A Country of Immigrants
Colorado attorneys on what it means to be an immigrant practicing law in the U.S.
Published in 2021 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 9, 2021
In 2019, when Jens Jensen tried to renew his H-1B visa for another three years, he was surprised by the delays. “Normally it would take them a month,” says Jensen, a natural resources litigator who grew up in Denmark. “But because of all the cutbacks with the [Trump] administration, I ended up not getting it until several months after it had expired.”
The delay posed some frustrating challenges. When Jensen returned to the U.S. after a conference in Canada, immigration officials pulled him aside for questioning—and a warning. And when his wife attempted to drop off their son for day care at the Denver Federal Center, security guards initially detained her because she didn’t have the documentation they requested. “I spent half a day trying to convince the area commander of the Federal Protective Service that I should be allowed back in to pick my kid up,” Jensen recalls. “We came to an agreement and the area commander informed all the folks that worked the security gates to look out for me for the couple of months it took until they got everything renewed.”
Attorneys like Jensen do believe the future will be more immigration-friendly. Says Smarika Kunwar, an immigration lawyer born in Nepal, “With Trump’s presidency, there was just a lot of chaos. Things kept changing and every few weeks there’d be a new rule and people wouldn’t know what to do. … Given that President Biden was the vice president for President Obama, I’m very hopeful that they’re going to have some good immigration reform.”
Challenges, advantages, hopes for the future—four Colorado attorneys born in other countries share their stories.
MEMORIES OF HOME
Katayoun Donnelly, Azizpour Donnelly; Appellate Law; Iran: The Persian New Year used to be one of my most favorite. To me, it’s a combination of the main holidays here: Christmas, Easter and even Halloween. It starts with having small bonfires that you jump over; then you cover your head and go to the neighbors’ to fill your little bowl with dried fruits and nuts; and then you have a big table that you set, and among the items on it are colored eggs like at Easter. And then starts the tradition of paying visits to all the family and friends that you have not seen during the year.
Jens Jensen, Welborn Sullivan Meck & Tooley; Natural Resources Litigation; Denmark: I was 8 when Denmark won the European championship in football—soccer, you guys call it over here. My parents had guests that night and they all came in and watched the end of the game, and it went to penalties and we beat the Netherlands. Then in the final we beat Germany. Danes still celebrate that.
José Caetano de Castro Hecht, Knudson & Associates; Immigration Law and Criminal Defense; Brazil: In Brazil, Christmastime is summer because we’re below the equator. You know how in the U.S. and other countries Santa Claus [has] a snowy background, wearing a red suit and looking all warm and cozy? In Brazil, Santa Claus is like this guy with a big ol’ belly in a bathing suit on the beach.
Smarika Kunwar, MyRights Immigration Law Firm; Immigration Law; Nepal: The most important festival that we have is called Dashain and it’s usually in the month of October. That’s a time that’s very exciting for kids, especially, because we get to go to the houses of all of our older relatives. We get cash in addition to their blessings. I remember that with my brother—he’s four and a half years younger than I am—we used to have a contest to see who got more money.
COMING TO AMERICA
Donnelly: I did it the old-fashioned way: I fell in love. When my now-husband proposed, I had just gotten a full scholarship from the French government to go on and do my Ph.D. in law in France. So the choice was between coming to Denver or going to Sorbonne. I chose love, so I’m here.
Jensen: In 2011, I was working at the Danish Embassy in London and my wife and I wanted to move away from London. We couldn’t see ourselves raising kids there. We had spent a lot of vacations in Colorado because my wife’s sister is out here. We wanted to come out here because of the outdoors, sunshine—everything London isn’t.
Kunwar: I was 17 years old when I came here with my family. My mom practiced law in Nepal and my dad used to be an education researcher, but in 2003, we were getting a lot of threats from the Maoists. So my parents decided that it would be a good time to relocate, to move to the States.
Castro Hecht: I was actually very, very sad because we came to the U.S. by ourselves. In São Paulo, we lived probably within a 5- to 10-mile radius of basically our entire family. We would meet up with cousins all the time, have lunch at Grandma’s house on the weekends. And then we moved to the U.S. and we’re 3,000 miles away from every single member of our family, so it was a very jarring experience.
Jensen: I remember vividly that our taxi driver from the airport asked my dad how old I was. I was about 7 at the time, but I’m quite tall and was very tall at that time. He told my dad, “You’ve got to make sure that he starts playing basketball.” I joined a team as soon as I could and played basketball through high school after that.
Donnelly: I couldn’t have planned it better. It was magical. I arrived at JFK the night before Thanksgiving, so my first full day in America I spent Thanksgiving at a friend of my husband’s family in New Jersey. The first view I got was the panoramic view of Manhattan Island and the New York skyline from New Jersey. It was like the movies.
Kunwar: In Nepal, we didn’t really have vending machines. I remember when I first got to high school, you’d see these kids just going up to the vending machine, inserting their dollar bills and getting sodas and stuff. I was very reluctant to do so because I didn’t know how to do it. What if it just takes my money and doesn’t give me anything? Or what if people laugh at me? I was very self-conscious.
Donnelly: My plan was to go and get my Ph.D. in France. I was learning French but didn’t have much English, so my challenges were more related to lack of cultural references, the differences learning about a new world, and learning a new language I was not comfortable with. The first few years were quite blurred.
Kunwar: I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. All of my friends were still back home in Nepal. But once I got into the University of Colorado, there were a lot more people there from different backgrounds and it was easier to make friends.
Castro Hecht: I spoke zero English—not one word. I think I was actually held back a year in school. I couldn’t communicate with anyone, so that was really difficult.
THE LURE OF LAW
Jensen: I guess the bureaucracy [of the Embassy job] got to me, and I wanted a career path where I could have more of an immediate positive impact for people. I think I’ve been able to do that, help clients and actually achieve results rather than work on 30, 40-year goals that you don’t really see any progress on.
Kunwar: As a child I used to see my mom prepare for Supreme Court cases. Back then in Nepal, it wasn’t common to use a computer, so I would see her writing these huge briefs on pieces of paper and scratching it out and restarting all over again. Later she would practice her arguments and that was just fascinating to me. She used to be a women’s and children’s advocate, and back then women were still considered second-class citizens. They didn’t have citizenship rights, there was a lot of abuse. She advocated for them and I saw how rewarding it was for her.
Castro Hecht: My family—most of them are actually attorneys in Brazil. And my mom always wanted me to be an attorney. It just seemed like what I should do.
CHOOSING A NICHE
Kunwar: Once I came to the U.S. and when I was an undergrad, that’s when I became more aware of the complexities of the immigration process, being an immigrant myself and seeing others around me struggle with it. That’s when I decided to pursue immigration law as a career.
Donnelly: I’m dealing with a new area of law in each [appellate] case. Personally, that is very exhilarating to me. The excitement of learning and immersing myself into a new area is something that I have been looking for and have found.
Jensen: I’ve always been fascinated by natural resources. It’s one of the strengths of the University of Colorado Law School, so it came as a natural progression. And then I was lucky enough to get a summer internship with the firm that I’m still with, and I’ve been happy with that ever since.
Castro Hecht: I like that my job as an immigration attorney is about helping people and finding solutions for them. It’s a job that makes me feel good at the end of the day and I think that is something special.
Jensen: I’m part of a Danish club here in Colorado, and we do a number of things, including a traditional Danish Christmas lunch with open-faced sandwiches and pickled herring. In Denmark, on Christmas Eve, I would often do duck or goose. The other traditional Danish one is pork roast, but I’m not a big fan and my wife is Muslim, so it’s duck and red cabbage and caramelized small potatoes with brown gravy.
Kunwar: When we get together as a family, we make this traditional dish called momo. They’re like dumplings with chicken filling and some vegetables and we steam them. So any time Nepalese people get together we just call it a momo party and eat and sing—dance maybe—or just chat. One of our other big festivals is called Deepawali. We clean our house and then we pray to the goddess of wealth and then we light our house with different lights.
Donnelly: Persian cuisine has been a big part of our life and our child’s. We love Fesenjoon with duck in a sauce that is made out of walnuts and pomegranate paste mainly, and Khoresht Gheymeh, which is a stew with a mixture of lamb and beef and split peas. Believe it or not, it is topped with French fries, so all of my American friends love it, too.
THE IMMIGRANT ADVANTAGE
Castro Hecht: As humans in general, we trust people more if they’ve kind of gone through what you are going through. … Being an immigrant myself and having that life experience of moving to the U.S. allows me to empathize with clients’ feelings and emotions. Plus, since I speak Portuguese and Spanish, it allows me to help a greater swath of people than most.
Jensen: When I did my summer internship, one of the partners brought a document to me that they had in connection with some oil and gas rights here in Colorado. It turned out it was a decree of heirship from the local court in Denmark where I grew up. I was the only one in the office who could read it.
Kunwar: I think I bring context. Collecting documents like birth certificates and marriage certificates in the U.S., even though you have all these different states, is pretty much going to be the same. But in Nepal and other countries, that’s not going to be a simple task to do, and then there are going to be a lot of regional differences. Having context from where your client comes from, what kind of challenges they might have, makes it easier for me to communicate and understand my clients’ problems.
HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
Castro Hecht: I hope that there is a permanent solution that both sides can come up with for DACA because that’s one that I’ve personally had clients be very affected by. The thing that caused the most stress with the [Trump] administration is just how quickly and how often immigration changed.
Jensen: It was literally a lottery whether I got to stay or not and that, to me, doesn’t make sense. I hope that the next administration will either increase the H-1B and similar programs sufficiently so it’s not a lottery and so that if we have further cutbacks, those people can get in. Or if there’s a decision that we should limit immigration, which I’m not in favor of, then let’s be smart about it.
Kunwar: I never really felt threatened before when I was young. But with this [Trump] presidency, I personally also felt like I was being targeted, or it just felt like a lot of racism came out to the forefront, a lot of discrimination. With this new presidency, I do feel like we have a lot of hope again.
Donnelly: I believe that there’s a decency to the American system, that belief in equality, the commitment to the rule of law, and a place for shared community that is rooted in the fact that our country is a country of immigrants.