Law School Student of the Year: Stephanie Barrera, Western State

Stephanie Barrera has spent countless hours outside the classroom of Western State University College of Law to help advocate for immigrants’ rights. She has drawn from her own life experiences to represent clients with mental health disabilities, substance abuse issues and trauma resulting from gang violence. She has maintained a position on her law school’s honor roll and several student organizations, all while balancing the responsibilities of a full-time job.

Barrera's fervor for immigration law is a result of her family’s difficult past. Her parents fled El Salvador during the civil war. Her father was a police officer at a time where officers and their entire families were being executed. Although they applied for refugee status in the U.S., they were denied. Rather than wait for certain death, her parents came to the U.S. undocumented along with by their two sons, Stephanie’s brothers. Their decision was the right one: Just one month after arriving here, their home in El Salvador was bombed.

Stephanie was born in the U.S., and the family hoped for brighter times ahead. However, when she was 8 years old, her oldest brother was killed at the age of 19 by a rival gang-member. No one would testify against his killer for fear of retribution, but after a year-long battle, the killer was finally convicted. This event altered the trajectory of her entire family. Barrera's other brother became addicted to methamphetamine, and ended up in the criminal justice system at just 16 years old. He remains incarcerated.

Refusing to fall victim to her past, Barrera's zeal for justice flourished at Western State. She utilized her experience with gang violence and drug addiction to foster a client-centered approach to legal counseling for individuals experiencing severe trauma. Last year, she successfully represented a 19-year old woman from Honduras who was seeking asylum because she was fleeing gang retribution against her entire family, which had resulted in the torture and death of her siblings. (Her client now lives on the East Coast in freedom; the day after her client’s release from immigration detention, Barrera took her client to Disneyland!).

Barrera is currently part of a team of students representing a client before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in connection with the law school’s Ninth Circuit clinical program.  Her client this year battled with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression following years of physical and sexual assault. Her client had been removed from the country as a result of convictions stemming from her addiction. Determined to help others avoid the ordeals of her family, Barrera is working tirelessly to research arguments related to trauma and the long-lasting effects on victims.