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.

They begin recording, and it turns out Dominguez has a surprise up her sleeve. What she hasn’t told her clients is that she has secured the holy grail, the green card that will give Stephanie permanent residency and put her on the road to full citizenship. When Dominguez slides the certificate across the wooden table, Marta and Stephanie spontaneously leap from their chairs and rush to hug her. Their cheeks wet with tears, they finally untangle themselves from the embrace and settle back in front of their microphones. Dominguez reaches for the box of tissues and gently tips it in their direction.

Seventy-two percent of the foreign-born population in the United States is here legally, and 28 percent is unauthorized, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Of the roughly 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living here today, says Pew, an estimated 58 percent are from Mexico. Last year the Obama administration spent $18 billion on policing immigration, more than on all the other major federal law—enforcement agencies combined, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Republicans and Democrats alike admit that the immigration system is broken, but few agree on how to fix it. Reform is a stated priority for President Obama in 2013—and it helped tip the scales for him in the 2012 election. More than 71 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, perhaps influenced by the Republican platform, which argued for harsher policing of the borders and “self-deportation.”

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and their voting power—23.7 million Hispanics were eligible to vote in the 2012 elections—is heating up the immigration debate. Feelings run hot on both sides. “Let’s take the California public school system as an example,” says Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors what it calls robust enforcement of immigration laws. “California spends about $10,000 a year on each kid in school. If you have a situation where there are a million kids from illegal immigrant families in the public schools, well, now you’re looking at $10 billion.” People who describe themselves as anti-immigration also say undocumented workers take jobs from citizens, commit crimes and cost taxpayers money, draining resources not just from schools but also from hospitals and police and fire departments. Proponents of this view tend to favor tighter border security, faster deportation and a limited path to citizenship.

People who support an easier path to legal status argue that welcoming those who want to make a better life here is essential to who we are as a country. They say these workers do jobs that citizens don’t want, like picking strawberries and mowing lawns; statistics show that illegal immigrants provide at least 25 percent of the labor in construction, agriculture, groundskeeping, meat processing and clothing manufacture. In addition, many illegal immigrants pay state and federal income taxes using an invalid Social Security number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which the IRS gives to foreign workers (taxpayer ID numbers are issued regardless of immigration status). The total amount of payroll and Social Security taxes collected from undocumented workers is estimated to be $8.5 billion a year. Yet these noncitizen taxpayers are unable to claim Social Security or Medicare benefits or other services paid for with that money.

Those statistics are the big picture. But Dominguez lives in the heartbreak of the day-to-day. One of the most draconian elements of the law involves millions of so-called mixed-status families, in which some members, often children, are citizens because they were born here and others, usually parents, are not. This means that when parents are deported, they face the agonizing choice of leaving their children behind in the U.S. or taking them to live in a country with far fewer opportunities. A measure of relief came in January, when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that waivers would be granted to some immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens. But that just scrapes the surface of the problem.

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.

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.”

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.’ ”

Because of TV and social media, Dominguez has a high profile in Los Angeles—which doesn’t sit well with some of her fellow immigration attorneys, who feel that the public already sometimes confuses them with exploitative notary publics and dishonest “immigration consultants.” Critics claim that Dominguez’s promotional pushes—even if they’re disseminating useful information—blur the distinction between attorneys and salesmen. “I’m not saying she’s a bad lawyer,” says L.A.-based immigration attorney Lori Schoenberg. “But those videos on -YouTube? They’re unseemly. [Immigration attorneys] have enough trouble with their reputation as it is.”

Those who worked with Dominguez as she rose through the ranks see her in a different light. Among them is Mary Mucha, directing attorney of ILAP, the organization for which Dominguez has long volunteered. Mucha says Dominguez is straightforward, friendly and helpful, always putting terrified clients at ease. “She’s so good at relating to people,” says Mucha. “Jessica has the skills to sit down and say very simply, ‘Yes, I can help you’ or ‘No, I can’t’ or ‘Right now I can’t help you, but this is what the problems are.’ ” Asked to comment on Dominguez’s tear-jerking spots on Des-pierta América, Mucha says the stories Dominguez airs are very relatable to the Hispanic community: “In immigration we don’t usually have TV shows. But when you’re talking to -people—and I talk to a lot of people—somebody in their family has been affected.”

For his part, Ackrich, the former law-school dean, says one reason Dominguez is attracting notice for her social media skills is that lawyers have traditionally been discouraged—and in some states, California among them, -prohibited—from advertising at all. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that lawyers could advertise, attitudes have been slow to evolve. “Social media will become more common for lawyers,” he says. “There’s still the old-school lawyer who won’t even give you his business card unless you ask for it. That’s the other extreme. She takes full advantage of the change in the rules, as most of the progressive lawyers do.” Dominguez herself is careful to point out that neither she nor her segment producers offer behind-the-scenes direction to the subjects she profiles. “Nobody gets told ‘Cry,’ ‘Hug,’ ‘Have emotions,’ ” she says. “It’s just there. I try not to cry. But it’s -really difficult not to. There is a lot of pain.”

It’s a warm November morning in the San Fernando Valley on a gray, tattered stretch of Lankershim Boulevard, where barbershops and check-cashing stores abound and the bawk-bawk sounds you hear come from chickens living in cages in the doorway of a shop that specializes in clothes for Mexican vaqueros. In a few minutes, Dominguez will hold one of her regular free Immigration 101 courses, this one at Iglesia Nuevo Viver, a church housed in a crumbling former movie theater. In the lobby, men and women sit on metal folding chairs and multitask—eating sweet buñuelos, drinking coffee, bouncing babies on their laps and laughing. Then Dominguez walks in smiling, dressed in a sleeveless teal-blue dress and patent leather high heels. The world she lives in is full of need, and this room is no different. A sad-faced thirty-something woman supporting herself on a cane limps toward Dominguez, her eyes filling with tears. Soon Dominguez is whispering in her ear, hugging her and rubbing her back, an embrace that is sustained so long, it becomes apparent that they are praying together. The crowd slowly files into the auditorium, where the church’s pastor delivers a blessing and introduces Dominguez.

For the next two hours, she holds forth about immigration to about 50 men and women. The subjects she covers are serious—what to do if you’re undocumented and you get arrested, how to track down a loved one who goes to work and doesn’t return home, whether or not your child is eligible for the deferred action program. But Dominguez mostly keeps the mood light, displaying a playfulness that she tamps down during her radio and TV appearances. When a beefy assistant walks self--consciously to the lip of the stage to adjust the microphone, Dominguez shouts out, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a round of applause for George. He’s single. No waiting!”

But before all this, she starts with a simple introduction. “Hello,” she says in Spanish. “I am Jessica Dominguez. I’m here to share with you all a message that I think is really important. I’m an immigrant just like you, and I came to this country without documents, but I am here now as a professional.” She pauses, then segues smoothly from hope to homework. “Each and every single one of us has a great opportunity to stay in this country as a family if only we take two steps. The first one is to know our rights, and the second is to know the laws of this country.” Dominguez may love the spotlight, but she loves her work more. And she will do her heartfelt best—whether on Twitter, TV or YouTube—to help her clients find a lasting home.

Margy Rochlin is a frequent contributor to More. She also interviewed actress Danai Gurira (“The Fine Prints”) for this issue.

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First Published Wed, 2013-02-06 10:53

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