NEW YORK ― When attorney Cesar Vargas first met his teenage client Ivan Ruiz, a newly arrived undocumented immigrant from Honduras, he noticed Ruiz seemed to wear the weight of his traumatic childhood on his sleeve.
Ruiz, 15 at the time, rarely spoke, returning questions about his life in Honduras with long stares and heavy nods. It was only over the course of a year that Vargas would learn the extent of abuse Ruiz suffered while living with extended family members after his parents immigrated to the United States for a better life. Ruiz was barely fed, forced to work long hours and beaten ― even whipped with tire rubber ― as punishment.
The abuse became too much to bear. After trekking through Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, Ruiz crossed the border into the United States in spring 2016. His journey wasn’t over, though, and a year ago he was ordered to appear in immigration court.
With Vargas’ help, Ruiz recently won a life-changing victory: He was granted asylum. He now spends his days in summer school, soaking up new English words and the novelty of life with only low-stakes, teenage worries. He recently took two girls to the prom and is delicately balancing the affections of another. He is looking forward to the day when he can join a Manhattan-based soccer league, but the $180 joining fee is currently too steep.
His case is remarkable for two reasons. At 16, Ruiz is representative of a class of highly vulnerable undocumented minors living under a presidential administration that is pushing people like him out. Even more remarkable is the person who helped get Ruiz to this point ― his lawyer, who also happens to be New York state’s first openly undocumented attorney.
It’s the type of legal win that motivated Vargas to work in immigration law. It’s also one that is bittersweet. It means that Vargas’ immigration status, as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, could now be in more danger than that of his client. DACA, as it is known, is an Obama-era initiative that protects immigrants who came to the country as children from deportation, but its fate under President Trump remains ambiguous.
“As an attorney it’s just incredible to make sure that I can successfully win a case on behalf of my client based on the circumstances,” said Vargas, 33. “The other emotion is a mixed emotion. My client is probably going to have a much more permanent immigration status than his attorney.”
Ruiz’s story of getting to America was a familiar one for Vargas, who crossed the border from Mexico as a 5-year-old. Vargas was admitted to the bar association in February 2016, after passing the bar exam in 2011. He fought a years-long battle to receive this recognition as a person without legal status.
Vargas’ advocacy may have made all the difference for Ruiz, especially in the current political climate. Vargas connected with the teen as a pro bono volunteer with Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal representation and assistance to unaccompanied minors.
Undocumented people are significantly less likely to face deportation when they receive legal representation in immigration court. While immigrants are under nearly constant attack from President Donald Trump and government officers are increasingly hostile to their plight, happy endings like Ruiz’s are rare.
Safe Passage attorneys are working with about 700 children in the New York City area. It’s only a small slice of the children who need legal help, said Gui Stampur, deputy executive director and co-founder of the group.
In Vargas, Ruiz was able to find an advocate and a friend, too.
This month, on a sunny day at Safe Passage’s downtown office, Ruiz eagerly told Vargas about his adventures in teenage romance. He squirmed with youthful energy while explaining that he likes “everything” about his new life ― from his summer school classes to his new wardrobe. Back in Honduras, his cousins used to wear his shirts and underwear, he said. It wasn’t unusual for him to go without undergarments.
With Vargas translating, Ruiz said he loves living in New York, readily grinning when he correctly guessed a word in English and bragging about having received a new work authorization card. His mood shifted when he briefly touched on the intense physical and emotional abuse he endured in his home country.
My client is probably going to have a much more permanent immigration status than his attorney. Cesar Vargas
Ruiz is a member of the Garifuna ethnic group, an Afro-indigenous people who are often subjected to intense discrimination, including from the police. This lack of protection allowed Ruiz’s abuse to go unchecked.
Vargas learns more details about this abuse nearly every time they talk. On the day of Ruiz’s last hearing in June, Vargas watched as his sweet, buoyant teenager client broke down when he was asked to go into details about the violence.
“That day, to see him completely shut down and relive those moments was very difficult,” said Vargas.
It made his client’s victory more sweet.
“It’s not just like a [legal] settlement, like here’s a million dollars. It’s like, here’s your life,” said Vargas.
It’s been a busy year for Vargas since he gained admission to the bar. He traveled around the country as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign adviser on immigration policy and Latino issues. He started working to represent undocumented service people and their spouses. Now he’s also working to organize residents in Staten Island to push for immigration reform.
Ruiz describes Vargas and his work as inspiring.
“He does beautiful work. He’s always there for me, every day,” said Ruiz.