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“Broken Doors,” Episode 1
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new top editor of Georgetown’s flagship law journal is ‘undocumented and unafraid’

Agnes Lee leads a Zoom meeting for the Georgetown Law Journal. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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As a child, Agnes Lee was taught to be fearful of the police and of airports. She didn’t understand why until her mother shared a family secret when Lee began applying to college. Lee and her parents had been living illegally in the United States.

Even as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, Lee initially kept her immigration status hidden. She wanted protection for her parents, for herself.

Now, Lee is outspoken about her status and using her new post at the helm of Georgetown Law School’s prestigious law journal to broaden and diversify the ranks of authors and student leaders. Lee, 26, is believed to be the first openly undocumented student elected editor in chief of the flagship journal at a top U.S. law school.

“We have a privilege and responsibility to move scholarship forward,” said Lee, who was born in South Korea and grew up in Los Angeles.

Choosing to publish pieces that make novel arguments backed by rigorous research can “push litigation and fight for human rights and civil rights.”

For the first time, flagship law journals at top U.S. law schools are all led by women

Even in her high-profile role, considered the law school’s top student position, Lee faces barriers because she is a “dreamer,” one of the more than 640,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

One of the biggest perks that typically comes with the long hours spent leading the law review is unlikely to be available to Lee. Her immigration status severely limits her eligibility to work as a law clerk for a federal judge, barring her from employment in courthouses in all major U.S. cities. Federal agencies, including the courts, are generally prohibited from hiring people who are not lawful permanent residents or eligible to apply for citizenship. There are exceptions for employees outside the continental United States and for unpaid volunteers, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“I knew that going into this process, but it’s particularly sharp as people ask me about it more and more,” Lee said. “This opportunity swings open doors I never thought could be possible. I’m one by one shutting them as I let people know my status.”

Lee’s legal writing professor, Eun Hee Han, said the election of an openly undocumented immigrant sends an important message to Lee’s peers and aspiring lawyers at a time when Congress is again considering legislation that would put dreamers on a fast track to citizenship.

“This new generation of lawyers coming in is including more voices and more diverse voices, and that just fills me with such hope for how strong we will become in terms of the law and our society,” Han said.

Of Lee, she added, “with every accomplishment she achieves, she turns around and thinks of how to smooth the road for those behind her.”

Democrats call for ‘big, bold’ action on immigration as Biden’s bill is introduced

Lee’s election comes as President Biden has taken steps to restore and enhance the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Barack Obama created in 2012 and that the Trump administration tried unsuccessfully to end. In Congress, Democrats have introduced legislation backed by Biden that would make dreamers and others with temporary protected status immediately eligible for green cards and allow them to apply for citizenship after three years.

Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly support allowing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to remain and eventually apply for citizenship, according to the results of a Quinnipiac University poll released last month. But proposals in Congress to grant dreamers citizenship have never reached the president’s desk, and a federal judge in Texas could rule at any time on the legality of the DACA program.

As a student, protected temporarily from deportation, the Trump administration years induced anxiety for Lee. She regularly renewed her DACA papers, providing a fingerprint and hundreds of dollars, worried about the threat of deportation if the president successfully shut down the program.

Lee’s latest renewal arrived by mail just days before the Supreme Court ruled against President Donald Trump last June, finding that the administration had not properly considered the impact of rescinding the program. The day the court announced its decision, Lee was home on the West Coast and set her alarm in anticipation to check the court’s opinions online. Before she could click on the ruling, a friend texted, “We won!”

Lee arrived in the United States at age 2. She grew up working at her mother’s Korean fried chicken restaurant in Los Angeles, the resident English speaker among a staff of immigrants who spoke Spanish or Korean.

Until she got to college, Lee didn’t know the term “undocumented,” but she quickly found a supportive community of other first-generation immigrant students who helped Lee embrace her identity as both Korean and American. At Georgetown, Lee stood out as a leader among students opposed to the School of Foreign Service’s graduation speaker.

In advance of the May 2016 speech, the school organized a conversation with then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose anticipated presence on campus as the Obama administration’s top immigration official made some students and their families uncomfortable. By the end of the talk, at Lee’s suggestion, Johnson had agreed to wear an orange wristband to show his support for the students during his speech.

Emily Zenick, the school’s chief of staff, recalled Lee’s effectiveness in talking about her personal experience and then translating that into tangible actions to help others. She commanded “great respect among fellow students, but also faculty and staff with clear ideas about what her community needed,” Zenick recalled.

As a senior in 2016, Lee stood onstage in grand Gaston Hall to tell her story more broadly in a TEDx talk, telling the audience to “share my secret with the world. I am undocumented and unafraid.”

Before her election in January, Lee spoke with about 80 journal members in one-on-one Zoom calls and participated in two lengthy online town hall meetings filled with rapid-fire questions about her plans.

Lee and the editors of the law school’s other journals signed a letter last week condemning racist statements about the performance of Black students in a recorded conversation between two professors. One professor was fired and the other placed on leave.

“This entire incident would be abhorrent and unacceptable in any context but is especially poignant at Georgetown Law, an institution dedicated to the pursuit of justice,” according to the letter Lee signed in support of the Georgetown Black Law Students Association.

The outgoing journal editor, Toni Deane, who was the publication’s first Black editor in chief, said Lee and her senior board are already making a difference. Among the 13 articles selected so far for the journal Lee is overseeing, there are seven pieces with authors who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, and five that include female authors.

“They’re already crushing it,” Deane said. “The people who are selecting these pieces matter.”

Lee’s current DACA protection is set to expire the week after she is scheduled to graduate from law school next year.

Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.