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At 17 years old, ASU alumnus Ruben L. Reyes said he had three choices: join the military, go to prison or end up in a morgue.

He chose the Navy and served for five years.

“The military seemed like something to do,” Reyes said. “My ideas of humanity, war, taking the life of another was a pack of just survival at first. The thought of taking a life at the age of 17 was not well thought out. … It was at 22 where I felt that I just couldn’t do it.”

On his father’s side, he is the first one born on U.S. soil. He said his father and grandmother raised him and had a huge impact on his life, even if he was living on the streets after his parents divorced. He used his survivalist upbringing, military and street smarts to push himself to go to college.

“They never told me to go to school; they never told me to work hard at education,” Reyes said. “They didn’t help me become a good lawyer, but they did help me become a good person — respecting myself and being true to myself. … It really took me a long time to learn that being angry at the world is like drinking poison yourself and hoping the other person dies.”

Reyes said it took a while before he returned back to school. At first, he wanted to be a teacher, but then he didn’t want to live on a teacher salary. He decided he would study English before coming to ASU for his law degree.

Although Reyes he is an immigrant lawyer, he also reaches out to advocacy and domestic violence groups. He said he gains the trust of his clients by showing that it doesn’t matter what they look like, he and his office will treat everyone and anyone with respect.

This derives from a time in his life when he saw the way his mother’s divorce lawyer judgingly looked at his father, a person of color and a hard blue-collar worker.

“Part of that is who I am,” Reyes said. “It wasn’t something I’ve planned, but I think it worked out.”

He is particularly proud of a time when someone he’d seen around approached him and asked him to help her mother, whom she didn’t know how to help. He saw the case and said he couldn’t believe her lawyer hadn't seen the path that he saw to help her.

The resolution required Reyes to be admitted to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and file his first petition for review in ten days.

“What I realized at that point as an attorney, I’m not there to take roads, I’m there to make roads," Reyes said. "It was also at that point that I really believed I was a lawyer.”

With this strategy, he said he and his team won the case not just for the woman's mom, but also made it possible that her whole family would be untouchable to deport. 

Reyes said his assistant Adilene Ortiz was a better learner than he ever was, especially starting in the office as an intern.

However, she said that if it weren’t for Reyes, she would have dropped out of high school.

“He never once made me feel (not) important,” Ortiz said. “Over the years, our connection grew a bit stronger. He always told me I need to be aggressive. He said ‘You need to be aggressive. You’re a Latina woman and you’re in a highly competitive field.’”

Reyes said he believes how he reaches out to potential clients and helps them know that he is a lawyer through weekly podcasts and articles published in Spanish-speaking papers shows his “human” side.

“I started going off on everything,” Reyes said. “Once I got my opinion on Jan Brewer and other local things that made me mad then people started really reading my articles more often. Giving people what’s going on locally brings me trust. It’s really important for me to package the message in a way that can be understood by the others.”

Although the articles seem tangent at times, Reyes said he has been in bigger fights. He decided to sue his college, the University of Texas El Paso, over its policy requiring students to have open free speech in “Free Speech” zones, as well as the need to obtain onerous permits.

He has been a strong advocate for a while, meeting many people from other advocacy groups and the media. One of these members is Viva Ramirez, voting rights manager for Arizona Advocacy Network. Ramirez said Reyes has a podcast focused on educating immigrants about voting.

When Reyes is not in the office, he spends his time with his family. However, when everyone is asleep, the dishes are all washed and the time allows, he finds himself in front of the television enjoying his guilty pleasure: Video games.

“I love gaming,” Reyes said. “For me, it’s really nice. I don’t need anybody. It’s something I’m able to do once I’ve put everyone to bed, the house is quiet and I can — pew pew!”

Related links:

Editorial: Putting a face on illegal immigration

Arizona DREAMers, supporters celebrate in-state tuition ruling

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