When a client is too afraid to drive to an appointment, Erick Lopez helps them get there.
Providing transportation wasn’t in the job description as a legal assistant at Pesek Law in Omaha, but he understands the fear some clients have.
As an undocumented immigrant, Lopez never thought he’d have a driver’s license or a job in the U.S. But when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was introduced in 2012, it gave him an opportunity to work with and fight for other undocumented immigrants.
Lopez was born in Mexico, and his father came to work in the U.S. when Lopez was 2.
In 2003, at just 5 years old, Lopez and his mother made the treacherous journey to the U.S. through the Arizona desert.
With the help of a “coyote” — a smuggler who helps migrants cross the border — Lopez and his mother were able to make their way to Omaha, where Lopez’s father was living.
The first few years in the U.S. were difficult for Lopez and his family as they adapted to a new country.
At school, Lopez struggled communicating with his teachers and classmates. He spent a chunk of his time learning English through English as a second language classes.
“It was difficult to understand what was happening and what directions they were giving; it was all gibberish in the beginning,” Lopez said.
As his English skills improved and he was able to communicate more, his parents advised him to never draw too much attention to himself. When he was asked where he was from, he told people he was from Omaha, not Mexico.
In middle school, Lopez began speaking with his parents about his desire to get his driver’s license when he turned 16. That’s when he began to understand his restrictions.
They informed him that he wouldn’t be able to get a license or a job when he turned 16, because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
“Everything started making sense,” Lopez said.
That realization could’ve crushed Lopez’s spirit, but he didn’t let it.
“I think it motivated me more,” he said. “I knew I had to work harder to get what I wanted. I had to show people that being American is more than just a piece of paper that says you’re a citizen.”
Two years later, undocumented youth across the U.S. received life-changing news: The Department of Homeland Security would no longer deport certain undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children.
Lopez was 13 when the Obama administration program was enacted, but the earliest he could apply for DACA was two years later.
As he waited to apply, Lopez became skeptical of the program.
“What if I give out my information and ICE finds me and deports my family and I?” he thought.
But when the time came, he paid the $495 application fee, sent in his required documents and waited for approval.
Once he was approved, Lopez quickly got his driver’s license and found a job at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. After just a month of working there, Lopez was promoted and put in charge of concessions.
But while DACA protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth in the U.S. from deportation, it does not grant them official legal status or a pathway to citizenship.
Nor does it last long, as they’re required to pay a fee of $495 to renew their DACA status every two years.
Although DACA was temporary protection, Lopez remained optimistic and heavily involved in his community.
According to Maureen Gregor, his Omaha South High School counselor, she’s never had a student take on as many challenges as Lopez.
He was a part of College Possible, the community service chair for his school’s JROTC program, a board member of National Honor Society, a mentor in Packer Partners, on the senior cabinet and voted prom king his senior year.
“In my 10 years at South High, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a student volunteer as much as Erick did,” Gregor said.
As senior year approached, Lopez knew he wouldn’t have the same opportunities to fund his college education as his peers did.
But again, he wasn’t discouraged. He took a chance and applied for the two big scholarships he could — The Dreamers Pathway and the Susan Buffett Scholarship.
Because of his status, taking out loans wasn’t an option. He either got one of those full-ride scholarships, or a college education was out of the picture.
“It was a really hard time not knowing how I was going to pay for college. I didn’t want to put it all on my parents because they had already given me so much,” he said.
Two months later, he got the news: He had gotten the Susan Buffett Scholarship and was going to the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The program aims to provide the opportunity for a legal education to students in underserved communities, and encourages students to provide legal services to those communities.
According to Pesek, a majority of the firm’s clients are immigrants who are not always understood by those in the legal system. That’s why Pesek believes Lopez is an essential person in the office.
Lopez’s daily tasks include attending mediations, court hearings and attorney meetings with Spanish-speaking immigrants to make sure they can communicate when there are no Spanish-speaking legal service providers.
As Lopez wraps up his three years at Pesek Law, he looks forward to continuing his education at UNL’s College of Law in the fall.
Once he graduates, he said he’d like to practice law in worker’s compensation, injury and medical malpractice cases.
In the meantime, he’ll continue helping others in the immigrant community and working with undocumented youth to renew their DACA paperwork, so they too can live the American Dream.