The ACLU of Utah’s newest staff member is an attorney with a passion for immigrant justice.
Although Valentina De Fex joined the ACLU of Utah staff in early April as our first Immigrants’ Rights Legal Fellow and fifteenth full-time employee, she has yet to set foot in the Salt Lake City office. Instead, she began her tenure with the ACLU by working remotely from Portland, Ore., where, for the last 18 months, she has engaged in direct legal representation for clients who are immigrants.
Despite the intervening 750 miles, Valentina already has made her presence and expertise felt through numerous video conference calls where she has offered input on how immigration issues permeate the current civil liberties conversations—from pandemic response to voting rights to criminal justice. “I am excited to join the ACLU of Utah where my priorities will be ensuring that immigrants’ rights are both recognized and protected,” she said during an interview via FaceTime. “I also want to increase the understanding of how the criminal justice system serves as another tool of immigration enforcement.”
Valentina earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where she double majored in political science and diplomatic history. Her first professional exposure to immigration law—arguably one of the most challenging practice areas— came while working at Boston College Law School’s immigration clinic. She discovered a passion for this legal arena after being exposed to the impact of racialized police enforcement on immigration proceedings, and she never looked back. As a third-year law student, she co-wrote and argued an immigration case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco—a career capstone for many attorneys let alone one still in school.
But even before her legal training began, Valentina’s experience as a first-generation immigrant in Texas exposed her to the systemic barriers that many immigrants face on a daily basis. This personal experience coupled with the race-based deportations she witnessed in law school combined to lead her down the path to defending immigrants’ rights.
What makes immigration law so challenging (and appealing to her), Valentina said, is that it operates with minimal due process, which are the rules that protect individuals from state authority. “A lot of the legal protections that we consider fundamental rights, such as the right to an attorney provided by the government or a ban against excessive detention, are absent from immigration law,” she explained. In addition, immigration law does not always operate within the judicial branch of government. Instead, it is regulated by the executive branch, primarily the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. During the last three years, Valentina explained, many federal immigration policies set forth in case law have been completely transformed. “Immigration law is by nature a fluid system open to administrative policy changes and interpretation,” Valentina said. “And in recent years, the immigration field has been like a storm-tossed sea.”
Although she has not yet relocated to Utah, Valentina acknowledges that it is a conservative state with a radical streak for welcoming refugees. But at the same time, she notes that many Utah law enforcement policies are not as welcoming as the state’s cultural and political rhetoric. “A person is viewed as an immigrant until they become a U.S. citizen,” she said. “And a lot of mistakes can happen in a person’s life during that intervening time period.” She also notes the similarities that many Utahns ignore between refugees and asylum seekers. “In many ways, the only difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker is where and when they file their application,” she said. “The same humanitarian safety concerns apply in both situations.” The ACLU of Utah is glad to add Valentina’s astute and practiced skill at immigration law to our team, and we look forward to the impact she will make in improving the rights and lives of all refugees and immigrants in Utah. Welcome Valentina!
…from the Spring 2020 Liberty Reporter