The moment this year when Minnesota ended a 20-year ban on undocumented immigrants being able to legally obtain drivers’ licenses was a moment for Susana De León ’01 to reflect on her long career as an immigration attorney.
The law was a win amidst what has been years of frustration with a system that De León says is designed to keep people out, rather than bring them in.
“There’s no real goodwill to create a system that deals with immigration in an efficient, humane and expedited manner,” she said. “In the 22 years I’ve been practicing, plus a few years before that as a student worker, I am still serving some of the clients I served in the late 1990s.”
That frustration keeps De León focused: “My priorities are clear. I get up early and I approach things in a certain way that allows me to be present.”
Born in Torreon, Mexico, De León emigrated to the United States in 1985 and moved to Minnesota four years later. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, she headed to law school and chose William Mitchell because of its support of nontraditional students. She had two young children at the time. The school also offered ample opportunity to connect with mentors and lawyers in the field who helped her land internships and gain valuable experiences that she still uses.
After graduating in 2001, De León opened her own law firm advocating for immigrant families. She marvels at how much personal information her clients at De León and Nestor must disclose—including medical and psychological records—as they fight for asylum or crime victim visas.
“It’s particularly troubling when the people going through that process are original Indigenous people of this continent,” she said. “Three centuries ago, not only were they all free to come and go, but a large part of what is now the U.S. was still Mexico.
“It’s obscene that descendants of those same indigenous people have to go through this degrading process.”
De León’s exposure to degradation dates to her mother’s stories in Mexico of being shamed for wearing traditional dresses and having long hair. From an early age, De León took up traditional Aztec dancing. The dances are part of ceremonies that aim to “honor and connect with ancestors.” She founded Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue in 2000 to keep that culture alive in Minnesota.
In 2018, she became a “general” in the dance tradition, which she told MPR News was “harder to earn than her law degree.” The distinction “means I have great responsibility to preserve the teachings of our ancestors.”
As frustrating as the immigration system is, De León still takes time to appreciate the wins—from a new Drivers’ Licenses for All law that she advocated for to temporary or permanent visa reprieves for her clients. She also won a lifetime achievement award this year from the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs for her decades of tireless advocacy.
“Right now, I’m a cynic because the system is not working,” she said. “But the reason we get these wins is because we keep chugging through.
“It keeps me here, and it keeps me devoted to my clients and their cases.”
This article was written by Riham Feshir, a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.