UNLV law student, a Dreamer, has helped more than 100 people renew their DACA permits

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Cristian González Pérez, a Boyd 2L, did not originally plan to volunteer to help so many people with applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When he started law school in the fall of 2018, he planned to volunteer just a couple times in the UNLV Immigration Clinic’s DACA renewal program. His reasons for going to a training program for volunteers were very narrow, he says.

“I was pretty selfish. I wanted to know how to do DACA to do my own,” he said.

The DACA program was started by President Obama in 2012 to help young undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the country as children. Most of the eligible people are in their twenties or early thirties now. In September 2017, the Trump administration announced plans to end the program, giving beneficiaries just one month to send in one last renewal. That month, the UNLV Immigration Clinic organized volunteer law students to help people fill out the forms under a lawyer’s supervision, with the expectation that the project would end in a few weeks. However, litigation has kept the DACA program alive, and the volunteer-driven renewal project kept going, long enough for Cristian to participate.

The reaction of people he helped changed Cristian’s plans. “It’s the look on their faces when they come in. They have that worried look,” he said. “I try to make them laugh. And when you put the [application] packet together, you feel their sigh of relief. They tend to leave with a smile. It was after I did that first one. Then I did a second one.”

In his three and a half semesters of law school, Cristian has now personally helped more than 100 people renew their DACA permits, all on a volunteer basis.

Now 25, Cristian was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. His parents brought him and his younger brother and sister to the US as children. His father works as a plumber, and his mom at a shop on the Las Vegas Strip. Cristian first received a DACA permit in 2013, when he was a senior at Valley High School. His siblings all depend on DACA now, too. The possible end to the program hit just as he was working on his law school applications. His original plans were to attend law school in the Midwest, but the uncertainty about his future kept him closer to home.

The fate of DACA is now in the hands of the Supreme Court, which will decide in the next few months whether to let the Trump administration end the program. As a law student, Cristian can understand the legal instability especially well. He does not know if he will have employment authorization after he graduates from law school in 2021. He has learned that his only choice is to be flexible.

“I’ve got Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D,” he said. “I know how it feels. The uncertainty.”

Cristian credits a high school government teacher, Mrs. Brandt, with pushing him toward law school. His goal, originally, was to be a judge. He’s now a student attorney in the Immigration Clinic, working on asylum cases and helping unaccompanied children, in addition to volunteering to do DACA renewals. All of that is not according to plan.

When he started law school, his interest was criminal law.  “I didn’t even want to touch immigration law. It’s too messy. It’s too complicated. Now look at me. The clinic changed my mind,” he said. He is now especially interested in practicing at the intersection of criminal and immigration law—known sometimes as crimmigration. He credits the idea of doing that to Mayra Salinas-Menjivar, an attorney and recent graduate who was working in the clinic during his first year in law school.

Cristian encourages other Dreamers to be open about their situation, because it helps inform people about the challenges they face. “Obviously, it’s a personal choice. 1L year, I made sure everyone knows I have DACA. Because then you can start the conversation,” he said.

The UNLV Immigration Clinic’s DACA renewal program remains open. Volunteers help complete the application forms. All of the necessary documents are then reviewed by a licensed attorney.

“There’s security in having a lawyer, an actual real lawyer, looking it over,” Cristian said. “All they need to do is go to a post office [to mail the application].”

Anyone in Las Vegas who would like free help with completing DACA renewal forms can call the clinic at 702-895-2080 to make an appointment.