Paying It Forward

One woman’s journey from immigrant daughter to immigration attorney: her passion, purpose, and pursuit of excellence.

A Woman's Journey From Immigrant Daughter to
Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers

June 14, 2021 07:00 AM

This article was originally published in our 2021 "Women in the Law" Business Edition.

Like many immigrant families, mine dreamed of one day having an attorney in the house—someone who would know jurisprudence, represent those in need, and pave the way toward a brighter future for us all. My family was from the Philippines, where opportunities were far fewer than in the U.S. Both my grandfathers aspired to become lawyers, but their studies were abruptly eclipsed by war and corruption: My maternal one was drafted and served in World War II before he could launch a career, and my paternal one lost his life in the line of duty as a police officer while studying for a law degree.

My father also wanted to be a lawyer, but when my grandfather died, his family suffered. My father had begun working at 6 years of age, selling bread on street corners, and begging for a cup of rice from his aunt; at times, his only meal was sharing a single banana with his three brothers. Becoming a lawyer was an impossible dream for him.

When my parents immigrated to the U.S., they passed that dream—along with the American Dream—on to me. Thanks to my parents’ love and hard work, I became the first in my family to attend college, earning a degree in political science, and law school in the U.S. I’m now working to build the legacy that my father and grandfathers never could.

Understanding the sacrifices my parents made to come here and make a new life for our family set my ultimate professional course. I appreciate the courage and determination it took to make such a move. Before choosing my legal specialization, I wanted to be sure I could leave the office every day having done more good for the world than harm. Fittingly, I started practicing as an immigration attorney, advising a new generation of immigrants, and helping lift up the next generation of immigration lawyers. My career goals have always incorporated service to others, and it’s important to me that I give back to my community while mentoring those coming up after me.

I graduated from law school during the Great Recession, facing student debt and doubting my ability to land a job. I remember reading that just one of every 100 applicants would receive an offer and telling myself that I must take the first one I got even if it wasn’t the best, just to get the experience. I had served as a legal assistant at BAL—an immigration-focused firm in San Francisco, California—prior to law school, which was a great introduction to immigration law. During school, I continued to work in the field, clerking for the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking and for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s subcommittee on immigration and border security. I landed my first job as an immigration attorney in 2011 with a boutique firm; I then moved to a renowned second one before returning in 2014 to BAL, where I’ve been ever since.

Although the journey hasn’t been easy, I’m thankful for the support and mentoring I’ve received along the way. I remember how excited and happy I was when, at my second firm, the partners paid my dues so I could join the American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”). They were recognized experts, known for assisting extraordinary individuals, researchers, entertainers, and surgeons. My firm also paid for my first AILA conference. I took full advantage of AILA, attending every event and legal class I could.

Beyond that, the partners at that firm educated me about how I could better serve our clients through deeper involvement in the association and encouraged me to take a big, bold step and apply for a leadership position. I would never have applied to be a New Members Division coordinator without their encouragement. I couldn’t have guessed that, years later, I would serve on the association’s National Board of Governors as the New Members Division Steering Committee past chair, a position of influence through which I’m able to advocate for our new members and future leaders, help shape the future of our immigration practice, and promote diversity and inclusion within the organization.

I also serve on AILA’s regional board for Northern California with three other women, an elected board representing 1,000 members. I have deep roots in the Bay Area, went to college here, and have volunteered in various immigration capacities in the region, including working with refugees through the International Rescue Committee. Coalitions with community groups, government agencies, nonprofits, and local bar associations all play key roles in our immigrant community. For example, when COVID-19 hit, complex presidential proclamations were quickly issued on travel bans and restrictions, preventing immigrants from going back to their lives, jobs, and families in the U.S. The strong relationships we’ve built with government officials and community groups enabled attorneys to help counsel immigrants on the immediate impact of the directive, raise unforeseen issues, and devise solutions during an already stressful once-in-a-lifetime event. We were able to work together to ensure that the travel bans were interpreted and applied appropriately and that eligible immigrants could return to the U.S. This is vitally important and deeply affects immigrants’ and their families’ lives.

Through my work with the association, I’ve also volunteered at various workshops, including ones for DACA recipients— immigrants who were brought to this country as children and who know the U.S. as their only home. Helping these “Dreamers” receive work authorization so they can go to school, get a job, and not worry about ICE knocking on their door and deporting them has reminded me how important legal status is to immigrants, how fortunate we are to be American citizens, and how attorneys have the ability and the duty to guide others through a complex immigration system.

I’m fortunate to have been mentored by attorneys who helped give me the confidence to become a better lawyer and pursue leadership opportunities, and fortunate as well to have ongoing support from the boards on which I now serve. It was daunting at first to speak up as a new member, especially as I wasn’t sure if others would back me up. I was the first to propose increasing the budget for the new members of Northern California, who represent almost half of our membership but don’t receive equivalent funding; we were able to raise the budget for our next generation of members. I’ll never forget what it felt like to be a new attorney and not be able to afford membership fees, so I feel an additional responsibility to advocate for the benefit of those new members. I’ve worked to become more comfortable offering views that might not be popular with more senior members of the boards, as I understand that we have a duty to our members and to the organization’s mission.

AILA’s National Board of Governors comprises a limited number of elected directors and regional chairs, who represent our 15,000 members and guide the overall direction of the organization. My board service has underscored that when you have a seat at the table, you have the ability to influence and effect change. Given that new members are roughly 50 percent of our ranks overall, my position represents a large and important segment of our organization and our immigration practice. This is where change happens.

Without seasoned professionals from diverse backgrounds to welcome upcoming lawyers and help guide them, knowledge transmission and the pipeline of future leaders would both be lost."

I’m committed to doing my part to ensure that not only are our local coalitions inclusive and diverse, but also the legal profession more broadly. Growing up, I was often the only woman of color or person in the room who looked like me. I understand how important it is for children and young adults to see people of all backgrounds in different roles.

Although immigration is generally more diverse than other areas of the law, there are many opportunities to improve it in my own sphere. I think of my father, who lacked the resources to go to law school, and I’m reminded that there continue to be major financial barriers to accessing education, let alone a postgraduate legal education and licensing. Recalling my first year out of law school, when I couldn’t even afford the AILA’s membership fees, I’ve strongly supported lowering those fees for newer members and increasing our suite of free resources and benefits, such as continuing legal education. I’ve joined our second-year D&I national committee and helped build a D&I roster of the New Members Division to ensure that women and minorities are considered for leadership roles, publishing opportunities, and speaking events, thereby helping build a new generation of leaders. I’ve also continued to nominate new members to serve in leadership roles that prime them for future opportunities.

I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of attorneys who had confidence in me, and I would like to do the same for the next generation. I know how challenging it can be as a new attorney when you don’t know how to be an attorney, to know the law, to advocate for your clients. Without seasoned professionals from diverse backgrounds to welcome upcoming lawyers and help guide them, knowledge transmission and the pipeline of future leaders would both be lost. I serve on these boards to advocate for immigrants, improve the practice of immigration law, and pay it forward to the next generation who are eager to do the same. They are all our future.

Tiffany Martinez is a senior associate in the San Francisco off ice of BAL. As part of an immigrant family, Tiffany has a sincere interest in immigration, which led her to volunteer with refugees at the International Rescue Committee and to work at BAL in her first immigration position prior to law school. She provides strategic counsel to clients of all sizes, from start-ups to Fortune 500 multinational corporations, on U.S. immigration. She is a recognized national expert; on numerous occasions, she has composed articles, edited publications, and served as a speaker for American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) on the local and national levels. She currently serves in key leadership roles within the immigration field. She is on the board of governors for AILA National and is on the executive board for AILA NorCal. She also serves on the Governance Committee and the New Members Division (NMD) Steering Committee for AILA National. As such, she has been recognized by Best Lawyers® “Ones to Watch” in 2021, with additional accolades, such as the Diversity Award by the Minority Bar Coalition, a Bay Area network of more than 40 diverse bar associations, in 2019.

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