Three years after graduating from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Juan Lozada-Leoni ’04 was exactly who and precisely where he wanted to be. He was a U.S. citizen, specifically an Army JAG Corps officer, traveling over Kuwait in a Lockheed C-130 aircraft to Iraq.
While he had to clear more hurdles to get there than most of the soldiers in his unit, Lozada-Leoni, now the chief of international law and legal engagements for U.S. Army South, says, “I feel very much like an American.”
Through his entire undergraduate and law school academic career, Lozada-Leoni identified as an immigrant. He came to the U.S. in 1997 from Venezuela with meager English language skills and two goals in mind: to go to law school and then serve his new country.
“I think for most immigrants, you move to a new country, and the one thing that you always think about is, ‘How can I earn my place in this society that has given me so much?’ ” he said. “Ignoring the debt with this nation was not something I could do.”
Joining the Army for three years was always Lozada-Leoni’s intent, but because of difficulties gaining citizenship, he had to put that plan on hold.
In his first semester at Moritz in November 2001, Lozada-Leoni applied for citizenship. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, stalled the application process. He didn’t become naturalized until after graduating from law school.
The first few weeks of November 2004 were quite pivotal for Lozada-Leoni. “Three of the most important things in my life happened,” he said.
On Nov. 5, Lozada-Leoni took his lawyer’s oath for the Texas bar. On Nov. 15, he started his first job as a defense attorney for a small firm in Harris County, Texas. On Nov. 19, he became a U.S. citizen.
He became an assistant district attorney in January 2005, and, six months later, he kept true to his plan and joined the Army Reserve. He entered as a JAG Corps officer and transferred to active duty service just a year later. He volunteered to be put in a unit slated to deploy to Iraq.
“My country needed me, and I think that was the one time people were not applying to the Army. People were leaving because deployments were getting to them. I felt this was the time to step in,” he said. “For me, that was very important.”
Lozada-Leoni said the 13-month deployment was the biggest challenge he faced since immigrating to the U.S. In addition to fighting for his country, he was fighting to make it home to a growing family. His wife, Linda, had given birth to their son while he was serving overseas.
“Every time I went on a convoy, got in a helicopter, or was in a small base, and was getting rocketed, I honestly thought about my family. I thought, ‘Wow, am I going to see my kids again?’ ”
The hardships of deployment didn’t deter Lozada-Leoni from serving his country longer, though. He’s been serving for seven years, straying from the kind of law he thought he would practice
“I was very interested in immigration law when I first applied to law school. That’s what I thought I was going to end up doing,” Lozada-Leoni said. “I always felt that being from Latin America, I could serve as a bridge (to the U.S.). … My dream was always doing something that would marry the two places that impacted my life the most and gave me my identity.”
Influencing classmates, fellow immigrants
Upon his arrival to the U.S. when he was 19, Lozada-Leoni took a year to settle into the culture. He moved to be with his wife, who was attending school in Texas at the time. Unfamiliar with the U.S. education system, Lozada-Leoni assumed he would be able to go directly to law school. He didn’t realize an undergraduate degree was required to obtain a J.D. in the U.S.
Also without much knowledge of the English language, he geared up for higher education by teaching himself English with audio books and CDs. “That was one of the challenges because, for lawyers, words are everything. You’ve got to be able to communicate very effectively,” he said.
After a year of learning English, Lozada-Leoni attended University of Texas-Austin, where he studied Latin American Studies. Studying his culture from an outsider’s perspective was fascinating, he said. His decision to go to law school stemmed from his grandfather being a lawyer.
“It’s a family tradition. My grandfather served as a Supreme Court Justice (1963-64) and then as the Attorney General of Venezuela (1964-69). He was a very good lawyer,” Lozada-Leoni said. “That’s kind of what I wanted to do. I came to the United States wanting to study law.”
Moritz, he said, was a sure choice for him after he attended an admitted students’ visitation program.
“Every other law school, the message was, ‘You’re lucky we accepted you.’ At Moritz, it was, ‘Yes, you’re lucky to have been accepted here, but we also feel pretty lucky you’re coming.’ That was neat,” he said. “It really set the stage for my law school experience.”
Christopher M. Fairman, the Alumni Society Designated Professor of Law, had a hand in Lozada-Leoni’s recruitment because he also attended UT-Austin.
“It was a natural connection to reach out and help encourage him to come here,” Fairman said. He never knew Lozada-Leoni was an immigrant while attending law school. “It makes his accomplishments all the more dramatic.”
Law school presented a few challenges for Lozada- Leoni as well. Even with a fair English foundation, he said the legal terminology shook his confidence. “That first year was pretty stressful. I felt like I had to work three times as hard as anybody else,” he said. “It really worked out in the end, but it was challenging.”
Lozada-Leoni received special permission to work while attending law school full time. He didn’t even use exams as an excuse to call off for shifts at the Papa John’s where he worked. “I was delivering pizza to one of my classmates the night before my Criminal Law exam,” he said.
He was appreciative of the job, though. Lozada- Leoni said, “(The U.S.) is a country where you can do that. You can find a job that pays you a wage you can live with and gives you the opportunity to make any dream you might have possible.”
After his first year at Moritz, Lozada-Leoni said his dream became to help immigrants like him. This interest, he said, was borne from more than personal experience. It started when he heard of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), a nonprofit organization that allowed law students interested in immigration law to represent detained immigrants and asylum-seekers in Harlingen, Texas under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
From there, his interest in immigration law grew stronger.
“I couldn’t just ignore something that was affecting the community I came from. Not just the Hispanic community, but the immigrant community,” he said. “If I had any power or any say over the matter, then I was going to make sure to do what I felt was right.”
His fervor for immigration law had an effect on other students as well, including Lozada-Leoni’s close friend and classmate Krista Eyler ’04.
In his second year, Lozada-Leoni started the Immigration Law Society, formerly named the Ohio State Law Students for Immigration and Refugee Rights, with the help of Eyler and a faculty sponsorship from Fairman.
Fairman said he didn’t expect the organization to develop as quickly as it did. “He very rapidly had a constitution drafted, bylaws drafted, all these documents in place. He had officers elected and had things up and running. Within the course of a semester he was able put together an organization that he really was the backbone of at first.”
Eyler, who is an immigration attorney at Immigration Attorneys, LLP in Tampa, Fla., echoed Fairman’s remarks about Lozada-Leoni steadfastly starting the organization.
“Juan’s passionate about everything he does,” she said. “I’ve never in my life met somebody who is as determined and focused and just an exceptional go-getter.”
ILS made two trips to Harlingen to participate in ProBAR during fall break of Eyler and Lozada- Leoni’s second and third years of law school. Eyler said those trips were what influenced her to pursue a practice in immigration law.
“We would go there and, under supervision, meet with detained immigrants, or nonimmigrants, and see what legal options they had. We would help them in whatever capacity we could,” Eyler said. “From that point on, that’s what I decided I wanted to do.”
Eyler never took an immigration law course at Moritz. It was Lozada-Leoni who introduced her to the area.
“I didn’t really have a lot of exposure to immigrants. He was probably the first one I knew as someone who wasn’t born in the United States,” she said. “(But) even though he was an immigrant, I never saw him as an immigrant. He was just Juan.”
Working with ProBAR also turned Lozada-Leoni on to public service work and helped him graduate as a Public Service Fellow with the Dean’s Highest Honors. He had completed about 550 hours of legal community service by the time he left Moritz.
Fairman always expected Lozada-Leoni to gear his career toward that and something with an “international flavor.” He was right.
“I didn’t see him at a big firm doing corporate work,” Fairman said. “Where his career has gone is kind of the way most new lawyers’ careers go. They take different paths, not always the ones that you would predict.”
Serving for his country, family
Lozada-Leoni was practicing immigration law on base at Fort Hood. As a legal assistance attorney for the Army, he helped reconstruct the base’s military naturalization program.
Since then, he has served as a military prosecutor in Iraq, a defense military attorney in Germany, and an assistant staff judge advocate at the U.S. Army Medical Command in San Antonio. Now, as chief of international law for the U.S. Army South, Lozada- Leoni oversees “bilateral and multilateral legal engagements” between the U.S. and most countries south of the Mexican border, primarily in Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.
His main responsibility is to develop and grow good working relations with military attorneys in those regions. Lozada-Leoni serves as a subject matter expert in international humanitarian law and human rights law in seminars and working groups. He helps foreign JAG officers evaluate their own training programs in operational law through assisting their efforts to improve their military justice codes by giving presentations about the U.S. Army JAG Corps’ structure to military legal corps in the region that may find the U.S. model appealing.
The position, which is normally a two-year assignment, also requires him to travel frequently. He is scheduled to travel to several countries in Europe, Central America, and South America this year.
“Right now I’m enjoying it, but at the end of the two years, I might be feeling the miles,” he said, adding that he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife and four kids.
This year, Lozada-Leoni will go in front of a promotion board with the hopes of being selected for a promotion to the rank of major. If given the opportunity to earn an LL.M. in military law at the U.S. Army JAG School in Charlottesville, Va., with the promotion, he said he wouldn’t mind dabbling in criminal law next.
“I do miss the courtroom sometimes. I think if I could do this too, for the rest of my career, that would be just an incredible thing. We’ll see,” he said. “I understood when I chose this life in the military I don’t get to decide necessarily where I live or what type of work I do. As long as I’m doing something for the Army, for my country, I’m happy.”Tags: Christopher Fairman, Juan Lozada-Leoni, Krista Eyler