Building connections

Oneida Vargas gains hands-on experience in immigration law

As a child, Loyola law student Oneida Vargas wanted to be a teacher, a dream that died when a friend told her that as an undocumented immigrant, Vargas couldn’t be hired as an educator. Then, at Juarez High School in Chicago’s Pilsen community, she took a class on law and society.

“Most of my classmates and their parents were immigrants who didn’t know their rights, so the class was taught with that focus,” Vargas says. Around the same time, Vargas gained DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status—and a new career possibility opened up. “I fell in love with the idea of immigration law,” she says. 

When she joined a mock trial team as part of the class, then-Loyola law student Rafael Albarran (JD ’14) was one of her coaches. “Our team ended up making it really far, and I was one of the four winners in the citywide competition,” Vargas says. “At that point I knew I was going to be an attorney.”

Making her way

Vargas was one of fewer than 25 students to receive a full-ride Chancellor’s Scholarship at Southern Illinois University, where she majored in political science. She also was awarded the inaugural Latino Heritage Legislative Internship for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and honored by the Illinois Department of Human Rights and other organizations for her advocacy on behalf of the undocumented immigrant community. She was featured in the documentary I, Too, Dreamerican produced by another SIU student.

Throughout her undergrad years, Vargas kept in touch with Albarran, by then a practitioner in family law. He offered her a job after graduation. “He trusted me so much—he believed in my potential and what I could do,” says Vargas of the extensive practical skills she gained in the position. Vargas also worked as a case manager for La Jornada Chicago’s Youth Advocate Program, managing the reunification process of unaccompanied immigrant youth with their families—work she describes as “meaningful and inspiring.”

“I saw myself in many of the kids,” Vargas says. “If my family had come to the U.S. at this time, I could have been one of them. It broke my heart, but also inspired me to advocate for this generation of immigrants.”

Advocating for immigrants

As a Loyola University Chicago School of Law student, Vargas was one of the three summer 2022 inaugural Elizabeth Frankel Fellows at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, based in New York City. Working with Loyola law alum Maria Woltjen (JD ’87), who founded the center, Vargas advocated for an unaccompanied immigrant child who’s been detained in New York City for many months and is subject to possible deportation. Vargas visited the child at least weekly in the detention center, helped her analyze her options, and accompanied her to court hearings and interviews.

It’s a role Vargas has continued “to minimize the trauma to the child of people leaving her life,” Vargas says. “Although the fellowship has ended and I’m no longer responsible for advocating for her reunification with family, I can help with small things to make her time in detention less unpleasant, like arranging for her to get a haircut and see a specific therapist.”

“I’ve connected with people from all over the U.S. who share my goals of advocating for vulnerable people.”

Gaining more valuable experience

As a Loyola law student, Vargas complements her ongoing work with the Young Center by serving as a fellow at the Loyola-based Center for the Human Rights of Children. She’s working on a project that will train immigration judges to better navigate cases involving children with disabilities and coauthoring an article for the School of Law’s Children’s Legal Rights Journal (expected spring 2023) that compares the immigration system and domestic legal system’s treatment of children. “For instance, if families are separated in the domestic system, it’s only after lengthy procedures are followed—family separation is not the default, as it is in the immigration system,” she says.

“Loyola has been wonderful: people wanting to do better and be better,” she says. “I’ve connected with people from all over the U.S. who share my goals of advocating for vulnerable people.” –Gail Mansfield (January 2023)


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