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Immigration lawyer known as 'the angel of justice' among Latinos

Jessica Dominguez, an immigrant herself, fights for clients she believes have been dealt an unfair hand. If their stories also make for compelling TV, that's OK.

August 20, 2012|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • Maria Velasquez, center, with brother Noel, thanks attorney Jessica Dominguez for her help during an interview at Maria's Inglewood home during a taping of Dominguez's weekly segment for "Despierta America" on Univision.
Maria Velasquez, center, with brother Noel, thanks attorney Jessica Dominguez… (Christina House / For The…)

With her hair curled and her TV makeup in place, Jessica Dominguez is ready to talk immigration. She sits across from Maria Velasquez, who nervously pulls at her hands. The 60-year-old Velasquez was ordered deported two decades ago and has lived in the United States illegally ever since.

"Stay calm," Dominguez says, "as if it were just the two of us in my office."

A studio light casts shadows over the living room in Velazquez's Inglewood home. As the camera rolls, Dominguez leans in and draws out the grandmother's story: how she fled the war in El Salvador, how she lost the chance to live legally in the U.S. because of an inept advisor, how her father has been diagnosed withAlzheimer's diseaseand she alone cares for him.

Dominguez's eyes fill with tears. The cameraman cuts.

Dominguez is known as "el angel de la justicia" (the angel of justice). Her television spot — part educational programming, part reality TV — airs once a week during Univision's "Despierta America," the country's highest-rated morning show among Latinos.

When not on camera, Dominguez, an attorney, helps immigrants who come to her armed with stacks of papers and filled with hopes of living legally in the U.S.

She knows the odds are slim, and many are charged $150 for a consultation and advised to check her Facebook page for any changes in the law.

For those whose cases she takes, she is a fierce advocate, unafraid to go public if she thinks it will help. Her news conferences are often crowded with reporters from local affiliates and Spanish-language outlets, whose appetite for underdog stories is endless.

Her mission, she says, is to use the media to educate Latinos against immigration fraud. She is not paid for the segments on "Despierta America," but they have helped make her one of the most sought-after immigration attorneys in Los Angeles.

During a break, Dominguez chats with Velasquez. When the cameraman is ready to pick up again, Dominguez wraps her arm around the woman.

"We know that it was your birthday a few days ago, right?" Dominguez says. "What is one of the greatest gifts you could receive for your birthday?"

"A great gift would be my papers," she says.

Dominguez hands Velasquez a red box that holds a court document dismissing her deportation order.

Velasquez is crying. "This is the best present of my life," she says.

Dominguez embraces Velasquez. The cameraman moves in close.

::

Dominguez, 44, always believed she was destined to make an impact on the world. When she started her law career in 2002, she saw herself as a warrior against injustice, compelled into battle by her own personal struggles.

She kept a small office in Canoga Park with a desk bought from the Salvation Army and became a familiar presence in downtown courts. A few months in, she attended an immigration workshop in L.A. and came across a broadcast reporter looking for someone to explain the law in Spanish. Dominguez's knowledge and ease in front of the camera led to more television appearances.

In 2003, she heard about a Mexican woman who had been kept as a sex slave. After being convicted of conspiring in the murder of her captor, the woman served 22 years in prison and, upon her release, was to be deported.

Dominguez took the case and helped organize rallies, started a letter-writing campaign and besieged elected representatives. People had to know about the injustice, she said. Her advocacy drew international attention.

Hilda Solis, a congresswoman at the time (and now the U.S. secretary of labor), and Marta Sahagun de Fox, wife of Mexico'sthen-president, joined the fight. Dominguez enlisted a team of lawyers, one of whom won the woman a visa for victims of human trafficking.

At a family celebration in 2004, she embraced Dominguez.

"She is my angel," the woman said, a line that was repeated in a story in La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper. From that moment Dominguez was known as the angel of justice.

She was eventually asked to anchor a weekly spot on Univision's local station, giving legal commentary and answering immigration questions from people on the street. Earlier this year, she was invited to tell her clients' stories in three-minute weekly segments on "Despierta America," a variety show that features news and celebrity gossip.

She was thrilled.

"I have great joy in knowing that people who watch these segments could potentially save themselves from being defrauded," she said. "Call me an idealist, a dreamer or whatever else, but I truly believe that each of us have the power to change the world one day at a time."

The stories she tells on TV — most of which have been resolved beforehand — blend melodrama and sincerity, leading some to question their value.

Attorney Luis Carrillo, himself an occasional television commentator, said he holds Dominguez in high esteem as an immigration attorney, but he sometimes finds her segments heavy on emotion and short on pragmatic solutions.

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