Law and Border

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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."

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Luke Turf