From Humble Beginnings to the U.S. Supreme Court, Alumnus Luis Cortes Romero Finds Success as a Lawyer, and it’s Personal
Luis Cortes Romero never dreamed he’d be sitting at the table in the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a legal team with former Solicitor General Theodore Olsen. In November 2019, with Luis by his side, Ted Olsen argued the case Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California before the nine justices who will determine the fate of more than half a million undocumented immigrants participating in the federal DACA program. A decision by the court is currently pending and it’s personal for Luis. His fate as a DACA recipient, himself, is in the hands of the court.
For Luis, the case began in 2017 when he received a phone call from Daniel Ramirez at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. Daniel had been arrested by ICE agents who interpreted his nautical tattoo as gang-related, an association that could jeopardize his DACA status. DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy put in place by the Obama Administration that allows recipients to remain in the U.S. for two years at a time if they abide by the law. Daniel had already called several attorneys who couldn’t meet until the following Monday. Luis answered the phone, went immediately to the detention facility, and later successfully defended Daniel in the lower court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
First-generation, out-of-state law student
Luis’ legal career began in 2010 at the University of Idaho College of Law. He was the first in his family to graduate from college and his undocumented status made him ineligible for financial aid. He had been to Idaho before and it was more affordable for him to be an out-of-state student here than to pay in-state tuition in California, so he applied and was accepted to U of I. Luis used his savings and received private scholarships to pay his tuition. There wasn’t enough left to purchase books, so he studied in the library late at night when books were available.
During his first semester, Luis could not afford to go home for Thanksgiving and was invited to a classmate’s home in Idaho. While enjoying the weekend, he noticed an L.A. Times article that almost changed the course of his life. It was about a law graduate who was not permitted to sit for the bar exam due to his undocumented status. Luis instantly realized that he may not be able to take the bar exam and practice law as he had planned. He decided to quit school and called his mom from his friend’s house to let her know. A teen mom who brought her son to the U.S. when he was one year old, Luis Cortes Romero’s mom worked hard to provide a better life for her son. She insisted that he stay in school and would not allow him to come home.
Luis had a very different background from his classmates at U of I, but he discovered that, even if they seemed ideologically opposed, he and his classmates had a lot in common. He quickly learned to not take anything personally. He also noticed that, even when people appear to be from similar backgrounds, they can have differing viewpoints. Some of his classmates were military veterans and others were from diverse religious and economic backgrounds, which provided for thoughtful class discussions. He reasoned that they had three years together to become lawyers and he made the most of every opportunity to learn.
Practical experience to complement classroom learning
While professors were shaping how he looked at and analyzed the law, Luis was trying to learn how the law was being applied to real life situations, so he visited the U of I legal clinic. The clinic allows third-year law students to represent clients, under attorney supervision and with a limited license, providing students the opportunity to take a case from intake to, hopefully, resolution. However, as a first-year law student, Luis didn’t yet have the legal knowledge he needed to work in the clinic, so he was turned away. Undaunted, he offered to volunteer his time to do the clinic’s filing and other administrative work. When the clinic began working with a client seeking asylum who did not speak English, Luis was able to serve as translator. He saw first-hand how important an attorney is to helping people live a better life. He also learned what he needed to do to represent clients in the clinic, so he signed up for Trial Advocacy class, a pre-requisite.
The class was taught by practicing attorney Tim Gresback who was available for office hours at 5 a.m. at Moscow coffee house One World Café. Luis was the only student who showed up, week after week. They mostly discussed trial advocacy and Luis found an unlikely mentor through listening to Tim’s trial stories and litigation strategies. They also discussed how to handle the resolution of a case when things don’t go your way, which sometimes happens, and how to communicate the result with your client.
“Tim taught me how important it is to have empathy, always represent your clients’ best interests, and remember that it’s your job to make sure the legal system works,” says Luis.
Trial Advocacy prepared Luis for working in the immigration clinic, which gave him the skills and confidence to work with Moscow attorney Cathy Mabbutt doing research, writing letters and briefs, and working with clients. Based on his law school experience, Luis recommends that law students participate in as many activities as possible, from moot court to student groups to legal clinics to work experiences, even if they’re unconventional. He also recommends having diverse interests and a sense of humor that will help you appreciate and love the law.
Bringing my grandparents to the U.S. was a love letter to my mom. It was my way of thanking her for so many things in my life, including becoming a lawyer.Luis Cortes Romero, ‘13
Bringing legal studies home
During Luis’ third year, DACA went into effect, significantly reducing his anxiety and providing an opportunity to take the bar exam, but not in Idaho as the state requires U.S. citizenship. He signed up for DACA protection and provided the government with his information, including a photo, fingerprints, and anything else they requested, in exchange for a social security number and an opportunity to renew every two years if he plays by the rules. His own status, which he was unaware of until he was in 6th grade, helps Luis relate to his immigration clients. He recently demonstrated his persistence with the immigration process through his five attempts to bring his grandparents to the U.S. He was ultimately successful in securing visitor visas for them in February 2020 and it was their first reunion with his mom and her sisters in three decades.
“Bringing my grandparents to the U.S. was a love letter to my mom,” says Luis. “It was my way of thanking her for so many things in my life, including becoming a lawyer.”
In 2020, Luis anxiously awaits the Supreme Court decision for both personal and professional reasons. Luis has had a role in this case far greater than he ever thought possible, thanks to his detailed knowledge and experience with immigration law. He is involved in a U.S. Supreme Court case today, thanks to his unbreakable work ethic, dedicated mother and mentors, grit and the financial support of University of Idaho alumni and friends who contribute to the College of Law’s scholarship funds.
Luis Cortes Romero is managing partner at Immigrant Advocacy and Litigation Center, PLL, in Seattle.
First-Gen Law Students Scholarship Fund
A scholarship fund in honor of Luis Cortes Romero, ’13, has been established to provide scholarship support for first-generation law students that hail from diverse underrepresented populations. “The Luis Cortes Romero Scholarship will support students who demonstrate a commitment to serving the needs of the Latino community,” said Director of Admissions Carole Wells, “and individuals who will continue to do so through pro bono, public interest and/or public service legal work.” If you are interested in providing support for this scholarship fund and other giving opportunities, contact Michele Bartlett, at 208-364-4044 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Noelle Collins, Marketing & Communications Manager