Over the past year, Immigration Associate Elsy Ramos Velasquez has completed nearly 200 hours of pro bono work in addition to her usual cases that involve working with private individuals on a wide variety of matters related to their immigration cases.
For her efforts, she was recognized with the Clark Hill Pro Bono Award in July.
On top of her immigration cases and pro bono efforts, Ramos Velasquez is also starting her third year as an adjunct law professor at Howard Law School.
She recently discussed her immigration practice and pro bono work, why she is so passionate about her work, and how she became a law school professor.
To start, how did you choose to practice immigration law?
That path started for me during my undergrad studies. I moved from Maryland to Miami for undergrad, and I majored in Latin American Studies. With my major, I was required to do an internship at a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Miami. The first one I did was with an NGO that helped Haitian immigrants in the Miami community. That was my first exposure to translating documents, completing forms, and listening to their stories. It helped me realize that there was a world of immigrants outside of what I knew in my family. I was excited to learn a little bit more, and that’s what sparked my curiosity into immigration law. I knew I wanted to be an attorney. I just didn’t know what type of attorney, and once I was exposed to that world, I thought this may be it.
How did it become a personal motivation of yours to take on pro bono cases?
It started in law school. I served as an interpreter with the immigration clinic at my law school. I also interned at the Immigration Court when I was a law student. I saw the need for attorneys. There were many individuals who would appear without an attorney. The Court would provide them with a list of local nonprofit organizations, but these were frequently at capacity. That was one of my motivations. These individuals have overcome so many obstacles and have heartbreaking stories, if they had an attorney to represent them and be their advocate, who knows what they could become?
How has Clark Hill helped you succeed with your pro bono efforts?
We have so many resources and our clients benefit from these resources. We can take on complex matters because we have the capacity and experience. Also, we can tap into one of the other industry teams if our clients need assistance with issues that require other legal expertise. It’s a great resource for clients, we can connect them to other colleagues within Clark Hill.
Could you explain the two sides of Clark Hill’s Immigration practice, your personal side and the business side?
We are a full-service immigration unit. Our team provides a comprehensive range of immigration services that include employment-based immigration, which involves representing corporate and individual clients in short and long-term visa applications and petitions. I work on the team that works on criminal immigration defense, deportation defense, federal court litigation, family-based immigration, and asylum.
What got you interested in joining Clark Hill?
Before graduating from law school, I knew I wanted to practice immigration law. Specifically, I wanted to work on complex immigration matters. Before joining Clark Hill, I was at a firm where I could do that type of work. I had a great mentor who allowed me to work on challenging issues. When I was looking to move, I spoke to Thomas Ragland, one of the Members of our Immigration Business Unit. From our first conversation, I knew Clark Hill would be a great fit. Mentorship is essential, and I knew I would be able to grow and learn at Clark Hill. I was right. I can’t imagine I would be where I am in my career without the mentorship I have received since joining.
You’re now an adjunct law school professor, how did you get into teaching?
I had never imagined teaching, it was never on my radar, but my clinic director from law school recommended me to Howard Law School. They were looking for a professor to teach Asylum and Refugee Law, which is what I’m teaching this semester, and what I’ve been teaching for about three years. Even though I never considered it before, I enjoy it. It allows me to stay up-to-date when it comes to asylum law. I’ve been able to hone my skills in that area. Every semester I learn something new from the cases I discuss in class.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I try to keep the class relaxed because of the subject matter. There are cases that can be triggering, and I am mindful of how we tackle reading assignments. I also look back to when I was a law student and think of what I benefited from. I like to use case examples from my cases, or those I know about. I believe the practical experience is where you learn asylum law. I can teach you the law, but if you don’t know how to apply it to a set of facts, it will be difficult for you.
What’s been especially rewarding for you as a teacher and with your immigration work?
Seeing students listen to how asylum law works and understand the reality of seeking asylum in the United States. Students come in with an idea based on what they have read or heard in the media. After the first class, they realize asylum law is nothing like what they thought it was. I see students who never considered immigration as a practice become curious about the field. That is rewarding.
I went to law school because I wanted to help people. As a first-year law student, I knew immigration was the path I was going to take. I get to do what I love and help people every day.
I’m also always learning. If there is one thing you will do as an immigration lawyer, it is learning. You also get to help people. To me, that’s the best part of my job. Every day I get to help someone. I hear their stories. When you are with someone at every stage of their immigration process, from the initial consultation to becoming a U.S. citizen, it is incredibly rewarding.
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