Luis Cortes, Lawyer and DACA recipient, is part of the team of attorneys that victoriously defended the DACA Program in the Supreme Court

Luis Cortes was part of the team of attorneys that victoriously defended the DACA Program in the Supreme Court. He is also a DACA recipient.

By Antonia Rivera for Hola America

Luis Cortes, a San Franciscan, Bay Area Californian, who now resides in Seattle, Washington tells Hola America and Hola Iowa about his role in the Supreme Court Case.

He knew from a young age that he was undocumented, but he did not know what that meant until a series of events taught him the meaning. There was the time that his parents told him that he could not go on the trip abroad that he had fundraised for . There was the time where he made excuses for not taking a driver’s education test, because he knew that he could not get a driver’s licence. He realized that he was different, because of where he was born.


Nonetheless, he went to community college before transferring to San Jose State and majoring in Mexican-American Studies. When he got accepted into law school, people could only get private college scholarships. Because of the lack of scholarships and the inability to work legally, undocumented students like himself had to think outside the box. Undocumented students had to think of creative solutions to get schools to work with people like himself. 

For him, that meant going to the University of Idaho, because it was cheaper to pay out-of-state tuition there, than to pay in-state tuition at a law school in California. 

He was in law school between 2010 and 2012, when undocumented youth were really embracing being undocumented and unafraid. But for him, being undocumented also meant being a little afraid about all the things that could go wrong. He had gone to law school without ever thinking about what would happen once he finished law school. During his first year of college, he read an LA Times Article about an undocumented student that had gone to law school at UCLA who could not take the bar. That was when he realized that maybe taking the bar, a test required to practice law, might be a problem. Frustrated, he called his mom and vented. What was the point of going to law school, hustling and doing the impossible if at the end, he was not going to be able to practice law? 


That is when she gave him a regañada, a mom scolding that usually ends in tears. She told him that it is difficult for undocumented students to make it as far as he had made it. He was going to finish school, because no one could not unteach him what he was going to learn in law school. They would figure the rest out later. He sat in his car crying, determined to be a lawyer for the next 3 years until the time when he would no longer be able to practice law would come.

He never intended to become an immigration lawyer, but one way to practice law was to join a law clinic. Dealing with immigration issues was such a big part of his life that he was so fatigued by the subject. When he was in high school, his dad, who had no criminal record, had been deported. But in Idaho, one of the clinics that was understaffed was the immigration clinic. He took the opportunity feeling that beggars could not be choosers. Besides, he wanted to know more about why people without a criminal record were targets. 

In law school, he was probably like one of 6 latinos in the school, and since immigration is not just a latino issue, he did not meet anyone like himself until he met a student at Claremont College in California who was getting her PhD in education. She was doing research on access to higher education for undocumented students. Through that research project, he met Cesar Vargas from New York and Sergio Garcia from California, both of whom were fighting to change the laws to become the first undocumented lawyers to practice in their states. It was then, that he breathed a sigh of relief.


When he heard the DACA announcement on June 15, 2012, he did not buy it. So, the government wanted him to give them all his information including some information about his parents and yet, the government was promising that it was not going to use that to deport him? He had his doubts. He remembered a subject he had studied about Mexican-American relationships, the Bracero program. The Bracero program allowed for Mexicans to come to work in the United States of America to fulfill a worker shortage during World War II, but soon after the war ended, as soon as they no longer needed the additional labor, they had started Operation Wetback, a program to deport them. So, he waited to apply until December, after waves of brave souls got their DACA approvals. 

Getting all docs ready for the DACA application was almost impossible.One of the requirements was to have a clean criminal history. He had to go to different counties to get dispositions to make sure that his driving-without-a-licence tickets were just tickets. But had so many driving-without-a-driver’s-licence tickets, that he did not think that he was going to be able to qualify. When he got his biometrics appointment, he was very nervous thinking about what if he did not walk out of there.


His DACA application was approved during his last year of law school. It was then that a colleague reached out about an open position in Washington. He took the job, excited to leave Idaho, hoping to work there for one or two years before returning to California. But then, he slowly started building a community around the North West Detention center, one of the largest private detention centers in the country. It was draconian, with high bonds and high denial rates. His work greatly dealt with meetings with grassroots organizers and non-profits until 2016 when Trump won the presidency in November, claiming that DACA was a sensitive subject. Trump seemed to go back and forth about his position on DACA until he was inaugurated in January of 2017.

In February, he got a phone call about a guy who was detained and who had DACA. Daniel Ramirez, a 23 year-old father, had recently moved to Washington where minimum wage was much higher than in California. It seemed like the most logical move as a young father, but I.C.E. ran into him while they were looking for someone else and tagged him as a gang member. Up to that moment, Cortes thought that maybe Trump was not going to try to get rid of DACA, but this case started to feel like the beginning of the end. He teamed up with lawyers Mark Rosenbaum, Nathaniel Bach and Ethan Dettmer. For the first time in history,  a legal team was set up to analyse what DACA is. What are the legal protections it really has and is there a way to sue or not?  Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, Erwin Chamerinsky and University of Michigan Professor of Law, Leah Litman, both formerly from UC Irvine, and others joined the research team to answer these questions. They filed a lawsuit which got national attention. During the media frenzy, the fact that Cortes was a DACA recipient came out and there were people who could not believe it. 

In September 2017, Trump announced the end of DACA and many  plaintiffs like the State of California and the UC Regents filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the process used to end DACA, but no one filed a lawsuit on behalf of DACA recipients. So Cortes and his team got 6 DACA recipients together, not all latino to show different cross-sections, and filed a lawsuit, Garcia et al. v. Trump. DACA was supposed to start phasing out in March of 2018, but on January 9, 2018, the case was won in San Francisco and they got a preliminary injunction granting a temporary order to stop the phasing out of the program, allowing for renewals, but no new applications. The government appealed but the team won again. They thought it would end there, but the government took it all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court combined all cases challenging the repeal of DACA into one case, the Department of Homeland Security, et al.v Regents of the University of California et al., and decided to take the case in June of 2019. The stakes grew very high. They now had to protect everything that had been won so far. On November 12, 2019, the Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments. Since then, Cortes has been agonizing, wondering if the decision would come this week, or next. The team was very pessimistic, preparing to lose because the Supreme Court is a very conservative court. They were preparing for what might happen since the Department of Homeland Security had said that they would start deporting those whose deportation orders had been deferred when DACA ended. Aside from the legal aspect, they were getting ready for a moral blow. This would be a huge loss for immigrant rights.

On June 18, 2020, Cortes read the DACA decision from the Supreme Court and immediately called Dettmer to see if what he was reading was right. When he said that it was, he could not believe it. He had been so consumed in preparing himself emotionally, spiritually and physically for a bad decision, that he did not know what to do with the energy he suddenly had. He called his brave clients and gave them the news. Before joining the lawsuit, they had talked about how the team of lawyers could not promise that the case was one of the things they had set out to do. They had accomplished that and a little bit more. It felt good for the Supreme court to tell Trump that he was wrong. 

In response, the Department of Homeland Security had some sharp words about what happens next, but to Cortes, the reality is that it could just be the administration venting. There have been many times when President Trump has said that his administration disagrees with a Supreme Court decision, or when he has said that his administration will not comply, but rarely have they offered concrete solutions as to how they plan to defy the court. 


Besides, Cortes calculates that President Trump may not have enough time to end DACA competently before the November election. Whatever he decides to do, he is going to own that decision and he will have to consider the economical impact of ending DACA from a healthcare perspective when the economy is already fragile and when popular opinion is that DACA should stay. It might cost him politically. 

If Trump wins the election in November, Cortes thinks that we will have bigger problems to deal with. If Biden wins the election, knowing that Biden was part of the Obama administration, working a top seat on Obama’s Deportation Machine leaves Cortes with very little reason to believe that he will champion immigrant rights. So regardless of who wins, the community will need to fight the 2020 Presidential nominee in the same way that we did his predecessor and in the same way that will fight his successor. 

One of the things to remember according to him, is to not forget what got us DACA in the first place. It was a sustained movement of sustained non-violent actions that got us here. We started seeing direct pressure on congress and on the presidential administration from undocumented youth like Erika Andiola, one of OGs, around 2010.  From 2011 to 2012, the tension intensified and focus shifted to the Obama administration. People directly affected said that it was enough and it was legal non profits like NILC that helped create the contour that is DACA along with the activists. It was them that handed Obama the blueprints. DACA was not a gift. It was a political concession that Obama had to make after activists kept occupying his space reminding him that he had promised to protect us when instead he was deporting us. It is no coincidence that in the middle of his reelection campaign, in June of 2012, he made the DACA announcement. We must also remember that youth activism did not end there, that it continued with actions like that of Ju Hong who interrupted President Obama during a speech in 2013 to tell him that had power to stop deportations for all undocumented families in the country. It was actions like that that pushed Obama to announce a broader program to stop deportations on November 20, 2014. That program was stopped in the courts, but it was this activism that got us to this moment in history. Moving ahead it is this same type of activism that is going to move us forward. 

Cortes is a firm believer that at the core of defending immigrants should always be the local community. As a community, we need to remember that regardless of who wins the Presidential election, we need to stop pushing for reactionary actions and instead start pushing for  local actions now. Now is the time to go to city council and town halls, and to say we want in case DACA goes away. The importance of local government stepping up to offer real protection including getting local law enforcement to stop collaborating with ICE, offering drivers licences to undocumented immigrants, passing in-state tuition laws for undocumented students, having some sort of state based financial aid like the one states like Caliornia offer for undocumented students, among other changes in local policies are the type of protections that we need to protect our undocumented community.

Luis Cortes Lawyer and DACA recipient.

When Cortes and his team started the lawsuit process, they got a big pushback from organizations that did not want them to save DACA. They felt that it was easier to put pressure on Congress to act by allowing the phasing out of DACA. But the lawsuit was about so much more than saving DACA. President Obama sent out a tweet about how pleased he was that they were able to save the program that he gave to childhood arrivals. The tweet annoyed Cortes because they were not saving something that Obama and his administration gave. They were saving a big win for the immigrant rights movement. To Cortes, we, as a community led movement, are the ones that made the President go out of his way to protect a group of people who cannot vote for him. The fight for DACA is symbolic of a huge win in the history of the US, one that creates opportunities to raise protections for the rest of the undocumented community.. 

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