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

In every room of attorney Jessica Dominguez’s sprawling, pale-yellow office complex in Los Angeles sits a box of tissues, and for good reason. Dominguez specializes in immigration law, looking for a way her clients can live in the United States legally, without fear of deportation. But being undocumented is just one aspect of her clients’ stress. Their immigration status has brought all kinds of pain and struggle into their lives. A woman can’t risk crossing the border to visit her dying mother in Mexico; another woman’s husband has been deported and separated from their children.

Today, Dominguez sits in the small TV-and-radio studio at the far end of her offices in L.A.’s Studio City. Also present are an elderly woman and her shy, delicately pretty 10-year-old granddaughter. Dominguez is no stranger to media appearances—she hosts a weekly spot on Univision’s most popular morning show, Despierta América (Wake Up America), among other things—and today she is taping an interview for her Sunday-morning radio show, Pregúntale a la Abogada (Ask the Attorney). Because her guests’ story is sensitive, Dominguez has given both of them fake names for the show, calling the grandmother Marta and the little girl Stephanie.

Two years ago, Stephanie’s undocumented mother, living in L.A., hired someone in El Salvador to make arrangements to transport Stephanie, then eight, to the U.S. Stephanie was sent with coyotes, smugglers of illegal immigrants, who drugged and raped her. By the time Marta, a U.S. citizen, approached Dominguez for help, the coyotes had been arrested, and Stephanie was being held in protective custody in Tijuana while the local authorities decided whether to return her to El Salvador or keep her in Mexico. Marta hoped Dominguez could get her granddaughter into the United States.

After three weeks of intense legal wrangling, Dominguez finally persuaded the Mexican authorities to release Stephanie to her grandmother’s custody. But this was only half the battle. Next, Dominguez had to persuade the United States to let Stephanie in; Dominguez’s argument would be that Stephanie qualified for hard-to-get humanitarian parole. Driving to Mexico with her team, Dominguez met with the Customs and Border Protection officer and made a passionate pitch. “I need America—my country—to help me find justice for this little girl,” she told him. As she spoke, she watched the officer closely, and hope soared as she saw the emotion churning on his face. When he excused himself to call his supervisor, she said, “I have all the time in the world.” Twenty minutes later, he returned. “The good news is that your petition has been approved,” she says he told her. “The bad news is that you have to wait a couple of hours.” Stephanie and her grandmother were overjoyed to learn that Stephanie had been granted entry to the U.S. “There are no words to describe how happy they were to be together,” says Dominguez.

On this sunny Tuesday at the studio, Stephanie looks storybook-pretty in a pink polka dot dress, her wavy brown hair fastened with a pink clip. Her feet dangle from the chair. Dominguez isn’t addressing the darkest aspects of the girl’s story on the radio show. Instead, she is using Stephanie’s case to illustrate an important legal point that may apply to many in her audience: an immigrant child who has been the victim of abuse, abandonment or neglect may be eligible for permanent residence. 

Before taping begins, Dominguez speaks warmly to Stephanie in Spanish, asking, “How did you learn English so quickly?”

“Television,” Stephanie chirps back sweetly.

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