Jessica Dominguez Keeps Families Together

In 2012, immigration was an incendiary issue that dominated the Republican primaries and may even have swung the election. The President now seems prepared to spend political capital to achieve reform. But for Jessica Dominguez, a Los Angeles lawyer who was once undocumented herself, keeping deportees from being separated from their children isn’t political football—it’s very, very personal

by Margy Rochlin
jessica dominguez image
“I say to my clients, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up,’” says Jessica Dominguez, photographed in the California desert.
Photograph: Alessandra Petlin

Personally, Dominguez favors an earned path to legalization, in which an illegal immigrant could show that he is contributing to society—by completing high school and having no criminal record, for instance—and would be allowed to stay. But her primary concern is not to make policy. She wants to help people navigate the existing laws and do whatever they can to get their papers. To do that, she employs her talent for media and for recognizing a great narrative; that’s how she reaches out to members of her community and informs them. But this flair for publicity opens her up to criticism: Though her methods have helped turn her into one of the most sought-after immigration lawyers in Los Angeles, they can come across as over the top. Is Dominguez a social media showboater? Or a committed advocate with a natural instinct for using all the tools at her disposal? Her own answer is un-ambivalent. “This is about families,” she says. “Children are being brought to my office crying, saying, ‘I don’t want to lose my dad. I don’t want to lose my mom.’ When -people ask me what I do, I say, ‘I keep families together. I change -people’s lives on a daily basis.’ It’s about them. This is not about Jessica Dominguez.” But there are hundreds of immigration attorneys in Los Angeles, and only one has a prominent weekly spot on Univision. So this is, at least a little, about Dominguez.

One reason Dominguez is part of the immigration narrative is that she isn’t just an adviser to illegal immigrants; for five years she was one of them. “When people are sitting across the table from me in my conference room, I tell them, ‘I was there once. I was you once. I know what it’s like to be undocumented,’ ” she says. “There’s something always inside that tells me they deserve the same opportunities that I had, that I continue to have, in this beautiful country. I see a little bit of myself in everyone that I get to help.”

Dominguez was born in the rain forest of Iquitos, Peru, and raised in Lima. Her parents divorced when she was six, and her father received sole custody. When she was 14, she moved to New Jersey to be with her mother, who was undocumented and living there illegally. By the time Dominguez’s six-month tourist visa expired, she was already working in local factories, first packaging biscotti, then cosmetics. She hid how young she was behind high heels, caked-on makeup and a briskly confident attitude. “I would put on my eyeshadows, my eyeliner,” says Dominguez, who today goes easy on the makeup. “I would look like an 18-year-old and act like an 18-year-old.”

Back in Peru, Dominguez had picked up a few words of English—chicken, TV, pen—and could sing some simple children’s rhymes. Now, in New Jersey, she set a goal of learning a word a day, poring over her dictionary in bed at night. But progress was slow, and she was always afraid. “Every time I saw a police car, I thought I was going to get deported,” she says, recalling how she’d pull over to the side of the road, park her car and quake whenever she’d spot a black-and-white cruiser in her rearview mirror. “I can’t assign a value or a size to the fear, but it was always there. It was, ‘Oh, my gosh. They found me.’ ”

Within a year, her younger brother joined Dominguez and her mother, and the three moved to Los Angeles. (Her mother applied for and received amnesty in the late 1980s: When President Reagan was in office, he signed a law decreeing that anyone who entered the country before 1982 could become a citizen.) “We had no other relatives here,” says Dominguez. “We were just trying to survive and get ahead.” She spent nine months in high school before dropping out and joining the grinding world of low-paying fast-food-restaurant jobs. It was while she was working at McDonald’s that a regular customer, taking note of Dominguez’s buzzing energy, offered her a position answering phones at his insurance agency, which had many Spanish-speaking clients. That was all the help she needed; soon she was attending night school, saving money and securing her GED.

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