Mayra Rodriguez-Alvarez wasn’t always sure she wanted to be an immigration attorney.
It would mean a lot of pressure, especially given the national climate around immigration, she thought.
But after everything she and her husband went through — getting his green card, the hassle and insincerity of Chicago attorneys, difficulties getting the medical treatment he needed for a kidney transplant — she decided to go for it.
“To me, at that point, I was like, oh no, I have to be an immigration attorney because when we were going through all that, nobody had any clue as to how to handle the situation,” Rodriguez-Alvarez said.
Rodriguez-Alvarez opened her practice in Highland a year ago. The first year has been “chaotic,” she said. As she got more clients, she decided to hire a couple of assistants.
Rodriguez-Alvarez and other immigration attorneys in Northwest Indiana, Alfredo Estrada and Sophia Arshad, agree the job is tricky. They have to keep up with U.S. Department of Justice practices that seem to change daily and face the national rhetoric surrounding immigration with the border wall, family separation and the migrant caravan.
But each of the three attorneys have solid, core reasons for why they continue to do the job.
For Rodriguez-Alvarez, it’s that moment when she hands her client the documentation for their green card or citizenship.
“All they’ve worked for their whole time, they finally can say, ‘Wow, I earned the right to be here. I can be here and not be in fear anymore.’ That’s very powerful to me, just giving them that dignity,” Rodriguez-Alvarez said.
Arshad, who has practiced longer than Rodriguez-Alvarez, has the same feeling.
“I still get butterflies inside when I get a naturalization notice for one of my clients, like, oh, this person is going to be a U.S. citizen,” Arshad said. “It still gives me the warm fuzzies.”
Estrada said, “It’s more than just a case for us.”
‘Dispel a lot of fears’
When a client comes in for a first consultation, “emotions are high. Stress is high,” Estrada said.
“My job is to guide them in this complicated process and to alleviate that stress and risk and emotions to say, ‘Hey, despite what you hear, despite what you may feel right now, I’m here to advocate for you,’” Estrada said
While she sees more of a demand now, Arshad said there wasn’t much work for an immigration attorney in Northwest Indiana when she started 15 years ago.
“We were just coming out of September 11,” Arshad said.
There was a restructuring of agencies and police, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was created.
“I think that initially when I was getting into it there was this fear in order to even pick up the phone and call an immigration attorney,” Arshad said.
After doing the work now for many years, Arshad said what makes the job hard is “when I don’t have a fix for someone.”
“Like when I don’t have a clear path to getting (the person) where they need to be, that upsets me,” Arshad said. “That bothers me a lot. The wait and see.”
They have to think through the problems and try to sort through a plan that might work, she said.
“We’ll start looking into different pathways to see what we can do, but I’m resilient. And they’re resilient as well. We work together,” Rodriguez-Alvarez said.
Rodriguez-Alvarez recognizes “it is a very emotionally fueled field of law.” She has a small tabletop fountain on her desk and painted her walls a deep blue to help soothe her clients who come in.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” she said.
An immigration attorney has to “dispel a lot of fears,” Arshad said.
The three attorneys have a list of things they wish people understood about their jobs and immigration law.
Rodriguez-Alvarez said people tell her, “’Wow, you’re for illegal immigration.’
“No, I work with immigrants to get them a path to citizenship. I’m trying to help them stay here legally,” she said. “...I’m trying to help the people that are already here, trying to figure it out. I’m not advocating anything illegal.”
Arshad said that “people think that the whole process is easy” to come to the U.S.
“It’s not,” she said.
Arshad regularly has to explain to people “you can’t just come here.” There are limited and clear restrictions for what qualifies someone to come to the U.S.
“I shock and amaze too many people on a weekly basis,” Arshad said.
Estrada regularly hears people ask why people just aren’t fixing their papers or why they couldn’t do it “the right way.” But that’s a simple question for a complex situation, Estrada said.
“I hope that those individuals would keep an open mind on that, that there are economic issues, there’s war, there’s civil unrest pushing people toward immigration,” Estrada said.
The three attorneys do a lot of family-based immigration work, they said. Arshad has watched families come through her office for years, going through each step of the process.
“You see them come into the U.S., usually very nervous in the sense that they’re sitting there as a potential immigrant. Everything is unknown,” Arshad said.
Eventually, that client may want to get married, or they could have children or grandparents they want to see come to the U.S.
“Just being entrenched in that whole family system really makes you feel the way I think, from an immigration attorney’s perspective, the way it was supposed to be. That this whole idea of immigration to the United States really started as a whole relocation of people building their lives here. It’s amazing to see,” Arshad said.
The attorneys work on citizenship, naturalization, deportation, removal and DACA cases, among other issues.
In humanitarian or asylum cases, “this may be the first time that they’ve spoke about the persecution that they suffered at home,” Estrada said.
“I have to take some ownership in that, that this is the first time they’re telling their story and delicately guide them through that process,” Estrada said.
Their clients come from all over: Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, South Africa, Haiti, Canada, Norway, Nigeria.
“Today I met with a Dominican,” Estrada said in early December. “And I’m meeting with a Vietnamese person later in the day.”
Estrada added, “I think people would be surprised at the amount of individuals who need immigration help that are deeply rooted in our community.”
What Arshad loves about her job is “that it’s different” each day, even with routine filings and paperwork.
“I get to look at documents from all over the world, which most people wouldn’t find interesting, but I do. I get to see what people’s marriage certificates look like and their birth certificates and what types of things they put in them that we don’t put over here,” Arshad said.
With immigration law, “it’s a bit personal for me and my family,” Estrada said. He looks at the opportunities he’s had compared to his father who came to the U.S.
“I think it’s something that if I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity to help immigrant community in the legal field I know I would retire and die with regret,” Estrada said.
Rodriguez-Alvarez’s husband was undocumented when they got married. They struggled to find attorneys who were affordable, compassionate or spoke Spanish, she said, so Rodriguez-Alvarez had to do a lot of her own research.
Her husband needed a kidney transplant and dialysis, but there were a bunch of roadblocks and complications because of his status, she said. Luckily, a relative became his donor, according to Rodriguez-Alvarez.
“He actually got his green card three months before he got his kidney transplant,” Rodriguez-Alvarez said.
Now, they’re working on getting him his citizenship, which he should be eligible for in 2020, she said.
“Yeah, I’m his attorney,” she smiled.