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

At 18 she bumped into Javier Dominguez at a salsa club. She recognized him because he’d once come to the insurance agency about a policy, but her girlfriends warned her that he had a reputation as a ladies’ man. “Girls,” she remembers shooting back, “if I decide to date him, it’s because he’s going to marry me.” And he did: Just two months later, she was walking up the aisle with a bouquet. He was a legal permanent resident in the U.S., and marrying him allowed her to become a legal resident also. (He is a dental technician and owns a dental lab.) In 1996 she decided to apply to become a U.S. citizen and encouraged Javier to do the same. “Baby, how could I become a citizen and not you?” she told him. And so they went through the process together. “When we got married, we didn’t plan to have a family,” she says, grabbing a quick lunch of raspberries and blueberries in a plastic cup in her office, a room overflowing with family photos, scented candles and gifts from grateful clients. “I was very, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m going to be a lawyer.’ ”

Instead, she found out she was pregnant with Jean Pierre, whom everyone calls J.P. Three years later, with her son in pre-K, she was ready to give law school a try when she had a second surprise: She was expecting again. Then, six months pregnant, Dominguez was turning left at an intersection when her car was hit by a careering beer truck. Her water broke. The doctors at the hospital prescribed termination. When her personal OB-GYN arrived, the doctor told her that the baby had a chance of survival only if Dominguez spent three months on bed rest. Even then, the trauma of the accident meant her child would most likely be born with disabilities.

On July 20, 1990, Josh arrived. For two years, he suffered from convulsions. The doctors, unable to pinpoint a single disorder, instead offered up a grab bag diagnosis: ADD or autism or possible retardation. “I call him my miracle child,” says Dominguez, who was told the only way he would ever be able to communicate was by sign language. In characteristic fashion, she blew past the bad news, driving Josh from learning-skills specialists to -behavioral-training sessions. She and J.P. would watch speech therapists working with Josh, then come home and repeat the techniques. To deal with the pressure, Dominguez, who is active in the Christian community and who begins every morning by reading the Bible, relied on her faith. When she found her strength fading, she’d cry by herself in her car, which she refers to as her prayer closet. Sometimes when she spoke to God, she’d give him a piece of her mind. “I believe he is right here, and when I need to tell him off, I do,” she says. When Josh was almost four years old, his mother’s prayers were answered: He spoke his first word. “He said ‘Mah,’ ” says Dominguez. “For a lot of people, it was not a word. It was a sound. But for me? It was the door to OK.” Josh is now 22 and, despite his disabilities, in college at California State University, Northridge.

As her sons reached ages nine and six, Dominguez finally entered law school. When she talks about her alma mater—the University of La Verne, in Woodland Hills, California, an eight-minute drive from her home—she says, “It was like God opened a school for me.” La Verne’s proximity allowed her to be a good mom and good student in equal measure: Drop off kids in the morning, attend classes, pick up kids, do homework together. What Robert Ackrich, her first-year contract-law professor and former dean of the law school, remembers about her is the seriousness she brought to class and how clear it was that nothing would stop her from succeeding. “Law school is difficult, and she already had a difficult life,” he says. “But she had drive and confidence in herself.” He eventually hired Dominguez as a law clerk. “She’s just a dynamo. She does six things at one time. Most of us sit in our office and wait for the phone to ring. She doesn’t.”

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