Four immigrant attorneys talk about their paths to law
Published in 2023 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Nancy Henderson on December 15, 2022
To this day, Pablo Isaza keeps a photo on his refrigerator of his large extended family, with whom he spent every holiday when he lived in Colombia. “We were one of the first to leave, but I had some other cousins that left Colombia for the same reasons—the cartel and the dangers associated with the paramilitary groups there,” says Isaza, a personal injury and juvenile law attorney in Baton Rouge. “Since that picture, which was maybe 25 years ago, we don’t have another one of all of us. We all had to go our separate ways.”
The photo, he says, is telling of what happens to a lot of immigrant families. “You don’t realize it, but it’s very likely the last time that that family will all be together in the same place ever again.”
Four attorneys who immigrated to the U.S. discuss what brought them to Louisiana, why they do what they do, and how they honor their family traditions.
Erzsebet (Liz) Pifko, Corvinus Law; Corporate and IP; Hungary: As a 5-year-old in 1989, I didn’t really understand what was going on politically. But you could tell from the mood that [the ceremony marking Hungary’s shift from communism] was a really significant event. And it just reminds me that I’m from the generation where we actually grew up in a more free country than my parents or my grandparents did.
George Fowler, Jones Walker; Maritime; Cuba: When I got to Fort Lauderdale, a friend of mine showed me a color television. In Havana, we had three color televisions. He was surprised at that because people sometimes think that the countries in the Caribbean and South America are impoverished.
Flavia Rocha Moody, Rocha Moody Law; Immigration; Brazil: I’m from a city called Fortaleza in the northeast part of Brazil, and we have a Carnival that is very different from what people expect, with all these women in very teeny, teeny bikinis. Every year would be in a different beach and it’s more like a block party as opposed to what you see on TV. The other big memory I have was in 2002 when the Brazilian soccer team won the World Cup and basically the whole country shut down. There, it is almost like a religion.
Bound for America
Pablo Isaza, Sardi Isaza; Personal Injury; Colombia: My dad was a surgeon. Particularly with the cartel, there were a lot of surgeons being held hostage or put under duress in order to be almost like surgeons for the cartel. So my family decided to leave. I had just turned 3 when I came to the United States.
Pifko: My parents enrolled me in the American school over in Hungary where all the diplomats’ kids went, and instruction was in English, for the purpose of helping me to learn the language. At the end I applied for colleges in America and I figured I would go back to Hungary eventually, but it just never happened. It was just me, by myself. I was 18. Thinking back, it was rather reckless, but it all worked out.
Fowler: Fidel Castro took over Cuba when I was 9 years old. It was a revolution and we were all anticipating good things because the guy that was taken out was a dictator. But within a short period of time, Fidel Castro declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist. The Cuba before Castro was probably the most developed country in the Western Hemisphere after the United States and Canada.
Moody: I came in 2001 to visit my brother who was going to school in Mississippi. And he introduced me to his friend, and we started dating long distance. And lo and behold, 18 years later, here we are still. I moved here in mid-2004, with a fiancé visa.
Isaza: I remember thinking when I was younger that people [in America] were a lot quieter, less boisterous, and kept to themselves a little bit more than in Colombia. Neighborhoods were more organized, whereas in Colombia, sometimes neighborhoods just kind of naturally come up wherever it’s convenient for people to live or wherever there seems to be a boom.
Pifko: I remember my first impression being that the standard of living is incredibly high. I was looking around as an 18-year-old and thinking, “Everybody here has nice cars and everybody is living in nice houses.” There wasn’t the poverty that I was used to seeing around me all the time.
Fowler: My family was well-to-do and I was always protected personally because there were kidnappings and things like that. So when they told me, “We’re going to the United States,” I’m excited as I can be about that trip. I got in the first plane I’ve ever gotten on, a Pan American flight. And when I got to Fort Lauderdale, my mother said, “Oh, you’ve got to get a job.” I said, “What is a job?” She put me to sell The Miami News in Fort Lauderdale, which wasn’t easy because people wanted the Fort Lauderdale News. But people were very nice, and after two or three attempts [by me] to speak English, they would buy my Miami News and I was able to keep the dime. I said, “These Americans aren’t very smart.”
Moody: The first time I came to the U.S., in 1993, I came to learn English. I was 15 years old and I was staying in my godparents’ house in New York City. It was not a very good experience for me. I was very young and it was a big city. It was a culture shock. [My husband and I] dated for two years before we married, and it was a bone of contention in our relationship because I had such a bad experience in America my first go-round. And then he proved me wrong. He said, “Louisiana people are very different.” Now I joke around and say, “You guys have this culture of celebrating and drinking, and so does Brazil. You’ve got corrupt politicians and so do we. So I feel right at home.”
Isaza: When I was about 14, my family put in the immigration documents. There were a lot of delays, a lot of issues, and that same year [Hurricane] Katrina hit and we lost almost all of our filings. We basically had to reapply for everything. It was a rush under the wire to get me my citizenship before my 18th birthday because of how the law changes when you’re a juvenile versus when you’re an adult.
Pifko: It’s hard being alone and not having your family support system, being in a brand-new culture that you don’t really understand. You have to become extremely self-sufficient very quickly and learn the ways of this new country very fast and very well just to be able to exist here.
Fowler: If you are hardworking and you’re willing to do your job, doors open. This is the greatest country in the world. I never had any doors shut on me.
Moody: While coming to visit [my boyfriend] here, I was detained
at the Atlanta airport. I had my tourist visa revoked. I just discovered how difficult it is, the immigrant system. Even if you have all the paperwork, all the documentation, if the agent at the border has
any suspicion that you’re coming here with any other intent but leisure or tourism, he can deny the entry and you don’t have any recourse. I did not know at the time, but my boyfriend, now my husband, was planning out my engagement proposal. He actually never proposed. After 18 years of marriage, every time we see a TV show with somebody that’s getting engaged or somebody proposing, I always look at him and he’s like, “I know, I know.”
Isaza: I grew up being bullied, not particularly for being Hispanic but I was darker skinned than most people. I was the only Pablo in my entire school.
Isaza: My grandmother was one of the first female attorneys in Colombia. She never made a really big career out of it; she always just worked for free, pro bono, because at the time it was hard for women. People wanted male attorneys. I originally studied and worked in advertising for three years writing commercials for some big companies in California. But I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a lawyer.
Pifko: Because I wasn’t from a wealthy family, I didn’t have the luxury of going to art school even though I was very passionate about art. You have to go for a career that will realistically move you out of the situation you’re trying to get out of in the first place by leaving your country. So it was kind of a given. I worked really hard on my studies, and I had several jobs to pay for whatever my scholarships didn’t cover.
Fowler: I had 35 jobs before I became a lawyer here in New Orleans. I started selling newspapers. I pumped gas at 75 cents an hour. I worked in construction. I was very uncoordinated, so I was always smashing my finger with a hammer. … The situation in Cuba was so bad—they were killing people and imprisoning people without justice. So I felt that becoming a lawyer would give me an ability to help people. In New Orleans, I took on civil rights cases even though I’m more of a corporate lawyer. I remember there was a football player who was Black. He got beaten up by these policemen who, in my opinion, were racist. And I sued them in federal court and the judge doubled the attorney’s fees claim that I made to show the sheriff that he couldn’t do that.
Moody: I had just graduated law school in Brazil and the plans were that I would become a judge. That was what my family was expecting of me. My mother is an attorney. My father is an attorney. My grandfather is an attorney. My mom said that at an early age I was the one in the classroom that, if something happened, would talk to the teacher about it. I would argue somebody safe even at an early age.
The Right Fit
Isaza: [PI law] kind of chose me, to be honest. I work with a lot of juvenile kids who have been trafficked and abandoned across the border. I always thought I wanted to be a criminal attorney and, after getting some criminal law experience, I realized that it wasn’t all that it was cut out to be. But with my dad being a doctor, we grew up at the table learning all of the treachery of insurance law. And particularly in Louisiana, I fell in love with the civil law and the Napoleonic Code that we have here and love that area of practice way more than I enjoyed criminal.
Pifko: I started out in insurance defense and I hated everything about it. At first, I thought I must not be cut out to be a lawyer. But what I noticed was that working with business clients on contracts and transactional matters was actually a lot of fun. I thought, “I could do this for free and be happy.” So I slowly transitioned into a more transactional practice.
Moody: [Being detained at the Atlanta airport] was a defining moment where I decided, “I want to do something.” If they can do something to me with no reason, no issues, and I had the proper documentation, what else is out there? That was the moment I decided I needed to be an immigration lawyer.
The Immigrant Edge
Isaza: I think I understand the precarious nature of the situation. I just won a case for a guy who had a previous car accident and he went to court and he told me the entire time he could not communicate with his attorney. The person that he had been communicating with was the Spanish-speaking paralegal. When they finally had to try the case, the paralegal wasn’t allowed on the other side of the bar. So [the client] was basically left in quiet, not understanding what was going on. We get some of the craziest issues that other attorneys don’t have to deal with just because our clients are undocumented. It would just kind of go over their heads. A lot of these things I can kind of see coming just because I experienced the immigration process myself.
Pifko: There is a level of discipline that comes with being an immigrant who left their home country out of necessity. We know exactly how strong we are because of what we had to go through just to enjoy the same privileges as people born in the West. We don’t take things for granted. All of that, combined, results in a really strong, resilient mindset that basically can be boiled down to: There’s nothing we can’t do.
Fowler: In my first case, when I was 24 years old, [the defendants] intentionally sank a ship to collect the insurance and I represented Lloyds of London. But instead of going to the meeting where they were interviewing the shipowners, I went to talk to the Latin Americans. One was a Nicaraguan and one was a Dominican. I spoke Spanish to them and I was able to glean [what had happened]. At an early age, Latin Americans, Spaniards who knew I spoke the language, would hire me, so that gave me an advantage. I was getting a book of business, and a book of business is what a lawyer wants.
A Word of Advice
Pifko: If things prove to be too hard, don’t be afraid to seek help, whether it’s a good friend or a therapist. We have gone through a lot, and a lot of us are processing trauma. Not only are we immigrants, but also we’re in a very high-stress career that is known to have significant effects on one’s mental health.
Fowler: If you come to the United States as an immigrant and you master another language and become a lawyer, you have a decided advantage. You will stand out. Sometimes when people learn one or two, it’s easier for them to learn a third and even a fourth language.
Moody: Do not get discouraged. Look what you’ve already accomplished. Just being here is a huge accomplishment. Continue the fight and you’ll find a way.
Isaza: Growing up, instead of having barbecues, we’d have paella parties. Some people say it is one of the influences for jambalaya. I actually met a lot of the lawyers that I know through those paella parties.
Pifko: I always make lentil soup for New Year’s because that’s a Hungarian tradition. The lentils represent gold coins, so if you eat a lot of lentil soup, you are going to have an abundant year.
Fowler: Cubans are very proud of being Cubans and we are very careful to maintain our traditions. At Christmastime, the traditional dish is you roast the whole pig. I brought that on to my son, who does a better pig than I do, and we have black beans and rice and plantains.
Moody: I don’t know how to cook but now that I have two children, I want them to know where I came from. Brigadeiros are sort of like chocolate truffles, made with a special sweet powder mix. That one I do know how to make.
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