Law and Border

Immigration is personal to Lilian Shea. She understands it as no citizen of the United States can. But immigration's so close to her heart that she doesn't quite grasp the magnitude of the animosity surrounding the issue today.

"I understand immigrants and I understand citizens," she says. "I understand black and I understand white. I understand the devil and I understand God. It's upsetting that they keep crossing the border, and it's upsetting that they don't respect our laws in America -- because I didn't do it. I came legally. It would have never crossed my mind to do something illegal to gain something. On the other hand, you have a choice: You risk your life in the desert or you starve to death because there's no chance in Mexico.

"I understand Maria and I understand Jose, who come to clean or pick the cotton because Americans don't like to do it. Those Americans that really hate this, I would like to have them here and ask, 'Well, will you come and clean my house?' I'll bet you that 99 percent will say no."

At first American culture seemed cold to Lilian. She'd come to this country on a whim at 27, recruited by a California-based sensor-manufacturing company. They'd scooped her up fresh out of law school in Argentina, hoping she'd represent them in South America someday. She rented out her condo in Buenos Aires, said goodbye to her mother and sister, and started chasing the dream that Hollywood exports around the world, of living in neighborhoods of matching houses in the 'burbs, of speaking English on picnics with the family.

As she learned the language, Lilian was also to learn the company, including all the technicalities of sensor design. The subject bored her, and she had trouble picking it up. The company asked her to consider going to school to learn more about engineering, but she refused. She hated the job.

Life outside of work wasn't much fun, either.

Lilian felt alone until she met Dwayne, who lived in her neighborhood and spoke Spanish. A photographer, he took pictures of her all the time, like she was a model. Lilian was flattered. Within a few months, she'd quit her job and married Dwayne. Although she'd entered the country on a work visa, she now became a permanent resident of the United States because Dwayne was a U.S. citizen.

The marriage, Lilian's second, was rocky from the start. Dwayne kept Lilian's green card and threatened to have her deported, even though he had no actual power to do so. One day, when he was out of town on a photo assignment and Lilian was at the house studying English, two young men from Argentina showed up at the door. They were friends of a friend back home. While the three spent an all-American day at Magic Mountain, Lilian remembered all she was missing about her native land.

Dwayne and Lilian tried to work through their problems, but she had Argentina on the brain. She scheduled a trip back home, just a visit, but in the back of her mind was the possibility of leaving Dwayne and her life in the U.S forever. "I didn't know where I was," Lilian remembers. "I just needed to get out."

The possibility became reality. Lilian called Dwayne from Argentina, and they ended the marriage five months after they'd taken their vows.

In Argentina, Lilian got a call from Marcos, one of the young men she'd entertained in California. They went out dancing with friends, then started dating. Marcos constantly asked Lilian about the U.S., where life could be so much better for them. She wanted to make Marcos happy, and finally agreed to go back to California.

In 1994, Lilian called the U.S. embassy and arranged a pass to the U.S. to collect her things. If a green-card holder leaves the country for more than a year, the government can take the position that residency has been abandoned and the green card forfeited. Lilian was just on the edge of that time period, and Dwayne had not only kept her green card, but had written letters to immigration officials blasting her. She had to prove that she hadn't married him just to stay in the country. But Lilian won -- she told the truth, and immigration officers are good at detecting lies, she says. She was allowed to return and was issued a new green card.

Back in California, Lilian first found a job delivering pizzas, then as a manager of a trucking company, where she mostly spoke Spanish. She realized she needed to speak English if she was going to stay in this country, though, and took a receptionist job -- from which she was soon fired. She started working as a Spanish-speaking paralegal, and had a fit when she misinterpreted a note that one of her bosses had left on a file she'd messed up. The note read "Live and learn," but Lilian read it as "Leave and learn."

Marcos joined Lilian in California on a tourist visa. He overstayed it, but after the couple married in San Diego in 1997, Lilian petitioned for a green card for her new, undocumented husband. Two years later, when Lilian became a U.S. citizen, her status made her husband automatically eligible for that card.

While working as a paralegal, Lilian decided to resurrect her own practice of the law. California allows foreign-certified attorneys to take the state bar exam without attending a U.S. law school, but Lilian wanted to learn more about the American legal system before she took the test. She started a program that would earn her a master's in comparative law.

When Marcos got a job offer from a Denver advertising agency, he moved to Colorado. Lilian finished her master's, then followed her husband. But soon after she arrived, so did Marcos's green card -- and he split, taking the card with him.

Marcos wasn't the first man to leave Lilian.

Back in Argentina, her father had left when she was little. Although the family had been well off at one point, she remembers waking up one day in the small room where she shared a bed with her mother and her older sister, and knowing there was nothing but bread for breakfast.

When she was a teenager, Lilian tracked down her father. He told her he was an attorney, but Lilian did some detective work and found out that he was the equivalent of a paralegal. She switched her studies to law in order to get a degree with her father's last name -- De Falco -- on it. She saw it as a way to connect with him.

Lilian had always been close with her mother, and she'd already petitioned for her mother to join her. After Marcos moved out, Lilian's mother moved in. She helped Lilian to see the split as a blessing.

The 36-year-old Latina was now thrice divorced. Although drinking good wine is one of many pleasures in her life, she didn't like the Denver bar scene. A friend suggested she try Internet dating, so she posted an ad. "And I got 700 responses," Lilian remembers. "You have no idea how much fun it was those two or three months. It was fun, fun, fun."

In retrospect, Lilian knows that Marcos's leaving was one of the best things that could have happened to her. She lost some weight, regained her self-esteem, and now had 700 men at her fingertips. So many that she let co-workers at the law firm where she now worked as a paralegal help respond.

Marty Shea was one of the first men to write to Lilian, and one of about ten that she met face to face.

She wasn't sold on Marty -- she calls him by his Spanish name, pronounced Mar-teen -- on their first date. He's a triathlete, and her friends warned her that iron men are self-centered. But on their next date, when the couple sought refuge from the rain under a tree in Civic Center Park, Lilian told Marty about all the obstacles to her dream of becoming a lawyer -- and he told her that if he could complete the Iron Man competition, a dream of his, she could surely become a lawyer.

"I'm going to make all of your dreams come true," Marty told Lilian. She believed him.

In order to take the bar in Colorado, Lilian would have to graduate from a law school in this country. After seven years of law school in Argentina and getting a master's in California, more school didn't appeal to her. Neither did more law-school debt. She could still take the bar in California, though, and while passing that wouldn't let her practice in Colorado's state courts, she would be able to practice federal law in any state.

In 2002, Marty and Lilian married. For the first time, Lilian took a husband's last name. She also had her first child, a baby boy. And then she hit the books.

Marty, a software developer for the city, borrowed one of those books from Denver County Judge Kathleen Bowers. Lilian decided to return the book in person: She knew she needed a study buddy to pass the California bar, and who better than a judge?

The two bonded immediately. The judge helped Lilian prepare for the bar, and in the process got to brush up on her Spanish. They became family, as so many people who cross paths with Lilian do. "She is phenomenal," the judge says. "She is just amazing. She is the most dedicated, driven person I know, and she had the intelligence to pick up on a mountain of information."

When Lilian went to San Diego to take the bar exam, Marty waited with a bottle of champagne. It would be four months before she learned the results, but Marty was confident.

She failed the exam.

For her second attempt, Lilian went to San Francisco. She felt she'd failed even before she started the test. And she was right.

"There's no shame in failing the bar one or two times, even for Americans," Judge Bowers says.

Lilian heard stories of a man who took twenty years to pass the California bar. He took it forty times, people said, and his son passed it before he did.

She returned to San Diego for her third try and took the bar with a friend who was also trying to become an attorney. She was certain she'd failed again.

The night the results were posted, rather than watch the web, Lilian opted to see a romantic comedy with her husband, mother, child and the judge. When they returned home, though, Marty couldn't take it anymore. He told Lilian that if she didn't look up the results, he would. Sitting side by side, their toddler in Marty's lap, they fired up the computer.

"See, I told you," Lilian said, sad but not surprised. She didn't see the bright flashing lights she'd imagined would indicate a passing grade, as if she'd won a sweepstakes.

"Read that again," Marty said, slapping her on the leg.

"What do you mean? Read what?"

"Read it again."

When Lilian read the screen closely, she realized that it said the person named above -- Lilian Shea -- had passed the July 2004 California bar examination.

"I passed the fucking bar!" Lilian screamed. "I passed the fucking bar!"

Profanities rarely slip from her lips, but this was a rare occasion. Lilian ran around the house, shouting and crying in excitement. "I passed the fucking bar, I passed the fucking bar!"

She called everyone she knew and sat up all night long, chanting it like a mantra.

"She was screaming so loud that I thought maybe they had had a car accident on the way home," the judge remembers. "I couldn't understand her. Then I finally gathered that she had passed the bar."

A bilingual attorney who knows the laws of two countries ought to have job offers rolling in, Lilian thought. She started going out on networking interviews.

One attorney told Lilian that she was not a real lawyer and that she would never work in her office, or in this state. Lilian fled in tears, only to be reassured by Marty, who'd been waiting outside.

Lilian visited with another attorney, who not only told her she couldn't work in the state, but threatened legal action if she ever saw Lilian practicing law in Colorado. "It was like my whole life all over again: ŒYou're not good enough. You're not a lawyer,'" she says.

Marty and Lilian started discussing the possibility of moving to California, where Lilian could have her own practice. Still, she kept thinking about the provision that would allow her to pursue federal law anywhere now that she'd passed the California bar. She double-checked with the feds and the Colorado Supreme Court to affirm what she already knew to be true.

Lilian learned that the Mexican Consulate was moving its offices from Cherry Creek to a bigger building on Leetsdale, where it would rent out part of the basement -- four offices with a lobby. If Lilian was only going to practice federal law, renting space below the Mexican Consulate seemed like the best way to make it work.

She and Marty pulled all $80,000 in equity out of their home and made Lilian Shea's law practice official.

"It's gutsy for someone to start out on their own without a senior attorney to advise them," the judge says.

One of her first clients was Ron Weiszmann, a fellow wine connoisseur. Ron is convinced that he saw Lilian at a rally on his first trip to Argentina, back in 1988; they both remember a burning-coffin demonstration. And although they didn't meet formally until years later, Ron loves to tell people that he saw her there.

Over the years, Argentina continued to have a strong pull on Ron. He explored investment opportunities there and finally found a vineyard. He needed a Spanish-speaking attorney, preferably one with an Argentine accent, who could make sure he was buying what he thought he was buying. The deal almost collapsed at one point, and Lilian thinks she was able to save it simply because she was able to tell the sellers what they needed to hear in their native tongue.

Argentina didn't even export wine until a recent economic crisis. Someday, Ron hopes to sell his wine in this country. He has 73 acres of grapes that are between fifteen and thirty years old, and "the older the vine, the better the wine," he says.

Sitting in Ron's high-rise office overlooking Denver, Lilian remembered cashing that first check for her legal work. When a secretary asked if she'd like something to drink, Lilian thought about how far she has come. "People would look at me like, ŒUh-huh, bring me the coffee,'" she says. "Now they're bringing me the coffee."

The coffee's nice, but the real reward was the first time a judge called her "counsel."

It was at a bond hearing, and Lilian was trying to get her client -- who had snuck across the border and was in the country illegally -- out of jail. She succeeded, but doesn't know what happened to him after that.

The immigration issue is full of families split by communities and countries, visas and borders, deportations and waiting lists. And sometimes, a case is a matter of life and death.

Alimata is from the Ivory Coast, where the uprisings and revolutions of the past dozen years have split the country's ethnicities into classes. Although she is a published novelist and was a high school philosophy teacher, Alimata is of the lower class, the Dioulas. A coup d'etat in 2003 resulted in all of the country's Dioula teachers losing their jobs.

Alimata fought back. She spoke out in newspapers about the injustice and took to the streets in protest. When authorities gassed the scene, she couldn't breathe, couldn't see. She was cut by blades -- from soldiers or police, she doesn't know. She was arrested and interrogated, kicked in the stomach so hard that the pain rendered her unconscious. Although she wasn't raped, many of the women imprisoned with her were. The Dioulas were stuck in filthy cells with no toilets or showers.

Then one day, the Dioulas were crammed into a cargo truck and driven out into the woods, in the middle of nowhere. Alimata thought she'd be shot in the back of the head as she fled. But she wasn't.

Alimata walked from the Ivory Coast into neighboring Mali. She still worried that the rebels would kill her. Since authorities in the Ivory Coast had confiscated her ID, she bought a fake Mali passport. The same hustler who sold Alimata the passport arranged for her to travel to the United States, final destination Denver.

Pregnant when she left Africa, Alimata gave birth here in February. The child is a U.S. citizen. Alimata's husband and three daughters are still in Mali, where they cannot work or go to school. She's hoping to bring her family here someday. But first she must be granted asylum.

In 2003, the most recent year for which U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services statistics are available, 476 asylum applications were filed in this country on behalf of people from the Ivory Coast. That same year, 126 people from the Ivory Coast were granted asylum, and 23 people were denied.

Lilian got Alimata's case through the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, a nonprofit that aids survivors of torture by providing mental-health and legal services. It's her first asylum case, and she's doing it pro bono with the help of RMSC legal director Regina Germain.

Alimata's sex organs were mutilated when she was a child -- a common practice in the Ivory Coast -- and Regina knows of a successful asylum application based strictly on the inhumane surgery. She reminded Lilian to mention the mutilation at Alimata's first hearing. "Don't say circumcision," Regina advised. "Use the term Œfemale genital mutilation.'"

Lilian's accent comes out thick as she says "female genital mutilation, female genital mutilation" over and over. "Genital" sounds like "shenital."

Alimata's case is time-consuming, and Lilian has had second thoughts. Initially she planned to just see Alimata through the hearing that is the first step in an asylum application. If the hearing officer thinks a case is valid, it will be brought in front of a judge.

Lilian was concerned because Alimata is so gentle. She smiles a lot, and it's hard to tell what's behind those big brown eyes -- but you get the feeling that she's holding something back. Lilian didn't sleep much the night before the hearing.

At the hearing, the officer asked Alimata about her brother and whether it was true that she came to the United States to reunite with him, as the government's records show. Alimata said no, that her brother is still in Africa. The hearing officer looked skeptical. So Lilian jumped in and asked the hearing officer if it would help if Alimata's brother went to the American Embassy in Mali and proved that he's not in this country. The officer seemed impressed with the quick suggestion.

"Can you imagine if I win?" Lilian asked. Her heart was still pumping from the adrenaline rush of her first asylum hearing.

The next day, Lilian picked Alimata up and took her to her office under the Mexican Consulate, where a French translator would meet with them so that Lilian could give Alimata's brother instructions. While talking with Alimata, she learned that her life in America, alone with a baby, was a struggle. With Marty's help, Lilian had collected some information about food banks. Now she pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and stuck a piece of paper with the word "T-bone" on it for Alimata to take to the store. Alimata thanked her, and cried. Lilian cried, too.

She decided to see Alimata's case through to the end.

"I need to win this," she says.

The pro bono work is time-consuming, but it also brings in business. This past month, Lilian met with about a dozen immigrants in the basement of a church while a Mexican band blasted fiesta music upstairs. She fielded questions and offered free consultations the following week. That's how Maria came to her.

Maria was an architect in Monterrey, Mexico. For the first two years after college, her career was going well -- but then the economy took a turn and she lost her job. In 1997, after looking for work for six months, Maria headed north on a tourist visa. She has a sister in Denver who's a U.S. citizen and had been here for ten years at that point. Maria overstayed her visa. She got a job delivering the Denver Post, she says, then worked in a factory. As her English improved, she found work at a Denver architectural firm. She was there for three years before she lost her job; she thinks it's because they learned she was in the country illegally.

Next, Maria got a job working in a Denver Public Schools kitchen. From there, she stepped up to a janitorial job with better pay and benefits.

If Maria can stay out of trouble for the next couple of years, she may manage to avoid being deported. Someone who came to this country on a visa, who's been here ten years and has two anchor babies who were born here, who has a sister who's a citizen and whose parents are legal residents -- someone like Maria -- has a chance of becoming legal.

Maria's in better shape than her husband, who snuck across the border, or another woman who showed up in Lilian's office, crying that immigration officials took her husband and child. Cases like those appeal to Lilian. But she also wants clients like Ricardo Estrada Dardón.

Lilian always asks potential clients the same two things: how they entered the country and whether they're married to a U.S. citizen. Those two factors can be the saving grace -- or damning detail -- of any immigration case. Ricardo is a Guatemalan attorney who's been bouncing back and forth between the U.S. and his homeland since 1971, always legally. Now he wants a green card, "like everybody else," Lilian says. And he's got a good shot, because he wants to start a business here, a business that would create jobs for U.S. citizens.

The two met at a French restaurant for lunch. Lilian took about three minutes' worth of notes, and then the conversation warmed up. They both ordered steak, and when a bottle of red wine arrived, Ricardo insisted that Lilian approve it. The lunch was filled with laughter and memories of Latin America, even a few verses of classic Spanish tunes. They reminisced about the first time they heard the Beatles, and contemplated the differences between their home cultures and life here, where everything is so rushed.

Dictionaries translate the Spanish word amable into "kind" or "good." But those definitions don't do the word justice. There's a warmth to amable, a respect, love and admiration unique to Latino cultures. Ricardo and Lilian see each other as muy amable.

"I live for that," Lilian says, after lunch with her new friend and possible client.

Lilian is feeling optimistic about her practice these days. "I think whoever hires me has a sense of confidence," she says. "I do tell them everything that I think, and I do tell them that although I cannot give them any advice on anything illegal, I can give them all the scenarios, like most attorneys do."

She warns undocumented immigrants to live smart, stay out of trouble. She tells them not to drive drunk, to follow the speed limit and to make sure their cars are in working order. Don't break any laws, she tells them.

She doesn't understand how some people could hate her for advising illegal immigrants to stay out of trouble if they want to stay in this country. And she understands why so many people want to come here.

Lilian hates it that the Mexican government is living large while the people starve -- but she knows it's not the U.S.'s fault. "In the Third World, in countries like mine, we do suffer more," she says. "But unfortunately, we cannot send the invoice to America and have America be in charge of everything." She wishes that immigrants could come work here legally and avoid a life in the shadows, a life where they're taken advantage of or stand to lose everything if their deportation day comes.

In February, Lilian was invited by Citizenship and Immigration Services to share her story with about sixty new citizens at a naturalization ceremony. Nervous, she faced the crowd. "I was one of you," she told them. "A few years ago, I was sitting in that chair being sworn in myself.

"In the Third World, people talk about the American dream, and I'm living it. I'm very fortunate."

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Luke Turf