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Alumni Short

Winter Torres '07

It’s a Human Right to Seek Out a Better Life

Winter Torres '07 is part Mexican, part Anglo, and grew up in a small New Mexico town near Arizona and the Mexican border. Perhaps as a result, she has focused on immigration and public interest law, and is fascinated by politics.

Although her family was poor, Ms. Torres says that she was encouraged to do well in school and always knew she would go to college. Her father worked as a mechanic and laborer, her mother as a nurses' assistant. "A lot of traditional Latino families pressure women to marry and have children early on, but my parents were not like that," she notes.

Attending the University of New Mexico on a full scholarship, Ms. Torres at first planned to major in computer science. "It was the new thing, and I'd always done really well in math," she says. "But in my last two years in high school, the good math teachers retired." Feeling under-prepared and concerned about keeping up her grade point average, Ms. Torres switched to political science. "I still love politics," she admits. "I'm addicted."

In fact, Ms. Torres worked for David E. Bonior, then a congressman from Michigan and the democratic whip. Working for the secondmost powerful democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives was a wonderful experience. "I was trained in floor procedure," says Ms. Torres. "I loved civil procedure at the Law School and trace my affinity for procedure back to my experience on the Hill." With only her senior thesis to finish, Ms. Torres decided to stay in Washington, D.C., and when Congressman Bonior left Congress, she worked for Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis. "I wish I'd stayed there longer, but 9/11 scared me," Ms. Torres admits. "I only lived ten blocks from the Capitol. When I went home for Christmas, I decided to move back to New Mexico."

She worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Bill Richardson, and when he was elected, he appointed her as the assistant to the secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department. "I think all lawyers-all people-should have a better comprehension of how prisons work," she says. "The recidivism rate is terrible, but no politician wants to touch it. Prisoners need education, but there's no money for that. If you're involved in criminal justice, you should know where you're sending people."

Although accepted to law school at the University of New Mexico, Ms. Torres decided to retake the LSAT and try for "one of the great schools." She chose Cornell because it was ranked so well, because of the small classes, and because she was thinking about a joint degree in law and labor relations. "I come from a union family," she explains, "but when I got to the Law School, I realized a law degree would be enough."

When she first received her undergraduate scholarship, admits Ms. Torres, "I felt some resentment from some of the people I grew up with. But my family is proud of me. Part of the reason I'm in law school is to help them out." However, she says, it's sometimes strange to be in Law School classes with colleagues who she believes don't understand and have never seen poverty.

At the Law School, Ms. Torres served as associate editor of the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy and president of the Latina/o American Law Students Association. With the latter group, she encouraged the Law School to hire its first-ever Latino professor, Eduardo M. Peñalver. Her focus on immigration and public interest law led her to enroll in both the Asylum and Convention Against

Torture Appellate Clinic and the International Human Rights Clinic. She very much enjoyed the immigration seminar with Professor Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, as well as a class on labor law and immigrant workers, which she took with Professor Lance A. Compa at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She is also thankful to Associate Dean Anne Lukingbeal, Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, Professor Joel Atlas, and Assistant Dean Karen V. Comstock for all of their support.

"My passion is immigration law," Ms. Torres says. "It's a fundamental human right to seek out a better life. Industry needs immigrant workers, and under our law, when employers process new employees, they are effectively deputized as immigration officials. There is an inherent conflict of interest in that arrangement. If the government was truly interested in stopping illegal immigration, they would have implemented an effective identification system by now," Ms. Torres continues. "People are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. Immigration law is built on conflicting needs and rationales," she says, "and the push and pull phenomenon taking place between employers and restrictionists is just another example of a fundamental conflict."

"Since 9/11, immigration law has taken a hit," she continues. "It would be unconstitutional to target a particular national origin, so the government has chosen to target everyone." Even asylum law has become more restrictive.

Ms. Torres returned to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to spend a summer working for the Office of the General Counsel of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); then clerked with law firm Holland and Hart; and interned with U.S. district judge Phillip S. Figa in Denver in 2006. Now that she has completed her law degree, she will clerk for Robert C. Brack, U.S. district judge for the District of New Mexico.

She spent her last term at the Law School as an extern with the VAWA Immigration Project run by Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) established a procedure to assist immigrant victims of domestic violence and provides funding for domestic violence programs. "The law is working," Ms. Torres notes. "The immigration provisions are really good." But, prior to the recent initiation of a pilot prosecution program in Albuquerque, a huge percentage of all domestic violence cases were still being dismissed. If the victim is an undocumented immigrant, she is likely to be isolated from society; domestic violence only deepens that isolation by cutting her off from her friends and family. Ms. Torres worked with domestic abuse counselors as she assisted clients in legalizing their immigration status. "It's a series of legal hoops," she explains. "Immigration status issues oftentimes extend the time a woman is precluded from obtaining legal employment to support herself and her children."

After clerking for Judge Brack, Ms. Torres plans to return to Holland and Hart. However, she adds, "I do see myself going back into politics eventually."

Ms. Torres is often asked where she acquired her first name. "I was born in September, but my mom read a novel, Shadow of the Moon, where the heroine was named Winter," she explains. In the novel, by M. M. Kaye, the heroine is part English, part Spanish, and grew up in India. Living as she does in several different worlds, Winter Torres loves her name and finds its origin very fitting

Judith Pratt