Student Sees Herself as Global Citizen
As a child, Ana Tobar-Romero ’21 fled earthquake devastation in El Salvador with her family. As a teenager in the United States, she was a bilingual go-between for her small-businessman father and contractors.
Tobar-Romero continues to be a voice for her fellow immigrants today as a University of Virginia School of Law student who has helped draft legislation on their behalf.
She is president of the Latin American Law Organization, and research and project editor for the Virginia Journal of International Law. She is also involved with Lone Star Lawyers, the Minority Rights Coalition and Women of Color. As an undergraduate at George Mason University, she was a member and internal president of Mason DREAMers, and graduated summa cum laude with a double major in global affairs and communication.
In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Tobar-Romero talked about how her upbringing inspired her advocacy and some of her achievements in this work.
Why law school?
My father, a Salvadoran immigrant, worked tirelessly to provide for our family. He was laid off when I was 13 years old, and despite significant language and economic barriers, he was able to start a construction company. While he was experienced in construction, he feared that his accent would overpower his words. As an English speaker, I became the liaison between my father and his clients. This experience forced me to absorb the necessity a business served, especially if it was the sole provider of a family. My unofficial role as translator became vital for the success of the business. I knew my family was relying on me to do what was in our best interest. Yet, just like every business, we faced obstacles. There were obstacles that we overcame but others that transcended far beyond my skill set. For example, clients often refused to pay for completed projects. An attorney would have been advantageous in this position, but it was not a viable option. The financial costs of an attorney were too large for our small business, and in these moments, I was aware that sheer persistence was not enough to help my family. It was those times of helplessness that ultimately served as the catalyst for me to pursue a legal career.
Why are you interested in immigration law over other types of law?
My passion for immigration law stems from my experience as a first-generation immigrant. A devastating earthquake destroyed my home when I was 5 years old. It took the lives of some of my family members and forcefully triggered my migration to the United States. I barely spoke 10 words of English when I arrived. Several immigration laws that have been enacted and rescinded within the past few years have affected me, and most importantly, my family and close friends. I decided to get involved in immigration activism because I realized the great privilege that I had as a documented individual within the United States. As I became conscious of our unjust immigration laws, rather than feel guilty for being one of the lucky ones, I knew I had to take action to help dismantle these power structures and become a global citizen who works toward pushing not only myself, but my family, friends and community forward. This spirit of inclusivity and justice drives me to serve people who are invisible to society and make their stories heard.
Tell us more about your undergraduate work with Mason DREAMers.
The mission of Mason DREAMers is to create a more inclusive environment for undocumented students through education and advocacy. By advocating for undocumented students’ needs, Mason DREAMers led the way to campus climate shifts, and regional and national policy changes. Our initiatives included creating a coalition of universities that work together to change institutional policies within their respective universities, the formation of new student organizations in surrounding campuses, an annual conference to train those new student groups, and student-led UndocuAlly trainings. As president, I strived to advocate for undocumented Asian students, undocumented LGBTQ students and various other identities that intersect with immigrant status. One of my favorite initiatives that we helped create and implement was the Stay Mason Student Support Fund, a $1 million initiative that was created to support undocumented, first-generation, homeless and low-income students.
Describe your most interesting classroom or law school experience.
I am currently in the Employment Law Clinic, working closely with attorneys at the Legal Aid Justice Center. This past semester I worked on drafting legislation to protect employees from heat illness. I had prior experience drafting legislation during my undergraduate studies but had only given input during the final stages of the bill drafting. When asked to work on the heat stress prevention bill at the beginning of the drafting process, I was very excited because I worked as a migrant farmworker organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center before law school. I loved having the opportunity to use what I learned during my time as an organizer and law student when drafting a bill that would be introduced both in the [state] House and Senate.
Working as a migrant farmworker organizer, I became cognizant of the issues farmworkers face when working under extreme heat conditions. As temperatures rise, workers can face symptoms of heat stress such as fatigue, nausea, fainting, seizures and even death. Interacting with workers in the fields, I realized how little protections were in place, especially in the state of Virginia. There are many organizations in Virginia that have realized that change is needed, and I felt lucky enough to be able to work alongside some brilliant and caring individuals who are leading the fight for stronger worker protections. Engaging in collaborative efforts with various organizations, such as Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, Virginia League of Conservation Voters and Public Citizen, who were involved in the initiative of this bill, reemphasized the importance of fighting for a cause bigger than yourself.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be working at a law firm in Houston this summer.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.