love my heritage, but at the end of the day, I’m an American. This is my home. This is where I belong.”
Sombra hopes for change, but if she has to live the rest of her life half in plain sight and half in the shadows, then that‘s the price she is willing to pay to stay in the land she loves and to be able to help others who share her history, her fears and her dreams of a better future.
“We’re still here and we’re still fighting to make things better,” she said. “Some people don’t understand that. We’re still doing the best we can. We aren’t going anywhere.”