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Alex Campillo doesn’t back down from tough cases or charging rhinos

Published in 2010 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine

By Nyssa Gesch on June 2, 2010


“Don’t move.”

That’s what Alex Campillo was thinking as he kneeled, beside his guide and cameraman, in the Kalahari Desert sand. Fifteen yards in front of them stood a rhino. And it wasn’t happy.

“The rhino decided he didn’t like us,” Campillo says. “So he attacked us, with intent to kill.”

Campillo was in South Africa on a “green hunt,” trying to tranquilize the animal so a biologist could put a tracking chip in its horn, sample its blood and gather data. “Don’t think it’s a barnyard animal that you’re going to shoot from the truck,” Campillo says. “You’re in with an unpredictable dinosaur and you’re going to track into him within 20, 25 yards. On his turf. It’s very rare that it goes bad, but this particular rhino apparently had a very bad disposition.”

The guide—a professional hunter equipped with a large boar rifle—fired, but the rhino continued to charge, taking a second bullet before barreling its way between Campillo and the cameraman, its head and horn only 18 inches from Campillo’s right shoulder. “The third shot was point-blank on his forehead and he rocked back on his haunches and fell right in front of me,” says Campillo. “It was surreal. It happened so fast.”

For most of the past 10 years, Campillo has traveled the world on safari adventures, tracking and hunting moose, black bear, ibex, red stag, lions and leopards, but he learned hunting skills from his grandfather on a much smaller scale—pheasants, ducks, quail and deer—while growing up in Calexico, Calif.

Calexico was also where he was inspired to become a lawyer. A border town opposite Mexicali, Mexico, Calexico drew commuters into the U.S. to work in the fields. Campillo’s father, who owned a small liquor/sporting goods store and an attached two-pump gas station, became very involved with social change movements, hosting community activist meetings, and community activists such as César Chávez, in his home. The events and energy of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations inspired Campillo. “It was a sense of empowerment,” he says.

Between classes at the University of San Diego School of Law, he worked for the Legal Aid Society, and for Neil Baxley filing 9th Circuit appeals. Thus immediately after law school, he says, “I was able to carry my weight as a lawyer who had several years experience in the workplace.” He opened his own law firm: Alejandro O. Campillo. Eventually he became one of the first Hispanics certified as a specialist in immigration law in California.

Campillo’s practice consists mostly of corporate visa matters: working with businesses to get their employees into the U.S. Though 80 percent is transactional, Campillo remembers his trials the most. “Immigration law’s a lot more difficult because in criminal work most of the time you can reach a plea that satisfies your client and satisfies the government,” he says. “But in immigration work, you win it all or you lose it all. Most of the cases are heart wrenching.”

Example: Sergio, a schoolteacher from Texas with years of U.S. service in the Korean War, didn’t know he wasn’t a U.S. citizen until he applied for a passport. The government was about to deport him to Mexico, but Campillo, working pro bono, was able to get Sergio citizenship and a passport based on his military service. Sergio still shows up at the office every Christmas to thank him with a bottle of tequila.

This area of law is rewarding, he says, “because you’re dealing with real people and their futures and their hopes and dreams to stay in the country and have an education—all the things that we take for granted in terms of upward mobility within society, due to education and hard work and so forth. A lot of that isn’t available to them in other countries.”

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