How My Mother Inspired Me to Become an Immigration Lawyer

J. J. Mulligan Sepúlveda recalls how his mother’s experience of Pinochet’s Chile influenced his political awakening.
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Migrant laborers work in a field outside of Salinas in Monterey County, California.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The battle for immigration reform is personal for J. J. Mulligan Sepúlveda. In his memoir No Human Is Illegal, he writes of visiting border detention centers, defending undocumented immigrants in court, and representing people being turned away at Kennedy International Airport during the travel ban. Here, he describes how his mother’s escape from Pinochet’s regime in Chile influenced his political awakening.


For my mother, Sept. 11 will forever be a date that marked two tragedies—the day Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, and the day, almost 30 years later, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell and the entire world as we knew it forever changed. At 14, it was a world I was barely conscious of. People had crowded into a middle school mathematics classroom where our teacher, Mr. Vaughn, had a television turned on silent to the news.

We watched as the smoke billowed out from the upper floors, and cuts of the planes crashing into them were replayed. Mr. Vaughn nervously cracked an inappropriate joke. Those terrorists must have a sense of humor if they did this on 9-1-1. Get it? Like you call 9-1-1 when there’s an emergency? Rather than being callous, it was likely he didn’t know what else to say—no one did, not even the counselors who were forced to shuffle through our fluorescent-lit classrooms to speak with us. My mother picked me up from school that day trembling with fear. So many things, down to the date, repeated that morning. 

Like most people, I can recall the events of 9/11 with uncanny precision, and through the subsequent Bush years and his “war on terror,” perhaps the scariest time for anyone in America who didn’t have White skin, I had an awakening as a politically active citizen. But even after college, I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I wanted to do with my life. And so, at the encouragement of my mother, I left the United States for a solo trip to Chile and throughout Latin America. I thought that I would find meaning with a backpack strapped on and a couple of notebooks and camera to document it all. I read Kerouac religiously and had vague ideas about human rights. My thoughts, however, solidified and came into focus after two events.

For the first time, I spent Sept. 11 outside of the United States. My mother’s relationship to the Chilean 9/11 didn’t really have significance for me until, upon arriving and wanting to do something other than see the sights, I reached out to a group of protestors who were opposed to the possible return of a conservative presidential administration.

It was the anniversary of the military coup, and after electing the country’s first female president in 2006, the country was shifting to the right and threatening to elect the first conservative president since the return to democracy in 1990. A younger generation of voters, who had grown up only knowing democracy, were careless with their votes and their voices.

The law was a weapon, and, in some cases, it could be wielded for the benefit of communities it was written to oppress.

The group invited me to a march to the Estadio Nacional, Chile’s national soccer stadium where more than 20,000 men and women had been kept, many tortured and some killed, during the early days of the military junta. One month later, I would return to the stadium and watch the Chilean national team beat the Argentine national team 1-0 in a shocking victory. The stadium would be crowded, full of rabid fans agonizing for 90 minutes until the stadium erupted in euphoria. All except the wooden benches behind the north goal, where no one has sat for years, a permanent memorial to the atrocities that took place within the stadium.

But on that night, as we marched with signs and flashlights and candles, the stadium was eerily empty. I heard speeches detailing the horrors that took place within the stadium’s walls. One man who survived being tortured there spoke movingly about the need for dignity and respect for all human life. Estamos aquí juntos en esta vida, no para hacernos daño, pero para cuidarnos.

Six months later, I was living in a studio in Sucre, Bolivia, teaching English and working part time at an orphanage. One afternoon, I heard that President Evo Morales would be visiting Sucre, in celebration of the anniversary of the first Grito Libertario, announcing the revolutionary independence movement from Spain.

The main square of Sucre, like always, was packed with Indigenous men and women peddling coca leaves and their handmade wares. Soon, they would be going to the Estadio Olímpico Patria, Bolivia’s most important sports facility, capable of holding more than 30,000 people, to see the first Indigenous president in the nearly 200-year history of Bolivia speak. They walked and chanted in Quechua. They handed out coca leaves to those of us walking with them. I stuffed a wad of leaves into my left cheek after an Indigenous man showed me how. I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo of the proud faces I saw among the crowd, finally represented by one of their own.

Suddenly, an angry mob of anti-Morales people armed with thick sticks charged into the crowd. Nearby, police were attacked as well. The government, hearing about these disturbances hours before Morales’ speech, canceled all scheduled parades and the president’s visit.

Once the police and military presence was gone, the Indigenous men and women who had come to see the president were left alone with armed civilians from urban and wealthy Sucre, the same people that had oppressed them for decades, now unable to accept an awakened and powerful Indigenous population. More than two dozen Indigenous men and women were injured. I stood there for a moment and watched the scene unfold through the lens of my camera, unable to look away and not take any more photos. I may as well have been watching the news on television.

A man held up a stick like a baseball bat, threatening me and yelling at me in Spanish to put my camera away and leave. I rushed back to the studio I was renting and tried to write it all down. I wrote three pages, my hand shaking, and found myself disappointed. What would I do with these pages? I imagined myself being able to freeze time and space and take the Indigenous men and women to safety, leaving their tormentors bewildered when unfrozen. That was what I really wanted to do.

When I thought about it, though, I knew that there would never be a way to freeze time or to protect anyone from such a sudden, unprovoked attack. But perhaps there was a way to go back in time. Instead of taking someone out of harm’s way, I could help them return to that place, protected, and seek redress and justice for what they had suffered. And in doing so, we could affect the future, eliminating the possibility of that occurring again.

The next week, armed with memories from the march to Chile’s Estadio Nacional and what I had seen in Sucre, I signed up for the LSAT and began gathering the documents needed to apply to law school.

During my first year of law school, I realized I was there because of my mother. The things I had seen her do throughout the years were hidden seeds that I felt were finally receiving the nourishment they deserved. She was inspiration and consciousness for me. The simultaneous love for and questioning of America came from her, as did the exploration of being the “other.” She wanted the country to be better and yet defended it fiercely.

I applied for summer jobs at legal aid and nonprofit organizations around California. That seemed like the front lines, and that was where I wanted to be. I came across a summer position in Watsonville at the Watsonville Law Center and was offered the position on the spot. I’d never been to Watsonville. I had to look on a map. When I saw that it was close to Santa Cruz, I jumped at the opportunity. I found a fellowship that would give me a small amount of money to do the work I would be doing, and then I found a couple who rented me a cheap room in exchange for doing their yard work.

Two weeks into the job, I met a female farmworker who made everything real and helped me decide that this was what I wanted to do. She stopped by one of our weekly clinics at 6 o’clock. She was from Chiapas, Mexico, where the Zapatista movement began.

For three hours I sat with her as she told me all the things that she had never told anyone. She was alone here. Her two kids had stayed in Mexico with her mother; she had given birth to three kids, but her youngest daughter had died. Her father was dead. Her husband had run off with another woman to Southern California. Good riddance, he used to beat her. Some of the workers on the farm where she worked were sexually abusing her. She had gotten pregnant and miscarried. She told me this as if it were her fault.

When she stopped talking, I tried to find a way to help. I was new to the work, but I had been trained to look for a few things. She was getting paid far below the minimum wage and working 80 hours a week with no overtime. California in those days, like other states, had different laws for farmworkers. They would not get paid overtime until they had worked 10 hours in a day and 60 hours in a week, as opposed to eight and 40 for most other jobs. As for pay, even undocumented immigrants are afforded the protections of minimum wage.

She didn’t know what overtime meant, or that there was a minimum wage. I tried to explain both with my still-evolving understanding of each.

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By the end of the month, we had led a wage and hour complaint and were scheduled to appear at the labor commissioner’s office in Salinas. I talked with the woman about filing an OSHA complaint or looking for ways to improve her working conditions with regards to the sexual abuse, but she said no. She was Catholic and a married woman still, and she did not want to talk about the things that had happened to her in the fields anymore to anyone, just God.

When we arrived at the labor commissioner’s office in Salinas, ready for an administrative hearing, we found a check for $10,000 waiting for us. After doing the math, my supervisor and I had only been prepared to ask for $7,000. The woman was shocked. She looked at us like we were saints, when we had only used a spreadsheet to make calculations and submitted a form.

The next day, the woman arrived at our office with two baskets of freshly picked strawberries and a handwritten note. Nunca me han ayudado en la vida y nunca pensé que me iba a ayudar nadie. Que Dios le bendiga. She left them at the front desk, and I never got to speak with her, and I never saw her again. She might still be working in the fields. Maybe she finally sent for her children with the money she received. Maybe she left and went back to Chiapas.

But no matter where I am, even if the strawberries are not from Watsonville, I am still reminded of her when I bite into one. There was justice, imperfect as it might be, I told myself. The law was a weapon, and, in some cases, it could be wielded for the benefit of communities it was written to oppress.

Excerpt from No Human Is Illegal: An Attorney on the Front Lines of the Immigration War used with permission of Melville House Books. Copyright © J. J. Mulligan Sepúlveda, 2018.