Moving to a different country with a different language has its challenges. For Iowa Law alum, Karla Olivas (20JD), those challenges are what helped her find a passion in public interest law.
Olivas was born in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México and says she has been an advocate for the immigrant community ever since she was little, it just took her years to realize it.
When her family came to the U.S., neither of her parents spoke English and Olivas did her best to interpret the language for them. She then realized she could help other immigrant families. As Spanish speaking students enrolled at her elementary school she was called to help, becoming a liaison between the new students and their classmates and teachers.
However, her family’s overwhelming anxiety over their immigration status seemed to permeate their household. Adjudication delays kept them from visiting Mexico and Olivas was in fourth grade by the time they were finally allowed.
She soon came to realize that this issue was not one that effected only her family, it was a common experience that many immigrants have and sometimes they aren’t even given the opportunity to visit their homes.
“As a child, I was perplexed by the fact that my family could not return to Mexico, all the while some of my American classmates would vacation along the Yucatán Peninsula. At some point in my life, I lost the sense of being 100% Mexican. However, I do not feel 100% American either. To this day, my identity swings like a pendulum, never staying in place, adjusting to new situations and people,” said Olivas.
As she started seeing herself as more of an advocate for the immigrant community, she decided that law school would be the best avenue to help her become the best version of herself.
While attending The University of Texas at El Paso for her undergrad, she worked as an intern for a nonprofit organization called Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. After graduation, Olivas moved on to become the vice president of Las Americas’ board of directors where she assisted with overseeing the organization’s budget, spearheaded fundraising campaigns, and engaged in various strategic planning efforts. She also served as a paralegal for a criminal defense solo practitioner’s office in El Paso.
Olivas started law school in the fall of 2017 and her passion for advocacy continued to grow. She was involved in student organizations and served as an associate editor on the Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems law journal and a student writer for the Journal of Gender, Race & Justice.
Her true desire to work as an immigration advocate sparked in late July/early August of 2018 when the Department of Justice and Homeland Security were required to reverse their family separation policy, and her husband, who was working for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, was asked to go to McAllen, Texas to help manage the influx of released migrants.
With the Catholic Charities being in dire need of Spanish-speaking volunteers, Olivas decided to go, too. There, she co-directed a pop-up shelter housing 40–60 immigrants that were transported to the local Catholic Charities shelter from the local bus station where immigration officials released families.
Olivas also gained valuable experience during law school working as a judicial extern for the Honorable Judge Stephen B. Jackson, Jr. of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa and and as an immigration intern for Ayuda.
Currently, Olivas works for a program within the Heartland Alliance called the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) where they work to protect human rights and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. NIJC also provides direct legal services to individuals and advocates on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through policy reform, impact litigation, and public education.
Housed within NIJC’s Federal Litigation Project, she holds a position as an Equal Justice Works (EJW) Fellow, sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP and hosted by NIJC. Throughout the past two decades, immigration agencies have subjected immigrants to ever-increasing delays in processing their cases. Through her fellowship, Olivas holds an ongoing goal developing federal court strategies to challenge systemic, unreasonable bureaucratic delays of immigration applications and to challenge prolonged, arbitrary detention through writs of habeas corpus.
As her EJW fellowship comes to an end in September 2022, Olivas hopes to continue working with NIJC in the Federal Litigation Project. Although she is not completely convinced that she will practice law until she retires, Olivas is 100% confident she’ll remain an advocate for the immigrant community.
For student’s also thinking about going into law school or public interest work, she emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everyone in the legal profession is a human being.
“Regardless of how advanced or recognized an individual is in the legal profession, do not be intimated by them. Treat individuals that you admire or want to get to know like any other human,” says Olivas, “That realization has helped me calm my nerves in preparation for interviews and for networking events. On the other side of the table, it has helped me engage with prospective law students, current law students, and prospective EJW applicants in a manner that I believe is more approachable.”