‘You Also Have a Conversation’
To Yubia Wilkinson, getting to know her immigration clients is job one
Published in 2023 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
By Linda Vaccariello on December 20, 2022
Yubia Wilkinson earned three law degrees in as many countries on a journey that began in 2001 and lasted two decades, involving multiple languages.
“Not the right way to get as quickly as possible from point A to point B,” she says with a laugh. But it’s given her a deep understanding of the clients who come to the Cleveland office of Brown Immigration Law.
Wilkinson set her sights on becoming a lawyer as a teen growing up on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Sinaloa state. Her parents farmed and ran a general store—dual incomes that gave them more financial stability than many of their neighbors. If the neighbors’ crops failed, these small farmers would lose their land and end up laboring as field hands. “They had nothing to pass down to their kids,” she says.
She knew children who spent long days alone while their parents picked tomatoes—including teens living in poverty who were easily recruited by drug cartels. Attending high school in the city of Culiacán, she saw young people from the countryside failing to find work in the city, then trying to cross into the United States for a better life or to escape the dangers they were facing.
“Seeing all that, I got interested in becoming an attorney,” she says.
She received her bachelor of laws from the Autonomous University of Sinaloa and took a government position working in land registry—an enviable job, but not a very fulfilling one. Life took an international turn when Peter Wilkinson, a Canadian, visited Sinaloa. They married and moved to Quebec, where she worked as a legal assistant in the Montreal offices of Feldman Rolland Law, honing her English by day, studying French at night. Still intent on serving people in need, she enrolled in McGill University’s Law Equivalencies program in order to practice in Canada. Some instruction was in English and some in French. For a student learning to function in two secondary languages, it meant hours of reading and rereading assignments.
Her husband’s work then took the couple to Florida, where she met Spanish-speaking immigrants being abused by employers who knew that workers without legal status had little recourse. She talked with people who hadn’t seen their families in years because they couldn’t risk a border crossing, and others who naively paid the neighborhood notario in the futile hope of getting legal documents. “I wanted to do something to help the community,” she says.
When her husband’s career took them to Cleveland, she enrolled in Case Western Reserve University’s master of law program, graduating with honors in U.S. and global legal studies. At that point she was a mother and also worked as a legal assistant, so balancing it all took some effort.
Today, her work ranges from assisting clients with professional visas to helping at-risk children remain in the U.S. Wilkinson understands the value of small moments, such as taking time to eat with a client who brings in a gift of food. She makes conversation about their children, their work, their health and their hopes. “Yes, you have your list of questions,” she says. “But if you also have a conversation, you probably learn more.
“At the end of the day, all they want is to not fear that they won’t come home to their kids after work. What would you do for this person if they were your family member?”
Wilkinson’s personal journey—growing up in a small town, studying in a large city, being an immigrant herself—“gives me a better understanding of how to approach the client coming from [such a] background.”
It means knowing the right way to ask a question, for one thing. Not asking a day laborer if they’ve ever been arrested, for example: “They think being arrested is having handcuffs on and being taken to jail,” she says. That can be an alarming question, so she eases into the conversation. “I ask, ‘Have you ever talked to a police officer for any reason?’”
She knows that fear, frustration, sadness and overwhelming confusion can be lost in translation when someone has little education and large language limitations. At one challenging hearing, she and the judge spoke in English, an interpreter translated into Spanish, and a third person translated from Spanish into the client’s native tongue—K’iche’, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. “It’s hard to convey the emotions, and how the client is perceiving all this, and how the judge is perceiving all of this,” she says.
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