Local Northern Virginia lawyer focuses on immigration cases
November 14, 2011
By David Lyne
A relatively small sign hanging above an ordinary door on Warrenton’s Third Street, next to the town post office, may seem a little out of place in Fauquier County.
It reads: “Blue Ridge Immigration Law Center.”
“We now have two sides that can’t or won’t talk to each other,” Donusia Lipinski says of the national debate over immigration.
The door leads to the uncluttered, almost homey, office of Donusia Lipinski, a dynamic immigration lawyer who is passionate about her work.
Betty Rivera, an office assistant who also serves a Spanish-language interpreter for Fauquier courts, says: “This is not just a business; it’s a way of life for her. People can sense that.”
“They (immigrants) are coming to a place where they will get help, get hope, a chance for a better future. They get the truth.”
“The work is incredibly rewarding and satisfying,” Ms. Lipinski says. “I’m working with people’s lives, helping them go through a journey on whether they will be together or not.”
The 2010 U.S. Census lists 65,203 county residents, with Latinos or Hispanics comprising 6.4 percent of the population and Asians, 1.3 percent. The census does not distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants.
Ms. Lipinski’s personal journey that led her to immigration law, and eventually to Warrenton had plenty of twists and turns. She grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, the middle child of seven in a family of Polish heritage. She calls herself “a second-generation immigrant.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1977 with a degree in elementary education, she went to Mexico to teach first grade at a private school. She soon discovered that her “heart was not in teaching” and returned to the U.S. to be an autoworker, spray-painting truck hoods at Ford’s Twin Cities Plant in St. Paul-Minneapolis. Ms. Lipinski describes her time there as “an eye-opening experience” of harassment and health issues.
She came to support a group of workers who successfully sued Ford and the United Auto Workers union, claiming unfair and unsafe labor practices. The National Labor Relations Board hearings inspired her to study law. Ms. Lipinski graduated in 1983 from Golden Gate University in San Francisco, where she embraced immigration law.
“My first case was a Samoan family who had to prove they would not become public charges,” she recalls. “I will never forget. I saw that immigration [law] was a wonderful way to help people become U.S. citizens, to get their ‘green cards,’ and to represent them in immigration court.”
Ms. Lipinski settled in Denver, where she headed a small practice and won national recognition, especially for her work on behalf of immigrant farm workers and as an advocate of immigration law reform.
In 2006, she got a call from the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, offering her a job as an advocate on Capitol Hill for “due process and family issues within the immigration context. “ The work was rewarding, yet often frustrating. By 2008 she knew she wanted to practice law again.
Making Warrenton home
“I wanted a small town with a Main Street, a sense of community, where I could go to the grocery store or post office and see people I know,” Ms. Lipinski says, noting she had visited Warrenton earlier with a friend. “Warrenton called me here.
“I’ve found that the people of Fauquier are caring and compassionate.”
She also wanted a sizeable agricultural industry in a community that had no legal services for immigrants.
“This is not just a business; it’s a way of life for her. People can sense that,” office assistant Betty Rivera (right) says of her boss.
Fluent in Spanish, Ms. Lipinski moved here in 2008 and opened her law office the following year. She leads immigrants through the naturalization process, takes on “highly selective” deportation cases and helps immigrant victims of domestic violence or abuse. She practices only federal law in Virginia.
A key component of Ms. Lipinski’s practice is working with “blended families.” In such a family, one member is undocumented while others, such as a spouse and children, are in the country legally and might even be U.S. citizens.
“A lot of (immigrant) families are living in fear” that a loved one could be deported, she says.
She guides the family though the often difficult process of getting legal status for the undocumented family member, noting that approximately 45 percent of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. entered the country legally “but have stayed too long.”
“Many times, they came here on a visa, then fell in love, truly fell in love, and never left,” Ms. Lipinski says.
The princess and the cowboy
Lipinski has been working with a newlywed couple, going through the process of getting permanent legal status for the immigrant bride.
(Because their case is pending, the couple insisted on anonymity for this article. They did give permission to use their pet names for each other, “Princess” and “Cowboy.”)
An engineer, Princess worked for a U.S. company in her native European country. Their professional paths crossed two years ago when his job with the U.S. government took him to the same place. They started dating a year and a half ago. Love soon blossomed, contrary to a pledge she had made to herself “never to marry a foreigner and never to leave my country.”
A transatlantic romance proved frustrating and expensive. “Being apart, it’s killing, when you want to be with the one you love,” she says.
Whenever his job sent him to Europe, Cowboy would travel to Princess as often as possible, usually “every two or three weeks.” One month, his telephone bill topped $5,000; she says hers hit 2,000 Euros, slightly more than $2,700.
“We loved the phone, but we hated the phone,” she says. “Being on the phone meant we were not together.”
She traveled to the U.S. twice to visit Cowboy and other friends, being allowed a 90-day stay each time. (Reciprocity between the U.S. and her country allows such short visits without a visa.) Princess had an unnerving experience when she arrived in Newark, N.J., for her second visit.
“I was grilled for two hours (by a Customs and Border Protection agent). I didn’t know why. I hadn’t done anything wrong,” she says.
Cowboy says she was so rattled by the experience that “she swore she would never come back.” That’s when he decided to seek an immigration lawyer to help ensure “we were doing everything right.” He consulted several immigration lawyers, “but felt most comfortable with Donusia.”
“The first time I walked into this office, I couldn’t talk, I was shaking and I was crying,” says “Princess,” noting she felt an immediate comfort with Ms. Lipinski.
“They were doing everything right,” the lawyer says. “Nobody had done anything wrong.”
After returning to her home country, Princess obtained a tourist visa, which allows her to stay in the U.S. for six months per visit. When she came back this year, she remained nervous because possession of a visa is no guarantee that entry will be allowed. She had to have a round-trip plane ticket, demonstrate that she had enough money for her stay and that she had family and job ties in her homeland that would compel her to return. This time, her entry went smoothly.
Then the unanticipated happened. Princess and Cowboy got married in August, she wearing a traditional gown and he in blue jeans. An ocean would separate them no more.
“We knew we wanted to get married some day, but we hadn’t decided when,” he says. (Because his job requires a high-level security clearance, he had to get permission to marry a foreigner from the U.S. government.)
With a wedding ring on her finger and her tourist visit about to expire, the couple went back to Ms. Lipinski for help in getting permanent resident status, commonly called a “green card,” for Princess. That should lead to U.S. citizenship in about three years.
“Donusia has been spectacular,” explaining the details of the process and preparing them for her “adjustment of status” interview Dec. 2 before a U.S. Customs and Immigration Officer in Fairfax, he says. A decision should be rendered within days of the interview, says Ms. Lipinski.
“That’s all I want for my (upcoming) birthday, my green card,” says Princess. “Love is love. It doesn’t recognize a passport.”
Advocate for abuse victims
Ms. Lipinski’s work extends beyond her law office. She is passionately concerned about victims of domestic violence and abuse.
Just ask George F. Stockes III, executive director of Services to Abused Families Inc. (SAFE), founded in 1980 to serve the counties of Fauquier, Culpeper, Rappahannock, Orange and Madison. (Ms. Lipinski is vice president of the board of directors).
“We’re very blessed to have her,” Mr. Stockes says. “She’s a great spokesperson for our mission.”
SAFE provides “shelter, advocacy, education and support” for victims of domestic abuse and violence. It operates a regional shelter in Culpeper for victims, housing women and children in one facility and men in another.
Mr. Stockes estimates that “less than 10 percent” of the SAFE clients are Latino or Hispanic. Even if client is undocumented, “there are laws in place” to provide protection. He notes that the abuser often will use immigration status — the threat of deportation — as a weapon to make an undocumented victim afraid to seek help or report crime.
“She works passionately to ensure that people are protected and safe to report a crime (of domestic violence or abuse). She’s always trying to help people,” Mr. Stockes says.
Ms. Lipinski recently held a community outreach session in Marshall to help educate employers and individual on immigration law. She frequently is approached by employers for advice on getting legal status for undocumented workers. She notes that can be extremely difficult.
“The more people know (about immigration law), the better they can protect themselves,” she says.
The political debate over immigration worries Ms. Lipinski because, she says: “We now have two sides that can’t or won’t talk to each other. We all think we are right. We all care about where we live. And for the most part, we care about each other.
“I do believe that if we can get both sides heard, we will see there are more commonalities that differences. I would love to have that dialogue. I am an optimist.”
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For a Dec. 15 update of this story, click here.
Excerps from the December 15th Update:
The immigrant bride of a U.S. citizen and Fauquier County resident she affectionately calls Cowboy got her birthday wish when her “green card,” giving her permanent resident status, arrived Friday in the mail. … “The first thing I did was cry, I was so happy,” she says about receiving the priority mail envelope containing the card “which really is green” from the U.S. Immigration Service.
Ms. Lipinski accompanied the couple to the Dec. “adjustment of status” interview before an immigration officer in Fairfax.
The couple credits Ms. Lipinski with getting all the paperwork in order to make the process go smoothly. “She has been great,” says Cowboy.