Immigrant Experience

Giselle Carson knows what it's like to be the newcomer

Published in 2009 Florida Rising Stars — June 2009

When Giselle Carson left Havana, she thought she was headed to Czechoslovakia for a 15th birthday present. But upon arriving in Montreal for a refueling stop, her family deplaned and never reboarded. After a couple of days, the teenager learned she was not going back to Cuba.

Carson was not happy. Growing up in a communist system, she had been taught that, in the United States and Canada, only rich children could go to school and people could get killed just walking down the street.

But Carson soon learned differently, and grew to love her new country. She also got a firsthand taste of the immigrant experience.

Always physically active—Carson did gymnastics in Cuba and taught aerobics in Canada—she earned a degree in physical therapy from McGill University in Quebec and married a classmate in the same field. They decided to come to Florida, where her parents had moved. The young couple began working in Daytona Beach, then in Palm Coast.

Drawn to the legal arena, Carson decided to go for a law degree. "It was an opportunity to broaden my horizons and continue to do work that has an impact on people's lives," she says. Initially, she wanted to take courses part time. The Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, 65 miles north of Palm Coast, offered that option.

She worked as a physical therapist by day while commuting 130 miles (round trip) to take night courses. After four years, Carson managed to complete two years of legal coursework. At that point, she and her husband relocated to Jacksonville and she said goodbye to the nightly drives on Interstate 95.

After finishing her degree, she joined Marks Gray, a 100-year-old firm in Jacksonville. "I was attracted by their stability and reputation," she says. "They also had a strong area of medical malpractice litigation." She felt her physical therapy knowledge would be helpful.

However, she soon began taking on work in the field of international and immigration law, which began changing significantly after 9/11.

"If you do litigation, it's very adversarial," she says. And though she still enjoys trial work, she says, "At the end, if you work really, really hard on the case, there's not a 'Wow, I really made an imprint on this.' There's money that gets exchanged and parties go on their way; but to me, in immigration, when I get an approval, I am thrilled. I know that I've been able to help this family achieve their dream."

Carson also counsels employers on complying with immigration law. She notes that the penalties for hiring illegal workers are greater than ever. "Now there are more raids, more severe fines and criminal charges."

About 60 percent of her practice is devoted to immigration law. More than half those cases involve helping employers hire foreign workers and comply with immigration laws; the rest is devoted to helping families trying to immigrate to the U.S.

"Many of my clients go through great sacrifices to come and stay here—including numerous immigration hurdles—for the tremendous privilege of living in the U.S. and having a better future for themselves and their families," she says.

Each case brings its own satisfaction, Carson says, "whether it is for a naturalization case, a legal permanent residence ["green card"], or a non-immigrant work visa for a physician, a nurse, an engineer, an athlete, an investor, a researcher or just loved ones who have been apart for years and finally get to reunite."

In her spare time, Carson serves as president of the First Coast Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She also sits on the boards of Leadership Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Bar Association.

And she has never lost her zest for physical fitness. Carson participates in triathlons and goes on bike rides with her husband. When they travel, they often take their bicycles along for sightseeing. After the flat Florida terrain, it's a challenge to cycle in the Alps, the Pyrenees and Alaska.

When she comes home, her inbox is always full.

"People think immigration law is easy, but it changes every day. You have to keep up with the law, and you talk to people who have really, really sad stories," she says. "But at the end, if you are able to get that approval, it's so satisfying."

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