Story of Dreamers

Immigration attorney Minette A. Kwok helps possibilities become realities

Published in 2014 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2014

If the San Francisco International Film Festival gave out best supporting actress awards, this year’s recipient might be immigration attorney Minette A. Kwok. She helped the San Francisco Film Society snag Noah Cowan, an artistic director with the acclaimed Toronto International Film Festival, for the leading role at SFFS.

The film society hopes its new executive director will bring increased prominence to the city’s annual fest. Kwok had just two months to help Cowan, a Canadian, secure a coveted visa from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Brought on board in December 2013, the Minami Tamaki partner and her team rapidly assembled nearly 500 pages of documentation to bolster Cowan’s application for an O-1 extraordinary ability or achievement visa, the type available to scientists, artists, businesspeople, athletes, and those with “extraordinary achievement” in the film or TV industry. The team filed the case in early February; the visa was approved a week later.

Kwok says her more typical duties include securing visas for entrepreneurs and software engineers from around the world who dream of working in Silicon Valley. Those cases are rarely as clear-cut as Cowan’s.

On their applications for various types of employment visas, Kwok must delicately persuade and clearly explain complex business ideas. “We will likely never talk to the immigration examiner who will make a decision on our case,” she says. “We will probably never appear at a U.S. consulate with our client when they look at the paperwork to grant a visa for entry.”

Kwok, 60, credits her passion for immigration law partly to the experience of her parents, who came to the U.S. in 1946 from Hong Kong and eventually settled in the Bay Area. As a student at University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, Kwok says she was influenced by the Vietnam War, civil rights and protests involving ethnic identity and pride. She became Asian Legal Services Outreach’s executive director and saw the impact of attorneys who handled immigration and housing matters. Inspired, Kwok returned to school, earned her law degree in 1990 and joined Minami Tamaki.

“All of our communities have been shaped by immigration: Chinese or Vietnamese or Irish or German,” says Kwok, who serves on the national board of trustees for the American Immigration Council. “I’m very interested in domestic and foreign policy development and issues, and this law touches so much of it and is shaped by it. It’s constantly changing.”

She and her colleagues played a critical role in a landmark decision in which the state Supreme Court ruled in January that an undocumented immigrant who had been brought to the U.S. as a child could be licensed to practice law. Sergio Garcia, a Mexican national whose father has become a U.S. citizen, has been waiting 19 years for his visa, despite having a petition approved in 1995 to adjust his status—a typical delay caused by massive backlogs.

Garcia, 36, received his J.D., then passed the state Bar exam in 2009. But when he went through the Committee of Bar Examiners’ due diligence process to vet Bar candidates, there was a question about his U.S. status. He indicated that he was undocumented, and there is a federal statute “barring undocumented immigrants from receiving state benefits, including professional licenses, unless the state legislature passes a law allowing it,” Kwok says.

”His story is the story of dreamers,” she says. “To have the door shut in his face seemed really unfair.”

She and her colleagues were part of a legal team that advised the Committee of Bar Examiners for the State Bar, which supported Garcia’s efforts. They pitched in on the briefings and helped prepare for the oral argument, Kwok says.

“The State Bar of California took an unwavering stand in favor of Garcia, arguing that his undocumented status should not disqualify him from becoming an attorney,” Kwok says. The U.S. Department of Justice opposed his admission to the state Bar.

The state high court’s decision followed on the heels of a bill signed last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown allowing the state Bar to admit undocumented residents who meet all requirements to practice law. When it took effect Jan. 1, California became the first state in the country to license undocumented immigrants as attorneys. The court required additional information, such as whether any regulation would supersede such a state law, before making its ruling.

The decision gratified Kwok. “Whether it’s reuniting families or working to grant refuge or safe haven to someone who’s been persecuted—or it’s someone who wants this great job or wants to carry out their vision for a business—immigration law is really about possibility,” she says. “That’s the part that is compelling for me.”

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