Who We Are

Immigrant attorneys share their journeys to, and visions of, America

Published in 2019 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on June 6, 2019


It’s no surprise that Florida’s most common immigration stories have to do with escaping Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Many of these end happily—Giselle Carson and Jorge Espinosa, for instance, escaped the island when they were kids, then grew up to become lawyers.

Carson, a shareholder at Marks Gray in Jacksonville, left on a plane when she was 15 years old, thinking she was taking a two-week vacation in Czechoslovakia, until her parents told her they were actually declaring asylum in Canada. Espinosa, a founding partner at Espinosa Martinez in Miami, left his parents when he was 6, and didn’t see them again for 32 years. Still, he says, “I count my blessings that, no matter how we feel the times were tough, there were probably other people who had it tougher.”

But that’s not the only story. We spoke to one attorney who came from China, seeking an American law school; others came from Bulgaria and Venezuela, encouraged by their parents and the U.S. songs and TV shows they absorbed as kids. Each of our five featured attorneys overcame culture shock and settled happily—ultimately—in the U.S.

Leaving Home

Jorge Espinosa, founding partner, Espinosa Martinez (Miami), intellectual property, Cuba, 1966: By the time I was of age to go to elementary school, kids had to salute Fidel Castro’s picture, and sing the anthem to his picture, and my parents and grandparents didn’t want me to participate in that. For a while, I had a tutor at home, and they started to plan to have me leave the country with my grandparents. Unfortunately, my parents and my sisters were not able to leave. I came to the U.S. a couple of weeks before my 7th birthday. The holding area was the American embassy—a giant building of marble without any furniture. I remember being there with my grandparents and seeing a little boy who basically collapsed to the floor because he was so tired. There was no place to sleep, and [people] would walk around literally falling asleep on their feet.

Jin Liu, shareholder, Carlton Fields (Tampa), real estate/banking, China, 2002: I was born in a small town called Liangping. Not many people have heard about it, but we produce the most wonderful grapefruit. The metropolitan area is called Chongqing, which has over 30 million people, and it’s one of the most populated cities in the world. My undergraduate degree was in law, so to pursue my legal career further, I wanted to see the world, and perhaps the most mature legal system, so I applied for law school in the U.S.

Yova A. Borovska, counsel, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney (Tampa), immigration, Bulgaria, 2003: At the time, we were already a democracy, so it wasn’t like I was escaping from communism. But there were definitely a lot of issues, still, with corruption. Even getting into a good school was a hassle if you didn’t have the proper connections. During the transition [to democracy], we were going to a lot of protests. My parents always taught me to look up to American ideals, ideology and culture. We were watching a lot of American shows and movies.

Giselle Carson, shareholder, Marks Gray (Jacksonville), business immigration, Cuba, 1983: My parents had pretty good jobs with the government, and somehow they’d been planning this for a very, very long time. They had [said] they were going to give me this trip to Czechoslovakia for my 15th birthday. We were going to go for two weeks, come back, and life was going to move on. That’s what they told me, and that’s what was in my mind when I left Cuba. I said goodbye to my friends and my family and, “We’ll be back in two weeks.” In my head, I was coming back in two weeks. In my parents’ heads, we were never coming back.

Coming To America

Carson: I journaled the night before the trip when we had dinner. I noted my mom didn’t look well. Now I understand why: She knew a lot of things that I didn’t know. The plane landed in Montreal to refuel. At the airport, my mother approached an immigration officer and told him that we wanted to request asylum. This was all unbeknownst to me. They told me, “We have some issues with our passports; we have to stay here; they’ll fix whatever’s going on; we’ll go back on the next plane that comes along.” Everything stayed in the plane except for the stuff we had on us.

Espinosa: I remember seeing my uncles through the gated fence [in the U.S.] while we were being processed. That evening, we got to one of my uncles’ houses, and one of his kids turned on Batman. I was set, even though I didn’t know what the hell they were saying. I thought it was pretty cool seeing these guys in capes and masks fighting crime. “Biff!” and “pow!” translates.

Liu: I was given a scholarship to the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Three other friends from my hometown got admission to U.S. graduate school, so we purchased our tickets together, but our destinations were different. One went to Idaho, another went to Colorado, a third went to South Carolina. We managed to purchase very cheap tickets that allowed us to have one leg of the flight together. As soon as we walked into the Los Angeles airport and went through customs, I had to say goodbye. To get cheaper flights, I had to get a layover in Seattle. When I walked into the hotel room and put my luggage aside, I just started to cry uncontrollably. “I’m on a different soil, why am I doing this? I know nobody.” Luckily, the air was so clean, the hotel was so nice, I managed to have a good night’s sleep. The next morning, I picked myself up and started the next journey.

Carson: After a few days in Canada, I don’t see any signs of any passport issues or intents to get back on a plane. In fact, I had seen my mother … looking for apartments. And I’m like, “Wait a minute, what is going on?” Then they tell me, “We were afraid to tell you, but here’s the plan: We’re not going back.” I said to my mom and my dad: “You may not go back. I am going back. I’m going to go to the Cuban embassy and tell them to take me back.” They did not sleep for several weeks, just taking turns to make sure that I didn’t escape in the middle of the night to tell someone to take me back home.

Culture Shock

Borovska: Having grown up in a country where Western movies and music and shows were banned for a while, [being in the U.S.] was a challenge. People would reference pop culture, like shows or movies or celebrities, and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Stuff from the ’80s or the ’70s, I wouldn’t know at all. You were never really able to watch it in Bulgaria. Sometimes that happens still.

Carson: I’m 15, I don’t speak English, I have no French whatsoever, we have no family in Canada. The plane could have landed anywhere and [my parents] were determined to stay there. Thankfully, Montreal had a very immigrant-friendly policy at the time—and still does. They welcomed us. They helped us find apartments. At the time, they had separate schools for immigrants. For one whole year, I was in a school where basically I learned French, while at the same time I took math and whatever it was that allowed me to assimilate into their education program. I did all of that very, very angry.

Adriana Kostencki, partner, Nelles Kostencki (Fort Lauderdale), international law and intellectual property litigation, Venezuela, 2006: I had a work visa back then, so I had to work, go to law school [University of Miami] and take care of my child. It was not an easy time, but it was worthwhile and an example for my son. I remember reading the first case. I couldn’t understand a word. “OK, this is complicated.” I was [sitting] with a dictionary next to me.

Liu: In China, we started to learn how to write and how to read English when we were in middle school. However, I never had an opportunity to speak to people in English, so when the professors were talking in classrooms, a lot of the time I would find it very, very confusing. Two skills really helped me: I was such a great notetaker, even though I didn’t clearly hear what the professor had said, I managed to take some notes that I would try to figure out; and I met a group of very nice friends who invited me into all of our study groups.

Espinosa: It was fortunate that I was with my grandparents, who I was very close to. There was a program, Operation Peter Pan, where they brought in kids and they were put in foster homes by the Catholic services. They didn’t have the luxury of having grandparents; they lived with total strangers.

Carson: I was accepted into a community college that was the next step in my educational career in Canada. All these many people went to high school together, they lived in the same neighborhood, they knew each other. I knew no one, no one, no one, no one. Again, life begins from zero. People are going to parties, I’m not invited anywhere because I’m not clicking in. A college with 2,000 students, there was a handful of Latin American/Hispanic people. Eventually I had a group of friends, about 20, the majority of them Hispanic, but it took a while.

Borovska: I had to work on campus. I had a small scholarship, but for the most part, I was paying for my personal expenses. We had to sell some of our properties in Bulgaria to be able to pay for my tuition—basically, spend my inheritance. But that was a great investment.

Carson: I tell myself, “Be grateful for what you have, and think about what your life would have been if your parents had not taken that decision.” My life would have been extremely different. I have the power to change my life and make it what I want it to be. That would not have happened in Cuba. People look at me now and tell me they’re inspired by my determination, my energy, my cheerful attitude—I hear this a lot. In truth, down deep, I have cried so much, I have been so lonely, I have been so angry, I have been so afraid.

Why Law?

Kostencki: The first word in English that I learned was “attorney.” That was in fourth grade. The teacher said, “What do you want to be?” and I said, “I want to be an attorney.”

Liu: In China, at the time, your fate of going to which college, or which major, was solely decided in two and a half days, which was basically a combination of five tests. My first priority was to go to Peking University and study international trade. Unfortunately, during that two and a half days, I started to have a very large, heavy headache, so it turned out I didn’t do as well as I expected. I didn’t get to go to my first-choice school and I went to my second- or-third-choice school, which ended up being a university that specializes in legal education. But I quickly fell in love with it.

Espinosa: When the Apple II Plus first came out, I saved up money for a year and bought one, and I taught myself how to program in several languages. I did programs for small companies. But my grandmother had always insisted that I should go to law school, and the last thing I wanted was to be haunted by an old Cuban woman, so I eventually decided that it was time.

Carson: I graduated in physical therapy from McGill University. That’s how I met my husband; he’s a PT. We vacationed in Florida every year. One summer, I said to Jeff, “What if we lived in Florida and vacationed in Canada?” We were sponsored on work visas. [But] I would never forget going to my naturalization interview and seeing the attorneys there holding the hands of their clients. When I decided to go to law school, I wanted to use my personal experience and my background to help others. I started as a litigator in medical malpractice. My clients were uniquely qualified physicians and caring nurses from India and the Philippines. I thought, “I don’t want to be taking their depositions, I want to help them get their green cards, I want to help them become U.S. citizens. I’ve been there, I can add that personal touch.”

Kostencki: The best skill you have as an attorney: You know the law, so you can have the power of persuasion. Massive amounts of people in Venezuela need that help. It’s a way for me to help on a larger scale.

Returning Home/Maintaining Traditions

Espinosa: I finally went back to see my parents in 1998, when my son was born, so that he could meet his grandparents. We stayed at a hotel called the Parque Central. My mother came by one afternoon. I said, “Come up and take a look at the room.” We get stopped at the elevator by this hotel attendant, who comes running over and says, “She can’t go upstairs.” I asked her why and she said, “Because she’s not a tourist, she’s not a guest, she’s a national.” I said, “What do you mean she can’t go up?” “Well, it’s not allowed.” “Well, why isn’t it allowed?” People started gathering because, back then, there wasn’t much challenging of authority publicly. Then the manager of the hotel comes walking over and asks what is going on. I said, “Well, it seems my mother was guilty of being born Cuban, and as a result she’s not allowed to come up to the room that I’m paying good money for.” The man said, “Tell you what, I will escort her to the room and make sure everything’s fine.” He takes us to the elevator and says, “I’m really sorry, it’s just the regulations, nothing we can do about it.” It’s what was called, back then, “tropical apartheid.” The government didn’t want the nationals mingling privately with the visitors. If people could meet privately, outside of where they could be surveilled, I think back then that would make the government nervous.

Carson: I have zero communication [with old friends from Cuba]. When I talk to the family that I still have left in Cuba, they have to go to a church to get an internet connection, and it’s sporadic. My outlet right now is marathons and triathlons. I have five Ironmans. Havana has a marathon. I really don’t want to go back to Cuba just to visit Cuba. This is going to be a very, very difficult thing to do, because [of] just how I left. But I do think I deserve to go back and close that door somehow. Potentially I will do it running the Havana Marathon. The government took the house, they took everything. Someone lives there now. I do envision myself knocking on that door and saying, “I lived here many years, could I see my house again?”

Kostencki: December is a big thing for Venezuelans because every family cooks a special Venezuelan meal called hallaca. Venezuelans don’t like to say this, but this is similar to the tamale. I teach my son about Venezuelan culture. He eats Venezuelan food. It’s a lot about the food.

Immigration Law Today

Kostencki: Things have become much more complicated. My practice is business immigration. The most problematic thing is the processing times. There are a lot of requests for evidence in cases that used to be straightforward.

Borovska: Now that all the lawsuits are coming in, it’s hard to advise clients. For example, with DACA, the Trump administration tries to terminate the program, then there’s a lawsuit, and then there are a number of lawsuits.

Carson: I know there are things that should not be happening, I know there are things that were done before that are not right. But the current immigration posturing has gone too far, to where we’re actually harming employers. We need to have comprehensive immigration reform. It’s just too antiquated and not meeting the needs. America, we’re a melting pot. We are who we are because we’ve welcomed people from all over the world. Truly. 

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