July 10, 2023

People First, Always | Yesenia Carrillo

Yesenia Carrillo, a rising 3L law student and daughter of immigrants, reflects on her transformative journey at the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC), emphasizing the importance of cultural competence and the potential of law to empower and uplift marginalized communities.

“The law is a tool that impacts and intersects with the lives of people.” – Yesenia Carrillo

Yesenia Carrillo is a first-generation rising 3L (or third-year) law student at the Lewis & Clark Law School. She recently completed two semesters with the school’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC), marking a milestone not only in her career as a future attorney but in her renewed sense of self-confidence. As a daughter of immigrants who were once undocumented, it is easy to doubt one’s place and competency in a field that strongly influences the privileges and limitations of every person. Having grown up within communities of people holding undocumented or immigrant statuses, conversations about navigating life within the United States’ legal system remain at the forefront of Carrillo’s journey.

Blessed is how Carrillo frames the immense gratitude she has for her communities and mentors. Her deep relationships with family, friends, employers, and mentors provide Carrillo with a powerful skill set rooted across cultures and diverse lived experiences. Carrillo was one of many children who became linguistic and cultural mediators to translate and interpret US American culture in a range of settings for her parents, whose primary language is Spanish. One setting, in particular, was witnessing and helping her father through his workers’ compensation and personal injury case that spanned from when she was 10 to 22 years old. Carrillo witnessed her injured father and breadwinner lose everything and be forced to declare bankruptcy with an attorney who, in hindsight, did not provide competent representation. At that time, Carrillo recognized something was amiss and that she lacked the legal know-how to protect her family. With the determination to eventually attend law school, in 2016, Carrillo earned her Bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in Chicano/Latino studies from Portland State University.

Before law school, Carrillo entered the legal field as a paralegal for an individually-owned immigration law firm. With her linguistic and cultural skills as a Spanish speaker, Carrillo was not only able to listen and communicate with Spanish-speaking clients but also relate and empathize with their experiences. This level of connection produces a robust quality of work that can elevate a client’s application to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After a fulfilling year and a half helping people adjust their legal statuses and more, Carrillo sought to learn more about immigration law in the nonprofit sector. Starting in 2016 with the new administration, Carrillo witnessed her clients experience overwhelming waves of fear, uncertainty, and burnout. Due to witnessing and empathizing with her clients as they experienced increased trauma, Carrillo realized she could not sustain a career in immigration law without feeling overwhelmed by secondary trauma.

Through the networks of her communities, Carrillo found herself working for two elected officials at the City of Portland from 2018 to 2021. Carrillo had a “front-row seat to how law informs policy and impacts the daily lives of people.” She developed an understanding of local government structure and saw the power it has in interpreting federal and state law. Carrillo became a point of contact between the elected officials and the people of Portland as she provided support to the city’s response to the pandemic, where systems and resources were being distributed to people and businesses in need. Through this work, Carrillo learned the important role tax data played in the roll-out of federal and state assistance. Carrillo quickly learned that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) information is generally inaccessible and, at times, not reflective of the economic, social, and cultural nuances and environments of low-income, mixed immigration status, multi-generational households, and individuals. As a result, this and many other experiences guided Ms. Carrillo to her interest in tax law.

Carrillo flourished when she came to the LITC. At the small nonprofit legal clinic for low-income taxpayers, Carrillo immediately found her stride with staff and connected deeply with the clients. Carrillo shared that during college, the IRS sent her a notice stating she owed back taxes. In her communities, the usual response was to panic and do as the document says – no one could afford to get into trouble with the federal government. That experience enabled her to reassure clients that their tax controversies are not the end of the world. Using her Spanish skill set in the legal setting, managing high caseloads, reviewing interpretations of law, and her personal experience with the IRS, became her means to use the law as a tool and succeed for her LITC clients.

The people at the LITC hold a special place in Carrillo’s heart. During her internship, she finally saw herself and her worth in the legal profession. The Clinic works not only to support low-income taxpayers but its law students’ development into professionals who center intercultural responsibility. This support helped Carrillo envision a better future for law students who relate to her identity and experiences and, in turn, a better future for the legal profession as a whole.