Immigration vocation: Law grad who came to U.S. as a child from Guatemala plans to help others


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Luis Vasquez came to the United States from Guatemala at the age of 9, after his widowed mother brought her family to join her sister in Waco, Texas.

“My mother made the difficult decision to move here three years after my dad passed away from an automobile accident,” says Vasquez, a recent graduate from Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.

Life wasn’t easy for the youngster, who was enrolled in an English as Second Language program as a fourth-grader in his first year of school in Texas.

“It was hard to transition at first,” he says. “It was hard for my mother trying to raise three kids on her own. I had to be the role model for my sisters. “My mother always reminded me of her sacrifice to come to this country and all she asked of us was to further our education.”

Overcoming those early struggles, Vasquez earned an associate’s degree at a local community college, paying his way with a job as a dishwasher and later as a server, as well as with help from a local scholarship. He went on to earn his undergrad degree in government in 2006 from the University of Texas at Austin.

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to attend college, but I researched and found a house bill in Texas which allowed students in my situation get some state aid and pay in-state tuition,” he says. “I didn’t qualify for federal aid, which made things real hard.”

His family had to wait over 20 years to get legal residency—an experience that inspired Vasquez to study law with the goal of specializing in immigration law. Unable to further his education until his immigration status got resolved, the years following undergrad were some of the hardest in his life.

“But I never lost hope of one day becoming a lawyer,” he says.

In June 2013, his green card arrived—and in less than a year, he was enrolled at WMU-Cooley. He started at the Ann Arbor campus, later moving to the Auburn Hills campus.

“I really enjoyed the willingness of the faculty to want to help you out, and the resources to help you succeed in your classes,” he says. “When I first got to Michigan I didn’t have a car and Dean Vestrand gave me a ride to orientation—that’s one of the many highlights the faculty did for me.”

Immigration law was clearly his niche—he received the Certificate of Merit for the highest grade in the class.

As a student attorney in Cooley’s Sixty Plus ElderLaw Clinic, Vasquez particularly appreciated the detailed classroom component.

“I got to work with real clients with real problems and had to figure out a way to solve their issues. It was a great way to put into practice the skills I’ve gained through classes,” he says.

“Professor O’Leary, who heads the clinic, has been one of my mentors. She made me feel like I could practice as soon as I graduated.”

While working at the clinic, Vasquez also served as outreach coordinator to the Spanish-speaking communities in Lansing, providing seniors at risk of financial exploitation with education about preventive measures, and on how to contact the Sixty Plus Clinic for assistance.

In the summer of 2015, Vasquez studied international law in the Study Abroad Program in Madrid, Spain.

“It was a blast,” he says. “I got to do the running of the bulls in Pamplona.”

The following spring, he participated in the New Zealand/Australia study abroad program, receiving the Certificate of Merit in Equities and Remedies and in the following semester serving as teaching assistant for that class.   

When not studying, he enjoyed touring Down Under.

“I did a 10-hour hike in the wilderness in the south island of New Zealand, and scuba dived for the first time, at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia were I got to scuba with sharks. It was great experience.

“Both programs had great international law classes where I learned a lot, and I got to experience different cultures. Studying abroad had been one of my dreams, but I couldn’t leave the country until I got my permanent status in the United States.”

Vasquez participated in several Cooley volunteer activities, including planting flowers for elderly residents at Avalon Housing in Ann Arbor, packing food at Forgotten Harvest for people in need, and helping with a Thanksgiving event at Avondale High School, organized by Professor Martha Moore.

“We collected and provided food to people who didn’t have the money to buy a Thanksgiving dinner. The faces of the people leaving with the boxes of food was a very rewarding experience—it was great,” he says. “Cooley’s many community service events were always so rewarding and give students the ability to give back.”

Vasquez has returned to Waco and will enter the University of Texas Law School this fall to study for an LLM in international law, focusing in immigration.

“I want to learn as much as I can in that area before I start to work,” he says. “I would like to have my own practice in immigration law, and help out as many people as I can by fixing their situation, which I can totally relate to.

“I think there are kids who are brought to the United States, not by choice, who want to work, study hard—and who can’t further their talents because of their legal status, mainly because the path to get legal status is so hard. Without a legal status they don’t qualify for government aid or loans, and when they graduate they can’t get a job. The DREAM Act is the most promising legislation that could allow people who came at a young age get legal status, but has failed to pass.”

Although he is happy to return to the Lone Star State, Vasquez will always have fond memories of Michigan.

“I always wanted to live some place where it snowed, so I’ll miss some of that,” he says. “I’m also going to miss the friends I’ve made here, including some of my professors. I really feel like I got a high-quality education at Cooley.” 

Last November, Vasquez made his first trip back to Guatemala since leaving as a child in 1993.

“It was awesome to re-unite with family I hadn’t seen since I left—my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins,” he says.

As he looks back over his life and his path to success, Vasquez has one main thought.

“I want to give credit to God, who I believe has been helping me throughout this journey.”