From Boxcar to Law School, Refugee Pays His Second Chance Forward


After Luis Canales, a Honduran refugee, won his political asylum case in 2010, the court asked him what he intended to do with his life. He said he wanted to become a lawyer. Today, as a third-year law student at Villanova University -Charles Widger School of Law, he’s well on his way.

“I know how difficult it is when you don’t speak the language,” he says. “I kept telling myself, ‘I wish I was a lawyer so that I could do this myself and help other people.”

Canales first attempted to come to United States when he was 16. In his native Honduras, he had given a radio speech condemning drugs and gang violence. After that, gang members tried to kill him.

He soon fled, traveling by foot and cargo train through Guatemala and Mexico before finally arriving at the U.S. border. “It was a risky and dangerous journey, especially as a child. I had never seen a train in my life. Now I was trying to jump on moving cargo trains,” he says.

Canales’ first three attempts to make it here were unsuccessful. He was detained and subsequently sent home by American and Mexican authorities. At one point, he considered staying in Honduras, but the attempts on his life continued. He had no choice but to leave.

The most important thing is due process. People need the opportunity to be heard.

On his fourth trip, after a year and 7,500 miles of travel, he hid in a boxcar of corn on a freight train, poking his nose through the top to breathe. He arrived in the United States in January 2005 with the phone number of a cousin in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He spent two months in a children’s shelter, where he was given a small Spanish-English dictionary, which he used to teach himself English.

“I used it to translate the newspapers and the documents I was given by immigration. I realized that once you were able to speak the language people were friendlier. They were able to help and lend a helping hand,” he says.

By the next year, Canales would be the one lending the helping hand; six months after attending an English as a Second Language program, he became a volunteer, and later he became an employee. He also started his own business as a translator and notary public.

In addition to his studies at Villanova University, Canales works at Sachs Law Group in Philadelphia, preparing documents, researching country conditions, and
interviewing clients.

“I like to listen to the person’s story. I don’t interrupt. People tend to tell you a lot more when you let them tell the story,” he says.

As a soon-to-be immigration lawyer, Canales is typical of many immigrants in Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District, in the southeast corner of the state.. Nearly 25 percent of the foreign-born population there has a graduate degree, compared with about 16 percent of the U.S.-born population. Immigrants in the area are also significantly more likely to be of working age than their non-immigrant counterparts; 68.7 percent of foreign-born residents are of between the ages of 25 and 64compared with 51.1 percent of natives. In 2014, immigrants in Canales’ district paid $617.5 million in taxes and held $1.7 billion in spending power.

As he embarks on his career, Canales hopes to see immigration reform that will give all immigrants an opportunity to make their case for residency or citizenship. “The most important thing is due process. People need the opportunity to be heard,” he says. “Had I not received that opportunity, I would be dead now.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…