An Advocate without Borders: Sal Cicero '98
From spending his formative years in Mexico City, his teen and college years in the States, and his public service to immigrants in both countries, Salvador Alfonso Cicero '98 has grappled his entire life with belonging. He knows first-hand what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. "Like many Mexican-Americans, I have often felt the pressure by others of defining who I am, in terms of being more Mexican or more American," he says. "But life is not about that at all. Many dual citizens who have, like I have, experienced both worlds, learn to love and appreciate each country for its strengths and tolerate its down sides. I always felt I had a chance to bridge differences between both countries and I have made my best effort to always do this—not always the easiest job, I might add."
Sal's childhood could not have prepared him any better to have empathy for those who emigrate to a new land. Although he was born in San Francisco, Sal spent his childhood living in the suburbs of Mexico City. At fifteen, he and his family relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico. In Mexico, kids had taunted him with names like "gringo" or "pocho" for being American; now, in Albuquerque, he was being called Mexican for the first time. As he struggled to find his place in this new environment, he broke with many of his own stereotypes. He notes, "I made many friends and learned that Americans, as a whole, are not anti-Mexican, and seem to care what happens in the world. I also learned that Mexican immigrants come from all social strata and cultural backgrounds. Not everyone migrates for economic reasons. Look at me and my wife now: two American-born Mexican Americans living in Mexico!"
The reason for his family's move also factored into Sal's ability to empathize with the challenges faced by immigrants—especially illegal ones. His mother had taken a job, as head of the Department of Protection of the Mexican Consulate in Albuquerque, and the family followed. Her work in the Consulate wasn't glamorous—she visited hospitals, morgues, even the now extinct INS—to help Mexicans in trouble. Sal's father had done the same kind of work in the 1960s. "Conversations around the dinner table always dealt with having to help someone in trouble. I remember my mother crying when things got to her." Sal confides. "I learned early on that social and legal work needs a lot of endurance and a lot of heart."
His father emphasized the practical side. Having left government work because he disagreed with some of the policies it imposed, he told Sal to study law—so that if Sal decided he did not like working for the government, he could set up shop on his own.
Power and influence could also be had from entering the legal profession. Sal's great-grandfather was a Supreme Court Justice, and his uncle a federal judge. "That was not my motivation," Sal asserts. He knew that the Mexican government was in need of bicultural people like himself to help them with human rights issues facing Mexican nationals living in the U.S. His mother helped with the launch of a new program in 1987, which trained Mexican foreign service officers who had L.L.M.s in U.S. Law, and his cousin Jorge was among them. Sal felt compelled to work on this issue as well.
He entered law school at the Moritz College in what he calls a "weird" way: as an undergrad at the University of New Mexico, he participated in a protest march to keep the ethnic centers open. By coincidence, Sal marched with the director of the UNM Hispanic Center. When the director got a call from the Moritz College asking if there were any Latinos with potential leadership skills who might be interested in applying to law school, he gave them Sal's name. Sal was only a sophomore at the time.
Being "different" was again a factor when he arrived at OSU, but not a significant one in Sal's experience. As with his previous transitions, Sal thrived. He says, "Law school is a place where potential leaders of diverse viewpoints interact and train to become advocates for those ideals. I learned that the average law student and professor were very welcoming, and I made some great friends, both teachers like Professor Quigley and students, that I keep until this day." A Student Bar Senator all three years, Sal was appointed the first Chief Justice of OSU's Inter-Professional Council. As a 3L, he served the ABA's House of Delegates as one of three nationwide delegates, representing 30,000 law students, which he calls "the best experience of my life."
Armed with his law degree, he followed in his mother's footsteps, becoming Chief of Legal Affairs in the Department of Protection at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago. One of his primary responsibilities was to assist local attorneys in understanding international and immigration law as it pertained to defending Mexican nationals accused of a crime. In October of 2001, he was appointed Director for Political and Community Affairs—on the other side of the border, but for the same cause—so he and his wife moved to Mexico City. Last October, he accepted his current post as a legal advisor for the Undersecretary for Global Issues and Human Rights in the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was fitting that one of his first responsibilities in the new position was to help prepare oral arguments for Mexico vs. U.S., presented at the International Court of Justice in the Hague in December, a case related to the violation of the Consular Notification and Access Rights of 54 Mexican nationals sentenced to death in the U.S. The issue of consular notification had become paramount in Sal's work over the past five years.
He explains, "When I was a law student, Professor Quigley was invited by the Mexican government to participate as an amicus in the Inter-American Court Consultive Opinion 16 (1997) on this issue. And so, we got to learn about it first hand. It was precisely because of this experience that I got my first job." At the Consulate in Chicago, Sal was directly in charge of implementing the consular notification response system, and was qualified as an expert witness in international law in the states of Iowa and Illinois; he also testified in Minnesota and Indiana. He was also in charge of negotiating the only Consular Notification and Access Memorandum of Understanding dealing with Minors (Illinois) currently in force in the U.S. He continues, "Also, I have taught the class on operative aspects of consular notification and access at the Diplomatic Academy, and have been an invited lecturer on the issue for CLE courses in the U.S. So you see, I had already been working with the issue for about seven years. Actually, I have just written a small book (in Spanish) about this subject, which I am in the process of getting published."
Beyond working on the case at the Hague, Sal continues his work with other immigration-related issues, such as human trafficking, smuggling and—as he notes, "putting the shoe on the other foot"—making sure Mexico lives up to its international obligations when it comes to the treatment of foreign nationals within its own borders.
|Sal and his wife Mayra|
He is enjoying life in Mexico City, this time as an adult. "It is a cosmopolitan experience that I would recommend to anyone. People seem to forget that this city is twice the size of New York. Although difficult at times (traffic, petty crime, etc.), living here is interesting and fun." He enjoys songwriting, and he and his wife love to go dancing as often as they can. "Yes, we are a stereotypical Latino couple—always dancing!" he jokes.
Every time someone pays Sal a compliment for his work, he mentions that he is an OSU graduate. "People here in Mexico have a very positive image of OSU: recently it was mentioned in the press as one of the best-known American schools worldwide," he says. He still maintains friendships made in law school, specifically with Andrew Sagartz and Ken Robinson, and says professors like John Quigley still assist him in his professional life.
Working with the Foreign Ministry has given Sal a view about what goes on at the highest levels of government, and has allowed him to keep in touch with many friends overseas. More importantly, it has allowed him to make an impact on the issues about which he feels most passionate. He asserts, "So long as I feel that I can make a difference in the lives of migrant workers, I will be happy." Surely this is just the beginning of a long and happy life doing so.