American Child of Mexico to Immigration Attorney of Today

by Vienna M. Vasquez

I am a grandchild of immigration. My grandfather, Alfonso, is from a poor village in Sonora, Mexico. His childhood was difficult. When he was a teenager, his father was killed. Hoping to help his mother support his many siblings, Alfonso came to the United States at the age of nineteen. He entered California in the fifties under the Bracero program, an initiative program ratified in 1942 bringing in Mexican laborer immigrants to replace the labor shortage caused by America’s entry into World War II. Through this program, my grandfather and over four million other Mexicans came into this country to begin new lives in California, Texas, and farther beyond the border.[i] After he first entered, he was a victim of modern indentured servitude. The owner of the farm where he toiled refused to compensate him any money, claiming that a roof over his head was payment enough. After a while, he found a way to leave the farm and begin again, near Los Angeles.

After struggling for years to earn pennies to send back home, he began to build a life for himself. In 1958, Alfonso married Gloria. My grandmother is a first generation United States citizen, whose parents were Mexican immigrants. Their family grew to six children and seven grandchildren, including myself. Sometime in the sixties, my grandfather adjusted status to lawful permanent resident. In other words, he had the permission from the United States government to live and work indefinitely. He was now a green card holder, which was an infinitely more secure status than he had as a Bracero. In 1994, he naturalized, the process in which a non-citizen is granted United States citizenship. I was present for his ceremony. Alfonso Vasquez is the most proud and patriotic American I know. His children and grandchildren are lucky to have him.

I was raised in a climate rich with culture, with stories from Mexico ever-present. I believe in America the Melting-Pot. I developed a desire to help immigrants find the same sanctuary here that my grandfather was able to find. I decided to attend law school with that goal in mind.

Before law school, I saw immigration through my grandfather’s eyes: an idea that people come to what they view as a land of opportunity to make a life for themselves and their families. Through my legal education, I learned what it meant to come to this country out of fear.

During law school, I served as a clinic student at the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (“Clinic”). My experiences at the Clinic helped fine tune my career goals. While serving at the Clinic, I was able to help two individuals seeking asylum in the United States. It would be an understatement to say the contributions I could make to their cases was rewarding.

During my time at the Clinic, I had the opportunity to work on a political opinion asylum case for an individual from Mexico.[ii] At the master calendar hearing, the attorney of record had been given less than two weeks to submit a completed asylum application for this client. These application packets are complicated and require a great deal of attention to detail; two law school clinics, two immigration law professors, and a volunteer had to scramble down to the wire to meet the impending deadline.

I was assigned the country conditions research memorandum that would be submitted with the application, and was responsible for maintaining communication between the clinics and the client throughout the ordeal. It was a stressful week and a half, and the lessons learned have remained with me as I begin my professional career. In the real world of immigration lawyering, we do not always have months to complete an application. It was important for me to learn how to manage my time when unexpected situations such as this arise.

I spent the greater portion of my time at the clinic working on an asylum case for an indigenous woman. This individual had suffered unspeakable trauma, and due to her status as an indigenous woman, was given no protection from law enforcement. The work I did on this case was long and, at times, arduous. I am grateful to have spent those months dedicated to such an important cause, regardless of the emotional toll of the case. The in-depth research I did on country conditions reaffirmed that she had a legitimate fear for her life if she were to return. There was no question — she had to stay here. And I was willing to do whatever I could to help make that happen.

Working on these cases in law school, in addition to the courses I took and the other clinic projects I was assigned, helped shape the way I view the law and the type of attorney I am today. Where I used to see this country as a welcoming one, I now have come to see it through different eyes. Immigration law in America is harsh and unforgiving. The system is broken, and though I would like to believe it will improve in the near future, the current political climate tells me differently. For all the intricacies and intrigue of our system, my goal is simple and unchanged — I want to help people who should be permitted to remain or who are afraid to return to their home country.

I graduated from the Penn State Law in May 2016, and began as an immigration and family law attorney at a small non-profit located in Pennsylvania. The experiences I gained in the clinic have been influential in my current roles, as both an immigration attorney and as a family law attorney. I respect my clients and I care deeply about their cases. Though I have only been practicing for a short time, I am diligent in my research and strive to leave no rocks unturned nor avenues unexplored.

Despite my hopes that I would be able to help every individual that crosses my path, I have already experienced letdowns. There have been people seeking my assistance, for whom there were no options for immigration relief, given both the legal framework of today and their own circumstances. Turning those cases away has been difficult.

In my short time, I have been fortunate enough to experience some successes as well. I have a number of immigration cases currently pending with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)[iii], including, but not limited to, naturalization applications, Special Immigrant status petitions, and other related immigration applications. I see great possibilities for these clients and am hopeful that my efforts will help them achieve their goals. Having learned the importance of due diligence and careful planning while working in the clinic, I am very cautious when it comes to my clients’ cases today. I carefully research each individual’s immigration history before helping them with any new applications. It was the practical experience I gained in the clinic that initially taught me the importance of taking such care.

I have found my experiences as a family law attorney to be extremely rewarding as well. For example, I helped a client with young children to gain primary custody of them. The opposing party had chosen to be absent for most of the children’s lives, and then unexpectedly filed a complaint in which he was seeking primary custody of them. Helping my client achieve a final order in her favor, and seeing her relief and joy was one of the brightest moments of my career thus far.

Though their problems differ from the problems faced by my immigration clients, the people that have sought my help with their custody cases are often afraid as well. I am fortunate to be able to use my education and credentials to help them through such difficult times. I have used the legal-analysis and client-interaction skills I developed while working at the clinic in all types of cases I am working on today.

I am lucky. I have strong family members that have risen from nothing, and their hard work has made it possible for me to succeed. My grandfather has been an inspiration to me from the start. I attended his naturalization ceremony, and twenty-two years later, he attended my law school graduation ceremony. He was so proud. But without him, I never would have come this far. Now, I hope to use my position to help others rise above adversity.

[i] See “Bracero Program Images,” United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, last updated December 07, 2013,; Fred L. Koestler, “Bracero Program,” Handbook of Texas Online, last accessed May 20, 2017,; Lampe, Philip E. “Bracero Program,” Immigration to the United States, last accessed May 20, 2017,

[ii] Immigration and Nationality (McCarran) Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42) (2014).

[iii]U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, (last visited, November 11, 2017)


Citation: Vienna M. Vasquez, American Child of Mexico to Immigration Attorney of Today, in Back Into the Future of Immigration: Personal Stories by the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic (Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia ed., 2018).

Vienna M. Vasquez

Vienna Vasquez became interested in immigration law after watching her grandfather go through the naturalization process. She graduated from Penn State Law in 2016, and began working for a Pennsylvania non-profit organization. She is now a practicing family law attorney.

Class of 2016
Vienna M. Vasquez