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Attorney Advocates For Poor As Immigration Debate Continues

Fisherman Donato Dalrymple holds 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez inside a bedroom closet moments before federal agents entered the bedroom on April 22, 2000, and seized the boy to reunite him with his father in Washington.
Alan Diaz
Fisherman Donato Dalrymple holds 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez inside a bedroom closet moments before federal agents entered the bedroom on April 22, 2000, and seized the boy to reunite him with his father in Washington.

Jose Pertierra is an immigration lawyer from Cuba. He is well-known for defending Elian Gonzalez and works on behalf of refugees.
Becky Lettenberger
Jose Pertierra is an immigration lawyer from Cuba. He is well-known for defending Elian Gonzalez and works on behalf of refugees.

As Washington debates changing the immigration system, the demand for immigration attorneys has already jumped, even without new laws in place.

Lawyers such as Jose Pertierra, a veteran immigration attorney, are trained to interpret the law, but Pertierra sees his role as much more.


Every Thursday at 6 p.m. for the past 10 years, Pertierrra is here -- on the set of the Spanish language TV studios of Univision in Washington, D.C., near Capitol Hill. He does a segment on immigration where he answers viewers' questions.

"I think that through Univision we are empowering our community to understand what immigration laws are about," he says.

A woman from Colombia asks if she can marry her U.S.-born friend so she can change her immigration status here in the U.S. Pertierra categorically says that marriage needs to be for love. It's a federal crime to do it for a visa, he says.

Before talks on Capitol Hill intensified, most questions focused on deportation. The U.S. deported more than 400,000 immigrants in fiscal year 2012 -- a record.

But those concerns have now given way to optimism and hope that one day immigrants can legally stay.


Gathering Evidence

At Pertierra's small office near the White House, calls have nearly doubled -- his staff fields between 45 and 50 calls a day. Most are from immigrants asking how the potential changes will affect them. It's a tough question to answer, since no law has been passed.

But previous changes have followed some consistent patterns, like benefiting immigrants who can prove the U.S. has been their home, says Pertierra. His best advice?

"Get a shoe box, and put every single document that you have that shows your continuous residency in this country in that shoe box," he says.

Pertierra recommends also including "evidence that you have been to the doctor, a driver's license, tax returns, bank records, if you've received mail at your address, if you've sent money home and have those receipts -- all that's evidence."

Though no one knows what the changes will ultimately look like, advocates are targeting specific laws already on the books.

Among the most controversial is the "10-year bar" passed in 1996. That law says anyone living in the U.S. illegally for longer than a year has to spend 10 years abroad before he or she can apply for legal permanent residency.

'On The Side Of The Poor'

Saul, a burly-looking man with dark wavy hair, is a legal permanent resident who came from El Salvador. He doesn't want his last name used, to protect his fiance, who is undocumented. They want to marry, but the "10-year bar" stands in their way. Saul has come to see attorney Pertierra on her behalf.

Pertierra, 61, is bilingual and multicultural. Though most of his clients come from Latin America, he sees a good share from China, the Middle East and Africa. Occasionally he has worked high-profile cases, such as the Elian Gonzalez custody case -- the Cuban boy who was embroiled in a fight between his Cuban family in Miami and his Havana-based father. Pertierra won the father custody of Elian. For the most part, though, Pertierra's clients are working poor.

"It's always good to be on the side of the poor," he says.

Saul is one of them. He holds a manila folder close to his chest. Once in Pertierra's office, the lawyer quizzes Saul on Salvadoran folk tales. "Who's Cipitillo's mom?" asks Pertierra. This technique serves as an icebreaker, relaxing the attorney and the client.

Most clients come in scared, says Pertierra. "They don't expect it. They come to see a lawyer and they are nervous, they don't know how to formulate their questions," he says.

Once they feel comfortable with each other, Pertierra patiently explains the law to Saul and tells him he needs to become a U.S. citizen first, before he can sponsor his future wife. And that will take time. He'll need to pass a citizenship test and take the oath of allegiance. Unless the 1996 law is overturned, they'll have to live apart for the first 10 years of their marriage.

Saul clenches his jaw, visibly disappointed. He wanted to marry this spring, but marriage will have to wait. The couple isn't ready to live apart, either.

"U.S. law for some reason thinks that a 10-year separation is a simple separation," says Pertierra. "It makes little sense, especially for a newlywed couple. A 10-year separation is extreme hardship and not simple at all."

Saul and his girlfriend are facing a dilemma faced by other immigrants, and like many, they prefer to live in limbo rather than face separation, says Pertierra.

A One-Way Ticket

Pertierra came to Washington on a scholarship in 1975 to study philosophy at Georgetown University. He says the debate on Capitol Hill over refugee law and war raging in Central America affected him hugely.

"A lot of refugees were coming to the U.S., and there was no law at the time that clearly established how one qualified for asylum," Pertierra says.

He ditched philosophy and switched to study law. He became a lawyer with a specialty in immigration and human rights law. Up until the 1970s, the U.S. favored asylum for those fleeing communist regimes, such as Pertierra's native Cuba.

Pertierra was 10 years old when he and his family arrived in Miami in 1961. The U.S. was then offering a one-way ticket to anywhere in America. The family picked California.

"I grew up around Chicanos in Los Angeles," says Pertierra. "I worked with the United Farm Workers movement and met Cesar Chavez, and it was one of the most important things that happened in my life."

Pertierra has been practicing law for almost 30 years and has worked thousands of cases, but he recalls one in particular.

About 10 years ago, a Peruvian family came into his office, though only the parents came in while the kids sat in the crammed waiting area. The parents were seeking legal residency for their 17-year-old twins who had been brought into the U.S. when they were 6 months old.

Pertierra told the parents he couldn't do anything for the twins. The mother started crying, then she said, "Would you tell my children that they are illegally in the U.S., because they think they are U.S. citizens and I don't have the heart to do it?"

Pertierra says the mom left his office crying, the father went after her, and he had no choice but to tell the kids what was happening.

Planning For Change

Many immigration attorneys were already in demand, even before current talks of changing the system.

But Reid Trautz, with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says calls to the trade organization have quadrupled since talks intensified.

"January is always one of our biggest months for new membership," Trautz says, "but this year is even larger than the last several years -- it's noticeably higher."

Some calls are from people who want to find an attorney, though the majority of calls come from other lawyers. Some want to add to their expertise and cash in on what could be a boom in business. Others are established immigration attorneys.

"I'm getting calls from members who are wondering what they should be doing," Trautz says. "Should they be putting together a potential marketing campaign that they may launch six months from now, or whenever if there is something?"

That something will, of course, be a new immigration law.

Members of the Republican-led House held their first hearings on immigration changes last week. Proposals by the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Senate released proposals before that.

While both sides agree that changes are needed, there is still plenty of disagreement on what they should look like.

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