Julio Quiroz Colby ’24 has been advocating for immigrant rights since he was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, where, fluent in Spanish, he helped with translation services for asylum seekers at an immigrant and refugee legal services organization.

“I’ve always been interested in the experience of immigrants,” explains Colby. His father is Brazilian, and his mother immigrated from Mexico as a young adult and often faced discrimination in this country, he says.

Next year, as a Skadden Fellow, Colby will be building out a new practice area for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) based in Nashville. At TIRRC, he will work with Legal Director Spring Miller ’07, who herself was a Skadden Fellow in Nashville (her fellowship was at the Southern Migrant Legal Services in Tennessee, where Colby did a summer internship after his first year of law school). TIRRC is looking to start an immigrant workers practice and to apply community organizing strategies in addressing the needs of immigrant workers, Colby says, a focus that neatly fits his goals.

“I was looking for where I could work directly with clients, but also engage in work that had systemic impact or at least a broader political-movement type goals,” says Colby, who, in addition to serving on the Harvard Law Review, was a student in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic and the Crimmigration Clinic.

TIRRC gets many calls from immigrant workers whose employers refuse to pay them or who get injured on the job and face barriers in applying for workers’ compensation. Colby’s two-year fellowship project will include direct representation of workers in workplace lawsuits with such claims as wage theft and health and safety violations, and he will also focus on systemic advocacy including pressuring state agencies to enforce worker safety laws and regulations.

Few lawyers or organizations in Tennessee currently offer low-wage immigrant workers legal representation, and most immigrant workers end up representing themselves pro se in workers’ comp proceedings, even though there are few language interpreters to assist them. “So there is a deep need, and we designed a project responsive to those needs,” Colby says.

Among other things, he adds, “We’re trying to encourage agencies to enforce standards on the books because that would encourage worker self-representation, instead of us having to represent them every step of the way and resort to litigation, because these things should be resolved in administrative proceedings.” They also plan to leverage a new program of the Biden administration, Deferred Action for Labor Enforcement (DALE), that enables workers to file for deferred action on their immigration status if they experienced — or are witnesses to — a labor law violation.

DALE “gives undocumented workers the safety they need so they can pursue their claim and continue to work without the constant threat of deportation hanging over their head — because employers constantly use deportation as a threat,” he says. A third prong to his project is community outreach and education, including conducting “Know Your Rights” trainings. Altogether, his work will reflect TIRRC’s holistic model and responsiveness to community needs, he adds.

The goal is “to assist immigrants every step of the way,” he says, including informing them of their rights, helping them file claims, and making sure the law is enforced, “so that employers are disincentivized from breaking the law — because at the moment they can do it with impunity.”

Colby was born in Brooklyn and lived in a very diverse neighborhood until his family moved to the suburbs of Houston when he was 10, which “was much more homogenous, very white and conservative Christian, very different from the cosmopolitan, liberal experience I had in New York,” he says. And he’s deeply grateful for that experience.

I do think the public interest community at Harvard has been really incredible.

“It was really important for shaping my identity, for being able to interact with people who think differently than I do and understanding how to build bridges between myself and others,” he says. No matter how hard it may be, “[y]ou can’t write those people off. You have to find ways to engage with them if you want to continue to have a country that you feel comfortable living in,” he adds.

As state legislatures in Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and other Southern states have continued to restrict a variety of rights, Colby found himself drawn back to the South. “Those are the places with the greatest need, and I think they need people willing to go there and fight for the voiceless,” he says. After his fellowship he wants to remain within the labor movement.

At Harvard Law School, Colby found a community of like-minded students including through the Law and Social Change Program where he was a student fellow. “I do think the public interest community at Harvard has been really incredible, especially the public interest students from my section [who] reinforce each other in our decisions to continue to pursue public interest work,” he says. Indeed, a close friend he made on his first day on campus, Faith Blank ’24, will be an attorney next year with the public defender’s office in Nashville. “To continue to have that support system past law school,” he says, “is really nice.”

During his second year, Colby worked on asylum cases at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, including a harrowing case of a woman forced into a relationship with a gang member in her home country. By the time Colby got involved, the case had dragged on for eight years, and he was at the hearing the day an immigration judge granted the woman asylum.

“Seeing the change in her, the peace and actual joy and health, showed me how law can be transformative, for better or for worse,” he says. “It was a reminder of why we do this work and what’s possible through it.”

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