In 2009, four days before his college graduation, Victor Escobar was pulled over for speeding in Tehama County, a conservative stronghold in Northern California.
The prospect of a ticket would’ve been nerve-wracking for any twenty-something, but for Escobar, much more was on the line. When the police officer asked for his license, he admitted he had none. “I’m undocumented,” he said.
Escobar was arrested and spent a few days in the county jail before receiving a call from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “If you cooperate, we’ll release you and you’ll walk the stage,” he was told. Instead, while his classmates were picking up their diplomas, Escobar found himself locked up in the Florence Correctional Center near Phoenix, Arizona. “I tried my best, I was undocumented and dealt the cards I was given,” he says.
Escobar and his mother emigrated from Peru when he was 13. His father, a former agricultural engineer for the United Nations, died when Escobar was four. Afterward, his mother struggled to pay for a quality education for her two children. She applied for a U.S. visa, but was denied. Seeing no other options, she decided to make the dangerous crossing through Mexico with her son. They joined a group of migrants that walked in the desert for nearly a day. At night, temperatures dropped to near-freezing, and they were robbed by thieves with semiautomatic rifles.
The family ended up in Redding, California, where his mother juggled three menial jobs to make ends meet. Escobar gradually made friends, joined swim teams and was an average student in high school, but he felt isolated. “You don’t tell anyone you’re undocumented—that was my biggest secret growing up,” he says.
Escobar worked as a gardener, a dishwasher and a busser to save money for college. “I didn’t mind rolling up my sleeves to get what I wanted,” he says. In 2005, he enrolled at California State University-Chico, where he majored in political science and minored in legal studies. He had no idea how he’d get a job in his field, but at least he was about to graduate—until he was arrested.
Escobar felt like puking when he walked into the Immigrant Processing Facility at Florence Correctional Center. The structure, which resembled a high-school gym, housed several hundred detainees and smelled foul. “These were not criminals—these were working folk. Immigration offenses are civil, not criminal. The detainees shared their stories with me, most had families and business plans,” Escobar says. Three days later, he was transferred to the Eloy Immigrant Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.
With help from relatives, Escobar was released on a $25,000 bond after seven weeks. But he had no path for becoming a legal resident. Dejected, with his case dragging on for over two years, Escobar requested a voluntary departure to Peru. On the day of his flight, he received a call from Mohammad Abdollahi, an activist for undocumented immigrants. He convinced Escobar to stay in the country and start a public campaign: They would ask the government to administratively close his case, which would grant him a work permit. But while his case was placed on hold, no permit was issued. Two months later, he got something better: In 2012, President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which gave people like Escobar a renewable two-year work permit and temporary protection from deportation.
Escobar immediately started studying for the LSAT, eager to fulfill his dream of becoming an immigration lawyer. “I wanted to advocate for the undocumented community. This is a sovereign country and should decide who gets to enter. At the same time, you have 11 million people who are key to the economy, without status and without a way of adjusting it, most of whom have been in the U.S. for over a decade. Comprehensive immigration reform is imperative because it would strengthen the border, deter unscrupulous work practices for undocumented workers, which hurt U.S. citizen workers, and allow folks to gain legal immigration status.”
Escobar was admitted to UC Hastings in 2014, but couldn't afford to attend because he didn’t qualify for student loans. But he didn’t give up on his ambitions of becoming an attorney.
Instead, he got a job as a court interpreter and then as a case manager for an immigration law firm. In 2015, he was granted a travel permit to Mexico for job-related purposes. He went despite the chance he would not be admitted back to the U.S. Yet Escobar was allowed back in, which voided his 10-year bar for re-entering the country, a barrier most undocumented immigrants face for entering without inspection. By then, he was married to an American citizen, so he could apply for legal permanent residency. He received a green card in August 2016 and began attending UC Hastings that fall.
Escobar completed an externship for a federal district court judge this summer and he plans to participate in the criminal practice clinic. Eventually, he hopes to work at the intersection of criminal law and immigration law. “I’ve experienced what people behind bars experience, and I need to help,” he says.