'I Refuse to Hear She Died. The Blood Will Be on All Our Hands'
The pressure on immigration lawyer Elena Park
Published in 2008 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine
on November 25, 2008
Updated on March 3, 2020
Elena Park is worried about her client. “She’s so afraid and alone,” she says. The woman is a young Iraqi on the run from gangs in her country. The trouble started when they learned she was working as an interpreter for the U.S. military. They killed her father. Then her brother. Then her fiancé. She was abducted and tortured but escaped. That was two years ago.
Park, who heads the immigration practice at Cozen O’Connor, has tried everything to get her client into the country, even applying for humanitarian parole, a “last resort” that would give the woman permission to enter the U.S. without a visa due to extraordinary circumstances. So far no luck.
“There’s a quota, so we got a nice little ‘denied’ letter,” she says.
She doesn’t know where the woman is. She receives the occasional e-mail from her but never with mention of a location. “These gangs don’t easily forget,” Park says.
Still, she clings to hope. “We’re on to plan B. We’ll go to plan Z. I refuse to hear she died. The blood will be on all our hands.”
Soft-spoken and devoid of flash, Park takes the business of helping immigrants seriously. It’s in her blood.
“My father promised his grandfather he would help other immigrants, that he wasn’t just leaving Korea,” she says of his arrival in Canada.
She decided to become a lawyer early on. The proof: beneath her senior photo in her high school yearbook it reads, “If you need a great lawyer, call me.”
Park went on to the University of Toronto and entered the United States with husband Sito Conde of Spanish descent. “We came looking for the American dream,” she says.
Along the way she found a Temple law degree, three clerkships and a job at Cozen.
Park handled insurance litigation when she first arrived. “Something wasn’t jiving,” she says. “I felt unsettled. I knew there was something else I was supposed to be doing.”
She asked about an immigration law practice at Cozen. She was told there wasn’t one. She figured she could remedy that.
Remembers Ann Field, chairwoman of Cozen’s general litigation department: “Usually an associate wants to take on something we already practice, but I encouraged her to go for it.”
From choking on an alphabet soup of acronyms at her first immigration CLE to acclimating herself to clients with heartbreaking tales, it was a lot to handle. But she discovered quickly that wherever there was struggle there was the possibility of uplift. “It was the ‘oomph’ I craved,” she says.
She got it from Tian Xiao and Zhenxing Zhang, a husband and wife from China. They met, married and had two children in the U.S., but were afraid to return to their homeland because of its one-child policy. They were living in the U.S. illegally.
“[Zhenxing] filed for asylum, but it was denied due to not being timely filed,” Park says. Xiao’s application was also denied.
After an immigration judge levied an order of deportation against Zhang, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency put her under supervision.
“She was asked to intermittently report to the ICE offices in Pennsylvania,” she says. “At one appointment, an officer told her to bring her family next time.”
When that appointment came, and her husband and sons were sitting in the waiting room, a pregnant Zhang was taken to a back room and thrown into a van en route to JFK for immediate deportation. She miscarried twins on the way to the airport.
“It was a nightmare,” recalls Xiao. “We sat in the waiting room for five hours. I kept asking ICE officers about my wife, and they said, ‘Come back in the morning or get an attorney to deal with it.’”
He obtained the name of one of Park’s colleagues from an acquaintance. The colleague brought Park on, and she obtained a stay of deportation for Zhang.
“Elena sympathized with my whole family,” he says. “She is a true humanitarian.”
Troy Titus-Adams of EastEnders fame would say the same thing. A native of London, Titus-Adams wanted to live and work in Hollywood. Park filed her green card petition under the “extraordinary ability” category.
“I had to go a long way to prove my worth,” Titus-Adams says. “From getting letters from about 15 people confirming my ability and status in the U.K., recognizing all the work I’d done, any reviews, photographs and press. It was exhausting.”
Park compiled a package of documentation and reassured her client that everything would work out fine.
“Elena exuded confidence, which in turn gave me confidence in her,” Titus-Adams says. “Having a meticulous worker was crucial. I’ll dedicate my first Emmy to her.”
Park spends her free time with Conde and their 3-year-old daughter, Leah, who, thanks to her parents, is eligible for citizenship in Canada and Spain and is already learning bits of Korean, Spanish and French. “She will be a citizen of the world,” Park says with a laugh.
And her daughter will surely learn the family tradition of helping immigrants.
“I almost envy people who see illegal immigrants as just a number,” Park says. “I can’t. I see the faces. I see the families. I have to help.”
Somewhere in Iraq a young woman is counting on it.