Carly Sessions, an Arizona native, found herself unemployed and bored after college and a year-long teaching internship. On a whim she decided to apply for law school with her husband. It was there that her passion for immigration law was ignited. Carly discusses her journey to become a lawyer, and the heartbreaking and often frustrating challenges it brings at work, home, and even at church. She is grateful for the opportunities God has given her to help his children while upholding the Church’s stance on immigration.
How did you go from teaching to being a lawyer?
That’s a great question. And I still ask myself that. In high school, I always said that I was going to go to law school. And in high school it was just because I was young and I was good at history and English. In my mind, people who were good at history and English go to law school and people who were good at math and science went to med school. And I wasn’t good at math and science so I was going to go to law school. Then I went to BYU and I decided to actually pursue teaching. I taught for a year, in Utah, during my first year of marriage to David. He was still at BYU.
My first year of teaching was an internship. They paid me half a teacher’s salary and it counted as my student teaching, so I wasn’t technically licensed yet, but I did all the work of a first year teacher. I was hoping I would continue at that same school, that they’d be able to hire me and pay me a full salary — and then the recession hit. Utah had no money for teachers whatsoever so they had to replace me with another intern. Dave was still in school, so it’s not like we could move somewhere and I could teach somewhere else. I was like, “Man, what do I do now?” Dave was studying for the LSAT and so I thought, eh, I’ll just go to law school with David. I was kind of joking, but decided I’d at least take the LSAT.
He and I studied for the LSAT together. I took the LSAT and got a great score. Even at that point, I still wasn’t sure that I was going to go to law school. But then I got that great score, and thought, well, I might as well apply to some places. The first place I applied was to GW Law. It was one of our top choices and I got a full-ride scholarship. So I was like, “Okay.”
I feel like God directs me. He opens one little door at a time. I told God, “I’m going to need a real clear indication if you want me to go to law school,” and then I got in, got a full-ride scholarship, David got into the same school, and it was one of our top choices. It felt clear that the answer was “Yes. If this is something you want, go for it. The doors are open to you.” So that’s how I went from teaching to being a lawyer. I was bored that summer. I didn’t have a job, so I studied for the LSAT.
What did your mom and dad say when you told them you were going to law school?
I was driving home from teaching high school the day that my principal told me they weren’t going to be able to renew my contract, and I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, when I had the thought “I should just go to law school with David.” Well, David was in class so I immediately called my mom, and when I told her my idea, she said, “That’s funny I just had the exact same thought.” So, the short answer is that they were very supportive.
Did you go on a mission?
I did. I went on a mission to Brazil halfway through college. Went to two years of undergrad, came back and had one year and then my student teaching year. I went to Florianopolis, in southern Brazil. If you’ve heard of it, I’ll give you a gold star because no one has ever heard of it!
Do you have to pick a major while you’re in law school?
Carly: No, you don’t have to pick a major. Most people find things they’re interested in and focus their course work on something specific, but you don’t have to. I went to law school with my background in education thinking I either wanted to be involved in educational law or immigration or international law of some sort.
I think I was interested in immigration law because of my mission, but also when I taught high school I had a couple of undocumented students that I ended up helping a lot after school. They would come in and I would help them with their work. I remember one said to me once, “Why should I even try in high school? There’s nothing available to me. I don’t have my papers. I’m undocumented. What’s the point of even graduating high school?” It was heartbreaking. I also grew up in Arizona. Immigration is a hot button issue in Arizona, and so it was always on my mind and something I was very passionate about, very interested in.
My first summer in law school I did two internships. I did one in education law and I did one in immigration. I hated my education one. It was boring! I loved the internship I did with immigration law. I don’t speak Spanish — I’m still learning. So you might ask why am I doing immigration law if I don’t speak Spanish? There are plenty of immigrants who aren’t Spanish speaking, but still I am learning it so I can be a better immigration lawyer.
Tell me about your job and what you do and what your work is like.
Carly: Sure. I graduated law school in May of 2014. I didn’t work much at all that first year. I was studying for the Bar. So I studied for and passed the bar that summer. Literally right after I finished the bar I found out I was pregnant with Anna. I had a baby on the way and I had Bennett already who was still a baby. So I had these two babies! I didn’t work that first year.
But then, like I said, God always opens the right doors at the right times. Just two weeks after Anna was born, I got a call from a previous professor. He said, “Hey, I’ve got a friend who’s looking for someone to do some part-time immigration work. And they’re out by you, near Annapolis. Are you interested?” I was like, “Umm, yeah, actually. That sounds pretty ideal.” So I started that way and have been doing that. I currently have some of my own clients and I work for an organization called Kids in Need of Defense or KIND. They provide representation for immigrant children who arrive in the United States without parents — unaccompanied children.
Are their parents here?
Carly: Generally they’re coming to reunite with one or both parents. But when they made the journey here and when they got to the border they didn’t have parents and a lot of them don’t have parents at all. They’ll come here and live with a brother or sister or aunt or uncle. But the vast majority of them are coming to reunite with a parent.
Where are your clients coming from?
Carly: Central America. All my clients right now are from El Salvador or Guatemala. The clients with KIND, some of them might be from Honduras. The vast majority of them are children.
Why are they immigrating to the United States?
Carly: Well, take El Salvador. El Salvador and Guatemala are overridden with civil strife right now. The gangs basically run the country. If you are a teenager—and a poor teenager, which many of them are — you’re basically taking your life in your hands just to go to school. The gangs will charge people to go to school. They’ll stand outside the schools and make kids pay money to go into the school. Girls are targeted to become gang members’ girlfriends, which is basically just sex slavery. It’s basically you do or die. They’re taking their life in their hands to live in their country.
Many of them have family members who live here and so despite how arduous the journey is to come here… what these kids have been through just to make the journey is heartbreaking. They are willing to take that risk and make that journey through Central America, through Mexico, and across the border because back home is so much worse. And then to come here to a country where they don’t speak the language, where they don’t know many people, where they can be kicked out at any time. They have no status here. They’re living in fear, living in shadows, working under the table, going to school, with what future ahead of them? That’s still better. That’s still a better option for them than the death threats and the rape and the drugs and the gang violence they’re facing in their home country.
How do they get here?
Carly: It costs thousands and thousands of dollars. A lot of their family members will go into huge debts to be able to pay a coyote, a guide, to bring them. They will take buses or cars through Central America.
Mexico has really stepped up its border security and so a lot of kids aren’t riding the train anymore. It used to be that they could jump on a giant train called La Bestia, The Beast, that went straight through Mexico and they would ride on the top of it. Kids were dying all the time doing this because they would get knocked off, gangs would target them, people would be blackmailed on this train. But it went fast and it went all the way through Mexico.
What they do now is get out at the border, between Guatemala and Mexico, they’ll sneak across that border and then they’ll get on a bus or car on the other side that will bring them up through Mexico. Then once they get to the U.S. border, they’ll do the same thing. You know, they’ll get out. They’ll walk across. They’ll sneak across. Most of them are caught and apprehended and put into immigration court. Immigration court is where they’re having to ask the judge to let them stay. There’s very few ways they’re allowed to stay, but they’re trying to prove that they qualify for one of those ways. Otherwise, they’ll be deported back to their home country.
What happens if they are deported back to their country?
Carly: They’re living in hiding, basically. Most of them drop out of school. If you’re a woman or a girl you don’t go out of the house unaccompanied. You live in poverty. You basically just try and survive. And there’s been several cases of people who have been deported and then killed. So it’s an extremely dangerous situation for Central Americans right now. They are, in my opinion, refugees in every sense of the word. They are fleeing extreme violence. They’re fleeing threats to their lives. They are being forced out of their country and trying to make a new life in a safe place.
Not all immigrants are fleeing their countries to find a better life. There are immigrants who are coming here and committing terrible crimes, which makes it hard for people to know whether to build walls or extend their hands. How do we ensure our safety while helping migrants be safe?
Carly: That is a really important point and I’m so glad you brought it up. There are absolutely people who come into the United States with bad intent. Our own citizens commit plenty of crimes and acts of terror, and we certainly want to protect ourselves from any additional threats. However, huge problems arise when people assume that any or all immigrants are a threat to our safety – or even that Americans who look like they might be immigrants, for that matter, are bad people. In my opinion, if a criminal or terrorist wants to find a way into the United States, a wall on the southern border is not going to stop them. The cost of a wall, and the harm it does to foreign relations, far outweigh any benefit it might produce. So how do we protect ourselves? We continue to enforce our laws and the systems already in place that are designed to keep out bad actors. I am very much in favor of deporting violent criminals. I am very much in favor of the extreme vetting that already takes place before people are allowed to come here legally. But we should not start with an assumption that immigrants are bad. I believe Satan uses fear and anger to make people feel threatened so they don’t have any room left in their hearts for faith, charity, or humility, and unfortunately I think we are seeing so much of that in people’s attitudes towards immigrants in the United States today.
How do you still have hope? How do you give your clients hope?
Carly: It’s really difficult. It’s really difficult. Honestly for a lot of them, and this puts a lot of pressure on me obviously, but just having an attorney gives them so much hope. The fact that they know, “Well I’ve got somebody on my side who understands this work.” You know, they understand how difficult it is. They understand that I’m not a miracle worker and I can’t guarantee anything. So they are living in a constant state of, “What’s going to happen to me and what does my future hold?” But I feel like when they come to meet with me that is their source of hope. They know they have an advocate. They’ve got somebody on their side who’s working hard. And that’s what I try to focus on. I try to focus on doing my job, doing the best I can. But yeah, there are sleepless nights. And there are huge disappointments.
There was a case — I’m going to start crying — that I lost last year. I came home and I stayed in bed for two days because I just felt awful. I felt sick. It’s a woman who’s got a son my son’s age. We’re appealing it and her case isn’t over yet, but just that setback did take a toll on me, mentally, emotionally, physically. But I feel like it’s such important work that someone’s got to do it.
I do have to take care of myself. I have to take care of my family, and my relationships. And make sure that I am taking care of myself so that I am able to help them. Because if I’m not taking care of myself then I’m of no use to anyone.
Is your family able to help you get out of a work-related funk?
Carly: Yeah. David is my equal partner in every sense of the word. He’s my best friend. He’s amazing. I feel very lucky I’ve got him as a partner and as a support. He’s very supportive of my work. I’ve probably spent more money than I’ve made, but he’s very supportive of that because he understands how important the work is. It’s important to him and he knows how important it is to me. He helps. My kids, some days they help, some days they don’t. I’ll be honest!
How do you balance your roles as wife, mother, lawyer, primary teacher, and friend?
Carly: Oh, that is the million dollar question, isn’t it? I don’t a lot of the time. It is a constant struggle to feel that I’m giving everyone the time and attention they need and deserve, including myself. And so, some days I’m more mother than I am attorney. And some days I’m more attorney than I am mother. It changes on a day to day basis. So I try to ask myself, what’s the most important thing for me to do right now and then how does that fit into the overall balance of what I’ve been doing lately?
But that is how you balance it, right? Priorities come first.
Carly: Right. You take it a day at a time and a lot of prayer and a lot of re-evaluation — constantly asking “am I doing this right?” which can be discouraging and can feel frustrating, but I feel like when God’s your partner, He’ll help you. He’ll give you what you need when you need it to be able to do all of the things He has asked you to do. I feel like he’s done that with me.
Do you ever feel that He’s led you specifically in a case?
Carly: I’m sure he has. I feel like when I’m doing what I know I’m supposed to be doing, then God is in the details whether I realize it or not. So I can’t point to something specific, but I’m sure he has. I mean, my clients are his children just as much as I’m his child. He has even more interest in their well-being than I do. And I pray for my clients, I pray about my cases, “How should I approach this? What should I do in this legal situation?” You know Jesus is the ultimate advocate. And so he understands how to advocate for people. I definitely pray and ask for direction. I’m positive that the thoughts I have and the actions I take are inspired and directed by him.
Do you believe or feel your job is in alignment with the church’s stance on immigration?
Carly: Absolutely. I know the church has been very careful not to get political as much as possible. There’s something called the Utah Compact, it was released probably 6 or 7 years ago at this point. It lays out general guidelines for how they believe the United States should approach immigration and it was signed by the church. I am very much in line with what it says in there about keeping families together, helping people to square themselves with the law, being humane in our approach toward them, and understanding their stories. So, yeah. I do feel like I’m in alignment with what the church has said.
Within the LDS Church’s own history is a great story of migration, and fleeing an extermination order.
Carly: We know what it’s like to be a religious refugee. We know what that means. I think we understand how the church has been strengthened and made better by various cultures contributing. As the church has spread throughout the world, it’s been made stronger, it’s been made better. The doctrine and the applications of the gospel in people’s lives have been more meaningful and deeper as we’re able to take them to various cultures. I think that we get it. Hopefully we get it.
Have you ever received pushback from ward members who don’t agree with you on immigration? If so, does that test your testimony?
Carly: Yes. That definitely tests my testimony. The recent election was very difficult for me because it felt very personal. And there were people who I love and respect and I know that they voted differently than I did. To know that they are smart, compassionate, good people—how could they vote for an immigration policy that is far from smart and far from compassionate? It made it very difficult for me to have the Christ-like love that I need to have for people. And that’s on me. It’s on me to have Christ-like love for people. But yes, it did test that.
My testimony of the Savior, my testimony of my Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother’s love for me, people can’t take that away from me. That’s my personal relationship and so outside influences can’t really test that, but yes I do struggle to go to church with those who don’t agree with me on immigration. And that’s just how it is. And like I said, I know that’s on me and that I need to learn more Christ-like love and charity for them, but it is extremely difficult.
Have you had pushback?
Carly: Yes. This was interesting. When I was deciding to go to law school, we lived in Provo, Utah. I was the Relief Society President in my ward — it was a family ward, but there were a lot of newlyweds. I did get a lot of pushback about the decision to go to law school. People saying things like, “Oh, you’re going to law school? Well, when are you going to start your family? Or, “Well, what does that mean? Is your testimony going to be strong enough to go to law school?”
And then I got to law school, and was one of very few Mormon women in there. My first year there was one other, and then one of my dearest friends was a year behind me. So at any given time there were two or three of us when I was in law school. And that was difficult. It didn’t test my testimony in any way, but it did put a little pressure on me, honestly. To feel like, “Okay, I’m the only Mormon woman here, I’ve got to stand up for what I believe in and I have to represent Mormon women well because I’m it. People will get their opinion of Mormon women by looking at me.”
My ward in Virginia that we attended when we were in law school was wonderful. I didn’t get any sort of “What, you’re in law school?” kind of reaction from them. It was full of women who balanced motherhood and careers and were pursuing higher education. But yeah, that ward in Provo definitely gave me some pushback. It was confusing, very confusing at the time. Between God’s answers and cultural and outside pressures it was hard for me to make the decision to go to law school because I wasn’t sure which was which. I confused the opinions of men versus the opinions of God. It got a little bit muddled in my mind. I wasn’t sure because the opinions of men were coming from people from church.
I do feel like God has led me here. I feel like there are some lines in my Patriarchal Blessing that I feel have become directly applicable to the work that I’m doing. I feel like being an immigration lawyer will allow me to build God’s kingdom in unique ways and it already has.
Is there anything you’d want people to know about immigration?
Carly: Sure. Can I say two things?
Carly: And the first one has nothing to do with immigration, but if there was one thing I would want people, especially Mormon women to know, it would be to trust the personal revelation that you’ve been given. You are entitled to revelation about the direction of your life and how to balance all the responsibilities that God has for you and the plans that He has for you. And it will look different for everyone. It will look very different for everyone. So trust what God has told you and trust your heart and your instinct and follow your dreams. God wants you to follow your dreams and wants you to build the beautiful life that you have imagined. And will support you and open the doors for you as you seek after good things (as it says in the 13th Article of Faith). Trust that personal revelation that He will give you and trust in His ability to lead you and guide you in every step of the way. That’s what I would say to Mormon women.
The thing that I would say regarding immigration, is just to remember that we are all children of the same God. It doesn’t matter where we come from. It doesn’t matter what languages we speak. It doesn’t matter our socio-economic status or our education level. God loves the poor, uneducated woman from El Salvador as much as He loves the college educated, and the rich. He loves each and every person the same.
At A Glance
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Interview Produced by Leslie Schwartz-Leeper