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A Memorable Immigration Client

by Christine Flowers

Michael was one of my favorite clients. While I know that each individual deserves the same amount of respect and professional attention, it is impossible not to have a preference for certain people at a human level. When the labels of ‘lawyer' and ‘client' were stripped away, and the paperwork was filed, and the fees were paid, and the case was finally placed in the archives, Michael remained in my life. No longer a client, he had become my friend.

He was born in a small town on the outskirts of Bratislava, the capital of what is now the Slovak Republic and what was then, at the time of his birth, part of Czechoslovakia. His family suffered under the Communist regime, and although he himself was too young to remember it well, Michael's father would often tell him of the beautiful Prague Spring, that wondrous moment in the late 1960s when freedom and democracy flitted briefly across the country's radar screen. That was before the Soviet trucks rolled in and crushed the hopes of famous men like Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek, and of more humble citizens like Michael's father. Michael grew up under a regime that was not as bad as some, and much worse than others.

But he was not a political man. He went to school, enlisted in the army for a short while, and then found a job as a butcher. He fell in love with Gabriella, and learned to live his life within limits that were neither unbearable, nor wholly acceptable to him. One day, in the early nineties, after the Iron Curtain had lifted, Michael and Gabriela came to the United States on a tourist visa. And, like thousands of others before them, they stayed.

I met Michael for the first time in 1997. He came to my office with his wife, and we spent an hour or so discussing the possibilities for legalizing their status. We discarded asylum, since neither of them had suffered anything which would approach persecution, even though Gabriela's family had encountered problems in the 1960s and 1970s because of their Catholic faith. They asked about the lottery, and were disheartened to find out that the percentages were not in their favor. Then, Michael asked me if I knew anyone who needed a butcher. I told him that I personally had no use for a butcher, but that if he could find someone to sponsor him, we could attempt to file an employment-based visa application on his behalf. He smiled, thanked me, and left the office. I never expected to see him again.

A few weeks later, Michael came back to the office, bearing a brown bag filled with sausages, and good news. He had found a sponsor, a German catering hall in the northern section of Philadelphia. Apparently, he had combed the newspapers for names, and settled on a place that he could pronounce (his German was quite good.) He approached the owner, spent a week on ‘probation' making kielbasa, curing meats, and sweeping floors, and at the end of the seven days was told that he was a good match, and that the business would be happy to hire him.

And so, we started the Labor Certification process. It took about eight months for the actual certification to come in the mail, and when I presented Michael with the original document, he looked as if I had just handed him a check for a million dollars. “Now I can live legally here, right?” he asked, with a glint of hope in his eyes. “Not yet,” I answered. “But soon.” Unfortunately, my prediction was a bit too optimistic, since a review of the business' tax returns showed that they had registered a sizeable net loss for the prior fiscal year. Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, we filed the Immigrant Worker Petition with as much evidence that we could find to show that the business could pay Michael's wage to him. Michael, of course, couldn't understand the problem, assuring me that he would work ‘for free' until he got his green card. If only the government had agreed with his solution.

There followed a period of four years, during which time the initial visa petition was denied, a new labor certification was filed and approved, and a new visa petition was likewise filed and approved. In the interval, President Clinton signed a renewal of Section 245(i) into law, which permitted Michael and Gabriela to adjust their status in the United States. They, of course, didn't understand the significance of this benefit, but when I explained to them that if they were forced to go back home to have a consular interview, they wouldn't be allowed back to the U.S. for ten years because of the unlawful presence bar, they looked at me in disbelief. Gratitude came shortly thereafter, in the form of more sausages.

Finally, the day of the adjustment interview arrived. Michael and Gabriela were dressed soberly, as if they were attending a funeral. As we entered the office, I stole a glance at their faces, which were lined with apprehension. For a woman like myself who had been born into a democracy where fear of the government was a foreign concept, their anxiety was difficult to understand. Fortunately, the adjudications officer put them at ease and, after asking them a few innocuous questions, placed the stamp in both of their passports. Michael, who was usually quite animated, just stared at his passport for a moment, and then dissolved into tears.

The next day, I received a huge bouquet of flowers with a card signed “Love Michael and Gabriela.” After that, every couple of months, Michael would show up at odd moments and deposit a variety of meat products at my doorstep. I often wondered what would have happened if Michael had retained a vegetarian to represent him. He also made me a beautiful clock with my name etched in a misspelled yet loving way in the glass. I placed it on the wall above my desk, and thought of him when I happened to look at it.

A few months ago, I received a phone call from my friend, telling me that he was beginning to study for his citizenship examination. He proudly listed for me the first “Ten Commandments” to the Constitution, and the joy in his voice prevented me from correcting him; there's time for that, I thought.

But life is unpredictable, and the plans that we make are traced in sand. Last week, Gabriela called to tell me that Michael had suffered a massive heart attack at work. He had died before reaching the hospital. He was only 42, my age. After I hung up the phone, I looked at the wall above my desk, at Michael's last gift to me. How ironic that it was a gift of time, something he no longer had. And yet, I realized that this man had given me much more than material presents. Michael taught me what it means to be truly, profoundly happy with life. He made me see that the things we have to struggle for are the sweetest, and that hope is the last thing to die.

It saddens me to know that he is gone, and that he won't have the opportunity to list the “Ten Commandments” at his naturalization interview. It also saddens me to realize that we will be deprived of his hard work, his sunny disposition, and his fierce loyalty to the United States, his adopted home. But I am grateful to have met him, because it is people like Michael who reinforce my belief that immigration law is a noble profession, where success, if even for the briefest period, bears a human face.

About The Author

Christine Flowers practices immigration law with the law firm of Joseph M. Rollo and Associates, P.C. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.