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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Barbara C. Pinto '12 Wins Abascal Fellowship

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Barbara C. Pinto ’12

Barbara C. Pinto ’12 has been awarded the Abascal Fellowship, a $47,000 grant given to a UC Hastings College of the Law student to pursue anti-poverty and civil rights work.

Pinto plans to work with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, helping undocumented immigrants take advantage of a new prosecutorial discretion policy that will potentially allow some 300,000 individuals in removal proceedings to close their cases and apply for work permits.

In addition to representing clients in that administrative proceeding, she will teach other lawyers how to do so, and educate immigrant communities about the new policy.

 She plans to concentrate her work in the Central Valley, not far from where Abascal had his start working with union activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

“My goals with my proposed project will bring about an informed population who will exercise their rights and in turn be able to stay in the country, as well as obtain work permits,” Pinto wrote in her application essay.

Pinto knows firsthand the fear and uncertainty that comes with being undocumented. When she went to apply for college, her parents, a cab driver and clerical worker, sat her down. “I told them I wanted to go away for college, and I had all these different schools I was looking at. That’s when they told me it might be better to stay here,” she said.

Though she has no memories of her early life in Venezuela, Pinto and her parents were undocumented.  They came to the U.S. when Pinto was two years old. Her uncle was sponsoring the family, but none of them had yet been successful. They were still in the process of adjusting.

“My parents had tried to hide it from me as much as they could through the years, and so when I found out it was sort of shock. I went through a range of emotions, denial, fear,” she says.

 “Then I realized this could be empowering, and that I could do a lot with this experience.”

Pinto was full of determination and drive before she landed at UC Hastings. Raised in San Francisco, she went to Lowell. “In high school, I knew I wanted to go into law. So I went to my career counselor and got a part-time job at a law firm in San Francisco” with UC Hastings alumni Anthony P. David ’67.

“I had great mentors, great supervisors,” she says.

Like many immigrants, she is the first in her family to go to college. She went to San Francisco State University, and nearly got sidetracked into psychology. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and got her green card just before starting at UC Hastings in 2009.

She soon set her sights on the Ralph Santiago Abascal Fellowship. “I knew I wanted a shot at it when the announcement came out,” she said.

The committee that awards the fellowship, which includes members of Abascal’s family, UC Hastings faculty and others, looks for students who have existing ties to a nonprofit. That fit Pinto perfectly. Pinto had already volunteered at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and served an internship with the city’s Human Rights Commission. She was a clinic intern at UC Hastings’ Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, and served as law clerk for the local chapter of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project, and worked at a local immigration law firm.

Prof. Richard Boswell said there were many good applications, and the decision was a difficult one. Pinto, however, had an interest in public interest law from the beginning of law school, he said. “One thing that stands out about Barbara is she is an immigrant herself, and she wants to continue to work with the community she is from. She has a long-standing relationship with the organization she is partnering with,” he said. “Hopefully, something more substantial will develop from that later.”

“I’ve never doubted what I wanted to do,” Pinto says. “All my internships have been related to immigration, and all I’ve done has confirmed my passion.”

Pinto begins work at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in September.

About the Abascal Fellowship:

It would be difficult for a mere mortal to fill the shoes of Ralph S. Abascal ’68 (1934-1997).

The affable, soft-spoken Abascal was a fierce advocate for immigrants, farm workers, and welfare recipients and changed the face of public interest lawyering as the long-time general counsel of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). He challenged the powerful, changed laws and improved the lives of the poor, the undocumented, and anyone who worked in California’s agricultural fields or ate its food.

 In addition to being a CRLA attorney and its general counsel, Abascal served as founding director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, and  had been the director of litigation at the San Francisco Legal Assistance Foundation. He worked for three decades on more than 200 major cases, many of them class actions on behalf of welfare recipients, farm workers, and undocumented immigrants.

He was among the first and most vigorous advocates to use environmental law broadly, and pioneered the field of environmental justice.

Abascal was studying economics at UC Berkeley when he saw the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind,” which portrayed the famous 1925 Scopes trial over evolutionary theory and the battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. He left the field of economics and enrolled at UC Hastings, graduating in 1968. As a law student, he worked as a law clerk at CRLA’s Salinas office.  He became a CRLA staff attorney upon graduation. One of Abascal’s first cases resulted in the ban on the short-handled hoe.

Prof. Mark N. Aaronson, who is on the fellowship committee, said Abascal’s brilliance was seeing the big picture. Just a few years out of UC Hastings, Abascal proved an adroit lobbyist, working in Sacramento with lawmakers to reach a compromise with Governor Ronald Reagan over welfare reform legislation.  Some of his counsel involved making the legislation more vulnerable to federal court challenge because of conflicts with overriding federal statutory law.  Once the legislation passed, Abascal and other legal aid lawyers on behalf of welfare recipients challenged  its various provisions in some 40-45 major lawsuits, most of them successful

“He was not charismatic in the conventional sense, but he had a presence people respected, and people trusted his word,”said Aaronson, founding director of the college’s Civil Justice Clinic. Aaronson is polishing the final edits on a book analyzing Abascal’s advocacy on behalf of the welfare poor during the early 1970s. Representing the Poor: Legal Advocacy & Welfare Reform during Reagan’s Gubernatorial Years is due out in Summer 2012.

Abascal later taught at UC Hastings, inspiring legions of public interest attorneys. He served on the UC Hastings board for 12 years. His wife, Prof. Beatrice Moulton, taught for almost 20 years at UC Hastings.  She developed and taught courses on roles and ethics in practice, homelessness, and negotiation and settlement.

For all his success, Abascal never abandoned his humble roots. He told the New York Times he and a fellow attorney once shared a pair of wingtip shoes for court appearances, and apologized for using prize money from one of his many honors late in his life to buy a small Chrysler convertible.

The American Bar Association honored Abascal in 1995 with the Thurgood Marshall Award. He was also honored with the Kutak-Dodds Prize of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the Robert Kutak Foundation.

Following his death from cancer in 1997, his supporters and admirers, many of them UC Hastings alumni, contributed donations to an endowment in his name to jumpstart the careers of young public interest lawyers and ensure under-served populations would continue to receive representation. That endowment funds the annual Abascal Fellowship.

Related Links:

CALegalAdvocates.org: The Abascal Fellowship
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