Updated: Sep 23
Overview: Dean Carolina Núñez discusses her background, her work as an immigration lawyer and the effects she saw that immigration can have in both business and government policy, and her work in multiple other organizations.
Guest: Carolina Núñez is the Associate Dean for Faculty and Curriculum and Professor of Law at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. She is a summa cum laude graduate of the Brigham Young University Law School and Managing Editor of the BYU Law Review. Dean Núñez co-founded the J. Reuben Clark Law School’s Refugee and Immigration Initiative. Her commentary on immigration-related current events has appeared in the Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune, on BYU Radio, and KUER.
Interviewer: Ok so will you just tell me a little about your background, like where you grew up?
Interviewer: And where you live?
Nunez: I was actually born in Provo. Right here at what is now known as Intermountain Medical Center. My dad is from Venezuela and my mom is from Las Vegas. They met here at BYU in the 70’s. I was born just before we moved to Venezuela. So I grew up in Venezuela. My dad worked for a petroleum company named […]. So we lived, actually, in a petroleum camp. I was in this house that was on stilts. Just outside of […], a little town. There was literally an oil well in my backyard.
Nunez: They actually painted Woody Woodpecker on it. And I think it was to make us all feel like we weren’t all being killed by chemicals or whatever else was going on… I don’t know. So I lived in a bunch of towns sort of out in the petroleum world. [Names I don’t recognize]. For anyone who knows those towns. My dad is from […]. I spent my early years sort of in this petroleum world then my parents got divorced. My mom came back to the United States and my dad stayed in Venezuela in […]. I basically went back and forth from the time I was 9 years old I would do 9 months in the US and 3 months in Venezuela. And I did that all the way through high school, college at BYU, and part of law school as well.
Interviewer: Oh wow. That’s really cool. When you came to the US when you were 9 years old did you have any English knowledge or did you learn it mostly here?
Nunez: So I did have English because my mom spoke English with me when I was in Venezuela. I didn’t really read in English. So actually those first few years in school were actually a little hard in terms of reading. Writing I was actually okay at. It was the reading that was harder. And I even remember, in my school, there was a certain number of pages we were supposed to read by the end of each term. In that first year I remember just picking up picture books that only had a few words on each page because that was all I could manage to get the number of pages that I had to read. And I had done really well in school in Venezuela. I had always liked school. So it was really hard for me to imagine that I might not be perfect in school.
Interviewer: Okay so then you went to law school here at BYU?
Nunez: I did.
Interviewer: And what made you decide to do that?
Nunez: I think the biggest thing driving me toward law school is that I love school and I didn’t want to leave school. And law school was an opportunity for me to continue doing school! So not a very good reason. I had some vague sense that having the law degree, the credential would help me do things to improve the world. And I think it was a pretty typical idealist going to law school to change the world. Now law school has a way…it doesn’t really ruin that…you can still be an idealist coming out of law school…but you recognize all the obstacles and challenges and what the system is like and it was a very useful degree. And I tell everybody that my first year of law school was the single most mind- opening piece of my education still to this date.
Interviewer: That’s awesome. Ok so after law school what did you do?
Nunez: So after law school I clerked for a judge on the US court of appeals for the fifth circuit. And his chambers were in Austin. So I clerked there for a year. By that point I had been married for a few years. My husband actually had a job in Utah still so we commuted for a year. So I lived in Austin and he lived here in Utah. And he and I would fly back and forth.
Interviewer: Oh wow. That’s crazy. So then after you clerked for a year what did you do next?
Nunez: Then I took a job for a law firm in Salt Lake City and I just did commercial…general commercial litigation. So business to business disputes.
Interviewer: And then after that is that when you came to BYU to teach? How long have you been here?
Nunez: Yes, that’s right. I started teaching in January 2008.
Interviewer: And has most of your research been focused on?
Nunez: My focus has been immigration and citizenship. A lot of my research is focused on undocumented immigrants and their rights under the constitution and state legislation adn then citizenship, naturalization.
Interviewer: What have been some of the most interesting things you’ve learned about as you’ve been studying immigration law and undocumented immigrants?
Nunez: When I was practicing I didn’t really do immigration law. So my only experience with immigration was my own experience coming to the US as well as a little bit of immigration work I had done for family members as they were making their way to the United States from Venezuela. And I really didn’t know that much about immigration, honestly. When I began to really research immigration law and get to know it I was shocked by how many myths there are about immigration and immigration law there are.
Interview: What have been some of the most interesting things that you have learned about as you been studying immigration law and undocumented immigrants?
Nunez. When I was practicing, I didn’t really do immigration law, so my only experience with immigration was my own coming to the U.S. as well as a little bit of immigration work I had done for family members who were immigrating from Venezuela. I didn’t really know much about immigration honestly. When I began to really research immigration law and get to know it, I was shocked by how many myths about immigration and immigration law there are all over the place. You hear it from everywhere. One of the biggest things I like to talk about when people ask me questions about immigration laws sort of dispel myths about immigration. There are a lot of things like that, where I would have never known what the reality of immigration looks like if I hadn’t actually studied it in depth. It took me at least 3 years to feel like I had a handle on what our immigration system looks like. I learn things all the time about immigration law.
Interviewer: What are some of the myths you think are kind of general?
Nunez: One thing that I hear people say all the time is…I can tell that their vision of who undocumented immigrants are is that they are people from Mexico or central America who have crossed over the southern border. But the reality is that, the vast majority of people who become undocumented immigrants today are overstaying a visa. So they’ve actually arrived on airplanes or other ports of entry and had a visa to be here, but actually overstayed. That is one myth I hear all the time and that actually turns out to be fairly important to policy. Because if the concern is undocumented immigrants, if it’s not the border than maybe a wall makes no sense at all. Just thinks like that I think if people knew that it would be relevant to policy, maybe.
Interviewer: That is very interesting. I know that you have done a lot of work in Dilley, TX, right? Can you tell me what you do there?
Nunez: Yes, so Dilley is home to the largest family immigration detention center and family detention center is a little bit of a misnomer, it is just women and children. So even if the women and children come with a father or uncle or whoever, there are no grown men in this facility. But what we do is we take students to volunteer for a week preparing women and children for their credible fear interviews are interviews you have in the detention center to determine if you should be released into the United States to be able to pursue an asylum claim or whether you should be returned to your country of origin. It is like a threshold of determination, do you have something that an immigration judge should hear or not? So we take our students to help prepare women and children for that.
Interviewer: Where did you find center in Dilley?
Nunez: Well, family detention started up during the Obama administration and I just started seeing it in the news. First it started with these temporary facilities that the administration had set up and there were a lot of my colleagues in immigration law that were going and doing volunteer extent at these temporary facilities. The stories that they reported, the experiences they had I was thinking wow this is something where we should take out students, but I could not figure out how to really do it. I couldn’t figure the bureaucracy of getting it approved at the university for example. Also, I was worried there would a lot of secondary trauma because the stories these detainees tell are horrible, really really cruel and unspeakable gang violence. I was worried about our students and how they would react to that. So, I have a much more brave colleague [Kathogistine] Adams and she said, “You know what, I’m gonna go. I’m gonna go do this, you wanna come with me?” I said yeah let’s just do it, you and me and she actually went with her family and I tagged along with her. I volunteered for one week, it was hard and I felt there was a lot of drama. But, it wasn’t something that would be crushing to our students, I thought our students could do this, we both did. So since then, we have been alternating taking students, for a week at a time during our break, we have a one week break each semester and our students go.
Interviewer: Ok stepping back, I wanted to ask a few questions more about your childhood. Do you think there was any cultural shocks you had when you were in each place or cultural differences that you noticed that were interesting?
Nunez: I mean there is a million cultural differences that I wouldn’t even be able to catalog at all. Yeah there is a lot, I remember moving here to the US, I went to Las Vegas so when I was 9 months here and three months there, those first cycles of that were in Las Vegas. But pop culture was more important to 9-year olds than here in the US for example than it was in Venezuela, I remember this was the late 80s, the hair that was 7 inches off of your head, just things I had never seen. I remember going up to a girl, asking her “How do you do that with your hair?” And she didn’t really want to talk to me, she said “Curling iron.” She then turned around and walked away. I had never even heard of what a curling iron is. These were just things I had never seen. I had never seen computers in my classroom and it’s not that I went to a bad school in Venezuela, I went to a Catholic private school that was very good. But, computers were not in the classroom. It was just a very different world. I still to this day feel that I missed the 80s in it’s entirety, so when people say stuff about the 80s. They say wow you were living in the 80s, I was only living like the 70s in Venezuela.
I was watching reruns from the 70s, I felt like I had a very different childhood compared to other people, there are a myriad of other cultural differences.
Interviewer: That is a good example though, the pop culture. Ok another question I had: What kind of impact do you think immigration law has on businesses?
Nunez: So, a lot of immigration is actually started by businesses. Businesses need employees, they either cannot find what they are looking for within the United States, or enough of what they are looking for within the United States, so they go outside. Depending on what immigration laws look like that determines whether these businesses can hire who they want to hire. It’s interesting because I talk to people who maybe you would consider on the conservative scale of politics who are non the less very liberitarian when it comes to immigration. So while we often associate conservatism in politics with more restrictive immigration, they are more actually more liberal in immigration, precisely for the business needs.
You’ve got to hire people to do this. I have think about times when we are more restrictionist and there have been states that have passed legislation that made it really difficult to be an immigrant in the state. I think of some Southern states a few years ago. The effects resulted in farms having crops rot.
Interviewer: Ok that’s interesting. So tell me about the work you did in Venezuela?
Nunez: So, one summer during law school. So I told you I would go back and forth between the US and Venezuela. One summer I was in Venezuela, I had finished my first year of law school. I took an internship kind of job at a law firm in Venezuela. I was doing work for them. So that is my sole professional work experience in Venezuela, but it was really fascinating actually. It was during a politically turbulent time in Caracas, in Venezuela in general, particularly in Caracas.
I was really interesting to see, we from the outside will look at a country in political turmoil and just try to imagine life comes to a screeching halt when these things happen. But, life has to keep going. So we were all showing up at work in the face of tear gas just outside the building. That was one interesting aspect. The other interesting thing was that summer I also worked for a little while in a law firm in the United States. In the law firm in Venezuela I was at, there were women who were lawyers and men who were lawyers. I saw more cultural acceptance and tolerance for women working outside of the home as a lawyer more than I saw in the US, which I thought was really interesting. We often think South America as being less accepting of non-traditional career paths for genders and more rigid gender ideas. But, I didn’t feel that way in Venezuela. This was an interesting takeaway.
I also felt there was a lot of camaraderie in that law firm in Venezuela. That was not to say there was no camaraderie in the United States. But, people were very friendly with each other and I think maybe it is a difference in business culture in being warmer. I don’t know if “casual” is the right word, but just having an actual friendly relationship on top of the business relationship., where I feel like in the US we do a lot of arms’ length deals. I feel like what I saw there was a little more relationship-building than we have here
Interview: That’s cool! That’s a good point. I also read that you sit on the Board of Better Days 2020, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Nunez: Yeah so Beter Days 2020 is a non-profit dedicated to popularizing Utah women’s history. The idea here is to highlight the contrast. In the news and studies, Utah often doesn’t come out as the most friendly place for womens’ leadership, advancement, or education.
We have a lot of stats where we need to catch up with the rest of the country. But, if we go back in history not too long, we were on the cutting edge. We were the first to have women voting in Utah, Wyoming also was pretty early with us. We had women who were getting advanced degrees and having careers very early on. This organization is dedicated to spreading that news in the [renneck?] to the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.
Interviewer: So besides spreading the news, what are some other steps we should take as society to further women’s success and get them more in leadership roles?
Nunez: I think the spreading the news is the biggest thing. For me telling stories is really really important. I see people’s eyes light up when we communicate in stories.
So I tell the story of some women’s suffrage leader, people identify with that person. When you can identify with somebody, then you can see a little bit of that person in you and sort of see that potential. I think that’s a huge piece of it. In fact, this organization there are a lot of boys spreading that news. There are celebrations and educational modules for public schools. I think we all want each other to maximize our potential. I believe in the best intentions of society and people. So, if we could give more voice and more action to those desires and intentions, it would be easier for women not to feel the cultural pressure they might feel that is keeping them from doing what they want to explore.
Interviewer: Yeah, I like that. What would you say are good or necessary characteristics of a leader?
Nunez: I think it is really important to be honest and transparent. I think it is easy when you are in a decision-making position to just make decisions and not reveal your true reason for that.
Maybe you are worried that it would elicit a reaction of some kind. I think if you can navigate that and be transparent and honest. I think people trust you more. Not only will they trust your decision-making, but they will trust you to take the feedback that they give you and consider it and give it it’s due weight. I think when you have trust, it is a lot easier to work together. At the end of the day, I think that is what a leader is doing: trying to get a group of people to work together.
Interviewer: That’s really good. A lot of our audience is students. I guess my last question would be: What advice would you give to people who are just graduating and going out into the work force?
Nunez: I would say I see this in students more and more. I say that if I am 100 years old, this has always existed. It hasn’t been that long when I felt this fear to make a mistake. The biggest thing I am learning and I still hate making mistakes, right? It is just to embrace making mistakes. It would be better to try than to not try anything. There are a lot of situations that I have regretted, standing idly by or not doing anything, but I have never regretted trying something even when I have made a mistake.