NORTH HAVEN — Quinnipiac University School of Law graduate Denia Perez became the first Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient to be admitted to the Connecticut Bar in a swearing in ceremony late last week.
Perez, who graduated last May, was part of amending the admission language for the Connecticut Bar Examination to ensure it would include DACA recipients. The revised eligibility criteria clarified that not only a citizen or an alien lawfully residing in the United States can apply for admission to the bar, but also “an individual authorized to work lawfully in the United States.”
Deliberations on the amendment were finalized this past summer, making Connecticut now the sixth state to agree to take bar applications from DACA recipients, joining California, Florida, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Other states do not restrict DACA recipients specifically, but may have no language pertaining to the situation in particular.
“It was really powerful to be able to be part of the advocacy,” Perez said. “I’m just really proud to have been part of (the work)... and proud of Connecticut for doing the right thing.”
But being admitted to the bar was special to Perez for more than her DACA status — it also meant she was done with standardized tests and had made it through so many requirements and years of hard work to be able to finally introduce herself as an attorney.
She said the whole experience has been really rewarding and she’s glad to have helped pave the way for more students to have the same opportunity, like so many before her paved the way for her.
Perez came to the United States from Mexico when she was 11 months old. Her family lived in San Francisco, and when she was 8 they moved to Santa Rosa, California. Perez graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in women’s and gender studies the year DACA went into effect, when she was 21. Under DACA, eligible adults who were brought to the U.S. as children can receive a two-year deferment from deportation and an Employment Authorization Document.
Between college and law school, she worked as legal services coordinator at Educators for Fair Consideration, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides resources and support to undocumented young people. She earned full tuition to Quinnipiac through the Dean’s Fellows Scholarship.
Perez said she is grateful to Quinnipiac and to her professor Shelia Hayre, a visiting associate law professor, with whom she worked to amend the admission language for the Connecticut Bar Examination.
“I couldn’t be more proud… (Perez) really wants to use her law degree to make the world better,” Hayre said. “Denia, I think, felt like this was her calling from quite a young age and I think it was her feeling that ‘this is my profession and I’m going to go into it no matter what.’”
Hayre said she now has students working to see if there are other professional licenses or certificates that DACA recipients are currently unable to receive because of their status.
“Bar applicants like Denia who have DACA status are exceptional, not because they will have graduated from college and law school, passed the bar exam, or met the bar’s character and fitness requirements — they are exceptional because they have done all of these things in the face of unimaginable barriers brought on by their lack of immigration status,” said the amendment proposal to the Rules Committee.
Perez started a two-year fellowship in September with the Immigrant Justice Corps, working at Make the Road New York in deportation and removal defense and affirmative asylum applications.
She said the job comes with a lot of frustration, especially given the current administration since the already complicated laws are changing so often.
“But it's really rewarding to be able to help people that look like me and remind me of my family,” she said.