From Living Without Papers to a Lawyer in the Courtrooms

Jose Campos

This is the story of a boy who was born in the middle of a civil war. He lacked wealth, and sometimes he experienced hunger. At the age of 17, this boy went looking for the American Dream. He became an undocumented immigrant, he had no money; however, he managed to work hard, hustle for a living, and he used the little money he earned to get an education. The boy came to America without knowing the English language. After 12 years of hard work, he managed to graduate from law school and eventually get proper immigration papers by a miracle. He took his chances and now he manages his own law firm. This is my story.

Early Life

I was born in El Salvador in the middle of its civil war and was the youngest of four children. When I was five, I remember looking at the night sky and seeing helicopters throw missiles to the volcano close to my home. At the time, I thought they were beautiful fireworks. Later I learned that those missiles were intended to take human lives.

I remember long blackouts. My parents made us sleep under the mattresses in case a stray bullet decided came through our house. Sometimes my house was full of cousins and I loved it, thinking it was a big sleepover. Later I found out that it was too dangerous for my cousins to travel back to their homes in the middle of the night. I remember passing by houses peppered with bullet holes. I remember well the fear that war causes.

Growing Up

I was lucky to be enrolled in a school called Champagnat, ran by the Marist Brothers—an order of the Catholic Church. The school was good considering the resources they had. Public schools in El Salvador unfortunately lack many things. We had no money, but my parents did what they could to give us a decent education.

In a dire economic situation, my parents decided to go to the United States to provide for their children. A few months later my parents called me and told me to join them. I was excited. I saw in movies how wonderful the United States was and thought it was such a progressive country—a country with no religious fundamentalists, where everyone was equally treated, where there was no poverty (little did I know).

Early Days in the United States

I arrived in southern Virginia where there was not much urban development and there were few Latinos. I enrolled in high school in Stafford County, where education was good. I had only three friends who spoke Spanish, so I was the quiet student in school. I found it difficult to socialize in a new culture, with new customs, and an unknown language. When I was 17, my family separated. I was angry, and I went live on my own.

I worked full time at Taco Bell during my last year of high school, from 5 p.m. until midnight. I went home, did my homework for the next day, slept a little, and got up at 5:45 a.m. to catch the school bus. I often fell asleep in class. However, I graduated from high school, which is still one of my greatest achievements.

After High School

I moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, to be closer to Washington D.C. I spent the following years working in hotels, restaurants, and small offices. I rented a room and many days I ate cereal and milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while saving money for my college tuition. I went to a community college for two years and then completed my four-year degree at the University of Maryland. With all the sacrifice and effort, I obtained a university degree. But now what? I could not work legally.

I got a sales job going door to door offering satellite TV, saving money to pay for my first year of law school. I did not know if I would be accepted in law school though because my English was still rough. Due to my undocumented immigration status, I did not qualify for a student loan, and I did know how I would pay for three years. However, I applied to 10 law schools and was accepted at the University of the District of Columbia, where the tuition was affordable. And so, I was off.

Law School

The first semester in law school I was scared. I was thinking to myself—what the hell am I doing here?! I was reading books and cases that I could not comprehend. The language barrier was not helping either. I went to school every single day during my first semester and I worked there a minimum of 12 hours. I was there on thanksgiving. Each semester I completely drained my bank account, not knowing if I was going to finish my degree.

I went to every free lunch I could find—from the women’s reproductive justice law society to the black student law society. I went for the free lunch, but in the process, I heard very interesting points of view that enriched my law school experience even more.

My second summer of law school was a turning point for me. Unlike some of these students and millions of other undocumented immigrants in the United States, a stroke of bad luck led to some stability. One night I was coming out of a bar, walking toward the metro, and a group of six men assaulted me, wanting my wallet. I refused to give it to them. They hit me over and over. All I had was $3, but I did not want to let go of that wallet because I was protecting my driver’s license. At that time, it was extremely hard to get a driver’s license if you were an undocumented immigrant, and I was willing to die protect mine. I took a beating and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. My face looked like I was going to a Halloween party. However, this was the best thing that ever happened to me because I found out that I qualified for a U visa. This was the beat up of my life and it changed everything.

Now I feel that I live a privileged life. I am grateful to have my own law firm and to have clients that I can help. I can afford a thing or two. After 15 years of living in the United States, I went back to my native El Salvador to see all my family once again. Now that I have a green card, I can visit other countries in this beautiful planet. (I started this article in Lithuania, I worked in Warsaw, and I finished this article in Ukraine.) Living undocumented was hard, but I am proud of that time because living in extreme conditions prepared me for the next challenges that life has in store for me.

Jose Campos

Jose Campos is an attorney in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he manages his firm, Campos & Associates, and represents clients in immigration, DUI/DWI, traffic, and criminal matters.