PUBLISHED:November 09, 2010

Rocio Perez '11

Rocio Perez immigrated to the United States from Cuba when she was 6. Although she remembers little of her life in Cuba, Perez credits her mother’s recollections with inspiring her interest in the law.

“There are protections here that can’t be violated, but in Cuba that’s not the case,” says Perez, who grew up in Miami. “Anything you say can be used against you. There’s no core rule of law — if you have any opposition to the government, you’re considered worthless as a member of society, and people can treat you that way.” Her parents kept their own anti-communist sentiments from her until the family made it to South Florida, she adds.

“They did not want me to grow up hating our government in case we had to stay.”

Her background ensured that Perez was “naturally drawn” to include the student-organized Immigration Education Project as one of her many extracurricular activities throughout law school, she says. Perez now co-chairs the program through which law students offer presentations on immigration law at adult education centers, churches, and middle and high schools in Durham; they are focusing on reaching high school students in the current academic year.

“We give presentations in English and in Spanish, and we cover what it takes to become a legal resident, the difference between an undocumented immigrant and a documented immigrant, and ways that you can apply for your green card,” Perez explains.

“Beyond that, we discuss the rights and responsibilities of immigrants. We talk about some obvious things, like not committing crimes and which crimes are particularly harmful to you as a documented or undocumented immigrant –– if you’re not a citizen you can be deported for certain crimes, like drug crimes and violent crimes.”

The law students also are trying to encourage immigrant parents to attend nighttime sessions with their children. “We tell them about legal services, and we also have a domestic violence presentation,” she says. “That’s important because victims in these communities are often afraid to go to the police.”

Talking to young men and women about immigration is a powerful experience for Perez, she says. “People who come in very disillusioned about the process come out of it understanding a little more. I think just venting about it helps them.”

Perez has served as a research assistant for Professor Jonathan Wiener and has embraced oral advocacy during her time at Duke Law; she reached the finals of the Dean’s Cup moot court competition in 2010, won the Duke Law Mock Trial Twiggs Beskind competition in 2008, and serves on the Mock Trial Board.

She served as president of WLSA as a 2L and remains involved with the organization.

“I’m really happy about the Women in the Law conference this year’s board is putting together,”says Perez. “It’s the first time Duke Law will host a conference dedicated specifically to the advancement of women in the profession, and was a project carried over from last year.

“The faculty teas the board started last year were equally rewarding. Those are smaller events with a handful of women getting to know different professors. We also bring in a lot of outside speakers to talk about their paths, how they’ve managed to negotiate a way into a career path they’ve wanted, and how they balance work and family.”

Perez says her involvement with WLSA, the Immigration Education Project, and her tenure as community service chair of the Duke Bar Association has reinforced her belief in “the value of community and advocating for issues you find important, and building constructive foundations for discourse without alienating people.”

Inclusiveness is a touchstone for Perez, with her roots in culturally and ethnically diverse South Florida.

“It’s funny, Miami is so diverse that some kinds of identity politics disappear,” she says. “I went to the University of Michigan for a summer program while I was doing my undergraduate work at Florida International University in Miami. While there, someone asked me about joining an organization for ‘persons of color.’ In Miami, I never thought about it that way. I didn’t see my self as a minority there — because I wasn’t.”