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Hispanic lawyers’ past experiences draw them to immigration law

February 22, 2017

As a young boy, Indianapolis attorney Kevin Munoz remembers having to testify in a court case in which his uncle, an immigrant and lawful permanent resident of the United States, was facing deportation. Although he had been living in the country for 30 years, Munoz’s uncle was facing charges for past drug activity, and deportation was being strongly considered as a sentence for his crime.

That experience introduced Munoz to the world of “crimmigration,” or the intersection of immigration and criminal law, and inspired him to pursue a career in immigrant advocacy. He is now the owner of Kevin Munoz Law, where he specializes in both immigration law and criminal defense, a combination he, along with other Hispanic immigration attorneys in the Indianapolis area, say is critical to master as the country prepares for possible shifts in the nation’s policies toward vetting, accepting and deporting immigrants.

munoz-kevin-mug.jpg Munoz

According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2016 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, Hispanic attorneys like Munoz make up the highest minority representation in Indianapolis partner positions, accounting for 1.17 percent of all local partners in large law firms.

Nationwide, the number of Hispanic attorneys in partner positions has experienced slow but steady growth in the seven-year period beginning in 2009, when 1.65 percent of partners identified as Hispanic. That number had risen to 2.31 percent by 2016. The number of Hispanic attorneys in associate positions grew from 3.89 percent in 2009 to 4.42 percent in 2016.

guevara-dave-mug.jpg Guevara

At Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, Dave Guevara is a partner in the firm’s environmental law group. Guevara decided to go to law school later in life, so he was 36 when he became an associate. His age and older appearance gave him a leg up with clients over younger new attorneys, he said, so Guevara found early success in the law that propelled him to a partner position with Taft.

Guevara had always intended to take the partner track at a large law firm, he said, and he chose environmental law based on the need within his firm. But few of his counterparts in the Indianapolis Hispanic and Latino legal community choose to follow a law firm partner path, and Guevara himself only knows of one other Hispanic partner in the city. Instead, many Hispanic attorneys in Indianapolis are choosing to work at solo and small firms with a focus on immigration law.

Ryan Marques, an associate with Lewis & Kappes P.C. who focuses his practice on immigration law, said the reason many Hispanic attorneys forgo the traditional partner track is because larger firms often focus their immigration sections on employment-based decision issues, rather than representing people in their personal immigration legal battles.

marques-ryan-mug.jpg Marques

Representing individual immigration litigants makes sense for many Hispanic attorneys because, like Munoz, they have seen members of their own families move through the process of becoming either a legal citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States.

“Either we’re first- or second-generation immigrants, so it’s natural for us to want to practice in that area,” Marques said.

That’s the case for Jennifer Estrella, a 3L at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law whose parents are immigrants. Estrella, who was born in New York City, said watching her parents move through the immigration process opened her eyes to the need for immigration advocates.

That need is growing in Indianapolis, where the Hispanic and Latino population is booming, Estrella said. The growth in those populations is likely caused, at least in part, by a nationwide trend of Hispanic and Latino residents moving out of urban areas and into the heart of the country, much the same way Estrella’s family left New York in favor of Hoosier suburbs, she said.

estrella-jennifer-mug.jpg Estrella

With that growth has come a need for stronger Hispanic legal representation, Marques said. From his perspective, the Indianapolis legal community has not yet fully met that need.

Part of the issue is Hispanic and Latino matriculation into Indiana law schools, Marques said. As a board member for an Indianapolis charter school, Marques works with minority students, including Hispanic and Latino students who may speak English as a second language, to ensure they receive the tools they need to successfully complete high school and move on to post-secondary education, thus enabling them to pursue a law degree if they choose.

But Munoz said there also needs to be a push for attorneys to understand not only immigration needs, but also the complexities of “crimmigration.”

Often, immigrants may be encouraged to accept plea deals because their attorneys do not speak their native language or do not understand their culture, which puts up barriers to justice that non-Hispanic or Latino litigants might not face, Munoz said. That’s why he was encouraged by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, in which the majority of justices held that lawyers representing immigrants must inform their clients if a guilty plea carries a risk for deportation.

hispanic-chart.gifAdditionally, Munoz said some immigrants who are being deported for drug-related crimes are veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are self-medicating with substances such as marijuana or cocaine. From his perspective, Munoz said such treatment of immigrant veterans who need substance abuse help rather than punishment is unfair and unjust.

Although she has not yet found a job, Estrella wants to work in immigration, and possibly “crimmigration,” in Indianapolis after she finishes school to help address the legal issues Hispanic and Latino immigrants are facing. When dealing with immigration cases, it is often necessary to look into the litigant’s criminal background when building a case, she said, so it is often nearly impossible to separate immigration law from work in the criminal law realm.

Another way to strengthen the voice of Hispanics and Latinos in the legal community is by creating a place where these attorneys can gather to share ideas and support each other, which is what family law attorney Vanessa Lopez Aguilera of the Lopez Law Office P.C. is trying to create as this year’s chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Latino Affairs Committee.

While membership in the Latino Affairs Committee is relatively strong, participation is weak, Lopez Aguilera said. Her goal as committee chair is to inspire attorneys — both Hispanic and Latino attorneys and those who have an interest in Latino affairs — to contribute more to the group in order to strengthen the voice of Hispanic and Latino litigants.

The Latino Affairs Committee provides its members with information on how to work with Latino clients who might have cultural barriers to justice, as Munoz mentioned, by providing CLEs and panel discussions to which all attorneys are invited.

Further, she is planning a meet-and-greet at the statehouse to allow the Latino community to speak with Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, to voice their concerns and hopes for their communities within Indiana.

As immigration issues continue to be a divisive topic throughout the country, Lopez Aguilera said her hope is that the Latino Affairs Committee, which has its next meeting Feb. 23, will encourage members of the Hispanic and Latino community to get involved and share their thoughts on what is best for them and their counterparts throughout Indiana and across the nation.

“I hope we see more involvement, especially during these hard times,” she said.•

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