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

Dominguez graduated in 2000 and passed the bar exam a year later. She thought she’d concentrate on family law (which deals primarily with marriage and divorce) but almost immediately found that it was the immigration cases that resonated with her most deeply. She started volunteering for the Los Angeles County Bar Association Immigration Legal Assistance Project (ILAP), which devotes itself to helping illegal immigrants who can’t afford a lawyer. And she got a job at a family law firm, where clients with shaky English skills were shuttled in her direction. “They would come, and I could speak Spanish to them,” she says. “They would tell their cousins, and their cousins would tell their cousins, and the whole family would come and see us.” Within a year, her boss, wanting to open a second branch, offered her a partnership. She prepared a candlelight dinner the night she announced the news to her family. As she remembers, Javier said, “That’s what you want? We’ll open you an office.” She asked him, “How am I going to open my own office? I don’t know anything.” Javier told her, “You’ll learn.”

Today, Dominguez’s office has four lawyers, six paralegals and four legal assistants who specialize in family immigration, defense of deportation and petitions for stay. The team collaborates on representing people, gathering evidence—tax returns, proof of a bank account, a library card—that will help someone build an argument to avoid deportation. Cases are often discouraging, and “you have to be zealous,” Dominguez says as she describes the numerous phone calls she made to get a 24-year-old man taken off the deportation bus for Tijuana and returned to Los Angeles, where he had two children, both U.S. citizens. “One thing I am very grateful for is that I don’t know how to give up.”

About two years ago, with her firm working at full capacity, Dominguez began wondering if there were many potential clients who couldn’t afford her fees ($300 to $400 an hour) or couldn’t make an in-person appointment. She worried about people who had simple enough questions but didn’t know whom to trust for the answers. Her son J.P.—by then a tech-savvy, rumpled 24-year-old—came up with a uniquely 21st-century strategy to allow Dominguez to reach deeper into the Hispanic community: turn her into a presence on social media. “It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly and surely we started developing a small following,” he says.

Now, those who miss Dominguez’s weekly radio show on 101.9 FM can listen to the podcast on her website——where she also has a blog. Her regular spots on Despierta América can be found on her YouTube channel. There she also posts videos in which she answers common legal questions such as how to apply for citizenship or who can qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Obama’s program that offers temporary work permits to undocumented immigrants brought here when they were young. Dominguez uses Twitter (her handle is @AbogadaLatina) to dispense legal information and pep talks, all in 140 characters. When something immigration related is in the news, an -explanation and a link to more details or to her website are likely to pop up immediately on her Facebook page. “Everything we do is a way of offering information,” she says. “So many people ask us on Facebook, ‘Can I have a consultation?’ We don’t want to charge them a penny if the answers are easy. We tell them, ‘Go watch the YouTube videos first. The majority of the time, the answers will be there.’ ”

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