Martha Perez, Class of 2012
Martha Perez '12

Published in the Graduate Report, Spring/Summer 2011

Martha Perez ’12 has wanted to be a public interest lawyer since her middle school years, when an immigration attorney helped prevent the deportation of her family after a bogus attorney duped her father out of $10,000. “My father had come to America from Mexico to play mariachi in a band, which is how he obtained legal status here,” says Perez. “When he earned enough money he brought my mother and me to Danbury (CT), a town he fell in love with when he played a few gigs there. I was only three years old.”

After settling in Danbury with his family, Perez’s father, who was then supplementing his income as a day laborer, began to seek permanent residency. “With immigration populations everything back then was word of mouth,” explains Perez. “Essentially, my father knew someone who knew someone who knew a good attorney who was cheap and told us that we would have our papers in no time – and then he disappeared.”

Fortunately, the next lawyer the family hired – Sharon Kennelly from White Plains, NY – was a proven, experienced immigration attorney. “By the time Sharon discovered that our first ‘lawyer’ had applied for political asylum on behalf of my family, we were all on deportation lists,” recalls Perez, who became a U.S. citizen in 2006, as did her parents. “We didn’t actually obtain our legal permanent residency status until I was about fourteen, so the process lasted several years.” While that process was traumatic, Perez is quick to point out that it played an important role in defining who she wanted to be. “Very early on, I knew I wanted to go to law school because of Sharon and the situation we had faced. Ever since, law school has been the focus.”

A graduate of Danbury High School, where she excelled in the classroom and on the cross country course, Perez went to UConn in the fall of 2003 to study psychology and history and pursue “anything that would help me get into and through law school.” During the three-plus year period between her senior year at Storrs and her first class at UConn Law, Perez pursued several opportunities to learn about the law and serve the public interest. She was a part-time clerk at the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, a position she was drawn to by her desire to help protect people’s civil rights. Shortly after graduating from UConn, Perez went to work for a Bridgeport firm that specialized in malpractice work. “I thought it was a good idea to do something that wasn’t public-interest oriented to see if I was interested,” she says. “I wasn’t – but I learned a lot about the amount of work it takes to be an attorney.”

Faced with the need to earn more money, Perez moved back to Danbury to live with her parents and younger siblings, Jose and April (both of whom were born in the U.S.). During 2008, she worked in marketing for Adhesive Tapes International. While that job did not involve the law, returning to Danbury enabled her to get involved with the Danbury Alliance, a group of community leaders opposed to the Danbury mayor’s efforts to implement Section 278(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which authorizes state and local law enforcement agencies to designate officers to perform immigration enforcement functions. “The 287(g) program made lots of immigrants in Danbury petrified,” Perez explains. “My work focused on educating the immigrant community through a series of ‘know your rights’ discussions. It was my first real involvement in a grassroots organization.”

After determining that she could “only learn so much about tape,” in January 2009 Perez took a position as coordinator of board relations for the University of Connecticut Alumni Association in Storrs, a job that enabled her to get back into public service work. “And coming back to ‘UConn Country’ wasn’t bad either,” she says. “I am a huge UConn person.”

As a “huge UConn person” (figuratively, that is; she is all of 5’1”), it was a “no-brainer” to attend UConn Law, where Perez has continued to pursue her passion for public interest law. Since starting classes in the fall of 2009, she has worked as a summer intern for Greater Hartford Legal Aid; a translator for the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic; a law clerk in the Inmates Legal Assistance Program at Schulman & Associates in Hartford; and as a mentor for the Connecticut Bar Association’s Truancy Prevention Program. During the summer of 2011, she is doing environmental toxic torts work for the Chandler Group in New Haven, and when she returns to the Law School in the fall she will begin an externship in labor and employment law with Attorney Peter Goselin ’95.

Clearly, Martha Perez thrives on being very busy. When asked what she expects to be doing five years from now, she says she would like to be running a nonprofit with a focus on the human trafficking that goes on between the U.S. and Mexican borders. Perez then pauses and laughs. “Actually, I don’t really know – and that’s the wonderful thing about being at this stage of my career. If something doesn’t work out the way I expect, I can always find another way.”