DACA student becomes advocate for justice

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

A corrupt attorney inspired Thomas Kim to go to law school.

Kim and his family, who immigrated from Korea to Oregon, were seeking legal citizenship and put their trust in a local Korean attorney.

“When it comes to these deals between foreign people and their attorneys, there are no contracts,” Kim said. “For instance, when my parents approached him, it was just word of mouth. You hear, ‘Oh, he can help you.’ And then you go to him and give him whatever money he asks for and then just hope for the best that he will take care of you. There’s no formal contract that’s drafted.”

Hoping for the best, Kim’s family instead got the worst. The attorney absconded with their money — thousands of dollars — providing no legal help.

“That was shocking,” Kim said. “I was so bitter and angry. And then I found out that my family wasn’t the only family. In fact, he had taken advantage of many families. That made me want to become an advocate for families like mine.”

Kim has been focused on immigration issues ever since, and he was quick to sign up for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, when that opportunity was first presented by the Obama administration.

“That was an empowering experience because that meant I didn’t have to be in the shadows anymore, and that meant I didn’t have to hide,” he said. “I was able to proudly talk about my experience and talk about the experience that shaped me and shaped me as a person.”

Kim has served on the executive board of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition and helped dozens of Arizona immigrants successfully apply for DACA, a green card and U.S. citizenship. And through his work at the American Bar Association House of Delegates, he drafted — and helped pass — a resolution allowing undocumented law school graduates who otherwise qualify for the bar to be able to get licensed to practice law.

A tireless advocate for families like his, Kim has performed 1,300 hours of pro bono work over the past three years.

“Those experiences have really shaped my law school career, because they have allowed me to do two things: One, to love my neighbors in the most practical sense. As a follower of Christ, that was very important to me to practically care for my neighbors and to love my neighbors. And two, to be reminded of the very reason I joined law school in the first place. When I’m helping these families who remind me of my parents, that’s very powerful.”

And he recommends that other students follow suit.

“I know way too many law students who’ve done zero pro bono hours, and they’re graduating from this fine institution with great knowledge, great practical skills, but they lack the experience of actually helping people,” he said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to go to law school?

Answer: I decided I wanted to become a lawyer when I became undocumented. My family's immigration attorney had cheated us and ran away with our money. I was determined to become the attorney that my family desperately needed at the time. This incident also made me realize that I don't have to be the smartest one in the room to become a lawyer. I figured as long as I don't lie or run away with my client's money, I'd become a much better attorney than that guy ever was!

Q: Why did you choose ASU Law?

A: Because of its gorgeous weather, duh!! I needed a break from all the Pacific Northwest rain. All kidding aside, I chose ASU Law because Arizona is ground zero for immigration law. I wanted to make a dent in the broken immigration system, and I saw no better place to do that than at Arizona's finest law school.

Q: What was something particularly interesting about your time at ASU Law or an accomplishment that you’re particularly proud of?

A: American Bar Association Resolution 108! I drafted, lobbied and passed Resolution 108 that would allow undocumented law school graduates in all 50 states plus territories, who otherwise qualify for the bar, to be able to get licensed to practice law.

Q: What advice would you give to students still in law school or just getting started?

A: I would challenge them to continue to be reminded of the personal statement that they wrote in order to gain admission to the law school. It’s absolutely OK to evolve as a person and to evolve your philosophy and worldviews. But I think it would be to their detriment to completely forget about why they decided to go to law school in the first place. And as they’re reminded about why they wanted to go to law school in the first place, if they have that long perspective, that will keep them grounded, because law school is hard. It’s three long years of too many pages of too many books, too much reading, very stressful, but I think reminding yourself of your purpose and your aspiration and your passion, I think that keeps you grounded.

Q: What else would you like to say about your time at ASU Law?

A: A lot of people find my story inspiring, and I’m really happy about that, because I really do feel like I’m a trailblazer for this group of people. But I think it’s also very important for current law students and future law students to be reminded that their story is just one of many. There are so many amazing individuals at the law school, especially at a top-27 law school in the nation. There are so many fantastic individuals, and I think you should take time and make it a point to get to know your classmates, because these are fantastic people.