Leadership in Immigration Law
AN INTERVIEW WITH ATTORNEY JESSICA YAÑEZ
An attorney with Chapman Law Firm in Greensboro, North Carolina, Yañez '11 specializes in immigration law, handling removal-defense cases, family-based cases, Violence Against Women (VAWA), U visa cases, and derivative citizenship cases. She graduated cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. She obtained her J.D. from Elon University School of Law, where she served for two years on the North Carolina Pattern Jury Instruction Committee. She also was a member of the Moot Court team, as well as a case project manager for the Innocence Project.
In the interview transcribed below, Yañez discusses her immigration law career, leadership In immigration law, and troubling issues in the immigration law profession.
INTERVIEWER: CARRIE OSBORNE JOHNSTON '12
AN IMMIGRATION LAW CAREER
Carrie Osborne Johnston: Please tell me about your background and education.
Jessica Yañez: I’m a native of Greensboro. I grew up here and I’m happy to be practicing law here. I graduated from Grimsley High School, then went on to study Spanish at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. After working at Chapman Law Firm for about two years as an immigration paralegal, I decided to go to law school. I graduated from Elon in 2011 and returned to Chapman Law Firm, where I work as an immigration attorney. As a native of Greensboro, I’ve been able to maintain close ties to the community while at the same time furthering my career in the legal field.
CJ: What type of work do you do as an attorney?
JY: As an immigration attorney, I assist individuals and companies as they navigate through the US immigration system. I work on a broad range of employment-based and family-based cases before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Labor, and the Department of State. I also represent individuals in removal proceedings at the Immigration Court in Charlotte, NC.
CJ: Is there any type of work that you most like doing in the area of immigration?
JY: I love the fact that I can combine my love of the law with my interests in culture, politics, and history. I believe that immigration law is one of the few areas where you can do that. Clients are so appreciative and it’s very rewarding to be able to help them with one of the biggest milestones in their lives, whether it’s coming to the U.S. for a new job opportunity, becoming a U.S. citizen, or to be reunited with a family member.
CJ: What led you to become interested in immigration law?
JY: I was always interested in different cultures, and I think Greensboro is represents diversity. We have hundreds of different countries and nationalities that now call Greensboro home. As an immigration attorney, with each new case I am able to learn a bit more about the places where our clients come from, and I enjoy listening to their thoughts about life in the U.S. My husband is also a first-generation immigrant, so I know what it’s like to go through the immigration process, which allows me to be empathetic with my clients and what they’re going through. I think it’s a perfect fit for me.
CJ: In what ways, in your opinion, could United States immigration policies be improved?
JY: Let me start by saying 2012 has been an exciting year in immigration law. In January, the Obama Administration announced that it will implement a process to allow spouses of U.S. citizens to file certain waivers in the U.S. rather than requiring them to leave the country and file at a U.S. embassy abroad. This has not yet been implemented, but it is a step in the right direction and will keep families together while their cases are being processed. The applicant will still have to leave the U.S. to obtain a visa at the embassy, but applicants will only be gone for a matter of weeks, which is a big improvement over the current system, in which applicants are out of the U.S. for months or even years.
In June, the Administration announced a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This policy allows people from fifteen to thirty years old to obtain work authorization if they can prove that they were brought to the U.S. before age 16, they have resided here for the past five years, they are either in school or have already graduated, and that they have not committed serious crimes. In meeting with clients that are eligible for Deferred Action, I have been impressed at how successful these young people have been in spite of the fact that they are “undocumented”. I have met with honor roll students who are planning on studying business, engineering, medicine, and law. They were brought here as children and have excelled and I’m so happy that this program will allow them the opportunity to obtain work authorization and continue to make valuable contributions to our country. Up until this point, we had created a sub-culture of children who have grown up here their entire lives, but weren’t afforded any of the opportunities to better themselves or society.
Despite these major announcements, there is much work to be done. While Deferred Action is a step in the right direction, Congress still needs to pass the DREAM Act [Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors]. This would allow the undocumented youth of America to obtain a permanent status, whereas Deferred Action is temporary and is only issued in two year increments. The DREAM Act is a win-win situation, as it allows students to further their educations and careers and as a result the United States will see a new wave of future leaders and innovators.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles in our immigration system is that there is no way for companies to sponsor workers who are doing manual labor if the position will last for more than a year. There are temporary visas for seasonal and agricultural workers, but the process is costly and must be done every year, which is a great financial burden for small businesses.
LEADERSHIP IN IMMIGRATION LAW
CJ: As an immigration attorney, how do you feel that you can be a leader in your field?
JY: Immigration attorneys have an important role to play in their local communities and across the nation. Locally, we have to know the community. We must know the immigrant population, and they have to know that they can rely on us and that we will be advocates on their behalf. We have to be sure that the community is well informed, that they know their rights, and that they stay up-to-date on any changes in immigration law. Then, nationally, we have to be advocates for change in immigration laws and policies. We do that by working with our Congressional representatives, and by taking individual cases to the attention of Congress to show them how our immigration laws affect individuals and businesses. I believe that I can be a leader in my field by addressing the needs of my individual clients and striving to provide the best legal representation available, while also educating the community at large about our immigration system.
CJ: What leadership qualities do you possess that have helped you to be a successful leader within your legal career?
JY: Well, I’m just getting started in my legal career, but, I will say that one quality I have as an up-and-coming leader is empathy. A true leader understands the people that they represent. So, what I do is try to really sit down with clients and understand where they come from and what it has been like for them to get to this country. Once I have that understanding, I can take that and passionately represent them. I try to help my colleagues who practice in other areas understand how immigration laws affect their practices as well. I also hope to inspire students to work hard and love the work that they do.
CJ: In what ways did Elon Law prepare you for your practice?
JY: Elon gave me a rock-solid foundation in the law and gave me the tools I needed to find my voice and use my legal knowledge to effect change in the world. So, from day one as an attorney, I had this sense of confidence in myself and the work that I do. Elon gave me the power to be an effective advocate, whether it is in the courtroom or in the community, and for that I am grateful.
TROUBLING ISSUES IN THE IMMIGRATION LAW PROFESSION
CJ: What are the issues that are concerning to you in the legal profession?
JY: Within immigration practice, one of the most troubling issues today is the unlicensed practice of law. In Latin America, a notary is the equivalent of an attorney. So, what happens is that if you put a sign in your storefront that says “notario,” a person who doesn’t have any experience with our legal system thinks that the notary is an attorney. This is not just a problem amongst Spanish –speakers. In general, the immigrant population is vulnerable because they are not familiar with our legal system and may not speak very much English when they arrive here. We have clients who have ended up in deportation proceedings as a result of the unlicensed practice of law. The NC bar, the American bar, and AILA, (the American Immigration Lawyers Association), are all trying to fight the unlicensed practice of law, but it’s a constant battle.
CJ: What advice do you have for graduating law students and new attorneys?
JY: I think for new attorneys, it’s easy to be overwhelmed because you’ve gone from being a student where you can absorb all this information for three years in a controlled environment, to becoming an attorney, with great amounts of responsibility in an environment that is far from controlled. It’s a big change in a small amount of time. No matter how difficult the legal profession may be, just remember the power that you have to change people’s lives. I always wanted to help people. When I stopped and looked at what I would do with my life, I thought that being an attorney was the one way that I could, on a daily basis, help people to actually change their lives. So, don’t ever forget the power of your J.D. degree.
CJ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JY: I’d just like to leave students and new attorneys with a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a kinder world to live in.” I keep this quote in my car, so when I am headed to work, or to court, I am reminded of how the work I do has such a big impact on our clients and their families, and that, I think, is the essence of leadership—to use one’s strengths for the greater good.