Tuesday was a typical day in the Studio City office of immigration attorney Jessica Dominguez, except that, in addition to the illegal immigrants and others seeking legal advice, President Obama put in an appearance — on the television in the waiting room, making his speech on immigration reform.
Generally speaking, the clients supported Obama's plea for comprehensive change, but nobody in the room expected much to come of it. In fact, deportations have increased under Obama, and many of the people in Dominguez's office were there because of growing fear that they'll be next.
Rudolfo, an air conditioning laborer who's undocumented, sat with his wife, Nadia, a legal resident, waiting for advice on how to apply for a hardship waiver that allows him to stay in the United States. He'd also like to get his pay up from $13 an hour to the $20 his boss pays legal residents.
Tina, a middle-aged woman, drew her head into her shoulders as if trying to hide. She's an illegal immigrant, and she sat quietly with her husband, Epi, a legal resident who works as a gardener.
A man named Cecilio was waiting for advice on how to help his sister, who was recently notified that she's being deported to Guatemala.
And a young man named Ruben was there with his wife, Rosa, and their infant, hoping that Rosa can petition for legal status. Their newborn child, an American citizen like her father, has Down's syndrome and a heart condition, and the couple want to care for their child together without fear of deportation.
For a while, attorney Dominguez came into the lobby and watched Obama's speech with her clients.
"Tell us something we don't already know," she said, looking straight at the president's televised image.
"His heart is in the right place," Dominguez said of Obama, but she also thinks he's fishing for future Latino votes without doing enough administratively or politically to deliver the reforms he preaches.
"He needs the help of the Republicans," said Cecilio, arguing that Obama has his hands tied without their support.
Nineteen clients had appointments Tuesday with Dominguez and two other attorneys on her staff. Dominguez, meanwhile, was working another case by phone both before and after Obama's speech.
The case is a wrenching illustration of the desperation of those fleeing crime, poverty and hopelessness. It involves an 8-year-old girl from El Salvador who's being held in protective custody in Mexico after she reported being raped by three coyotes who were supposed to bring her to a grandmother in Los Angeles. Dominguez is trying to arrange for a waiver on humanitarian grounds so the grandmother can bring the girl to L.A. for medical and psychological evaluation.
In Dominguez's office, every day brings extraordinary cases of heartbreak and hardship. Although it's true that the families help create the fixes they find themselves in, Dominguez can identify with a longing for economic self-improvement and the nightmarish legal and domestic entanglements that follow.
She came to the United States from Peru in 1982 on a visa at 14 and stayed past her legally allotted time. As a teenager, she worked in factories in New Jersey, where employees hid when federal agents came by. She later married an American citizen but had to return to Peru temporarily to earn legal status in the U.S.
As a child of divorce, Dominguez had always wanted to practice family law, but her own immigration experience led to her current practice, in which she also serves as an advocate for reform. She's hopeful that real reform might be possible as a growing body of young Latinos skilled in social media come of age and use their connections to encourage voting and demand reforms.
President Obama wasn't terribly specific Tuesday on the details of immigration reform, but Dominguez has strong feelings on the subject.
Rounding up and deporting the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country would cost billions and deal a blow to the economy, in her opinion. She supports proposals that would require illegal immigrants to pay a $1,000 fine, learn English, pass a U.S. history test and apply for legal status that could take three years to earn.
As it is, she said, families are paying about $2,500 for various legalization application forms. And many families are losing thousands more to scammers who promise to handle the paperwork and then disappear.
Dominguez let me sit in on part of her conference Tuesday with Daniel, a U.S. citizen from Riverside who was with his undocumented wife, Leticia, and their two sons. Leticia came to California illegally in the 1990s to attend a wedding and never went home to Mexico.
No matter what Obama promised in the way of a pathway to legalization, said Daniel, there's no history of follow-through by anyone in Washington.
"We just don't have confidence that the government will act on this," he said.
Daniel said immigration agents entered a supermarket in Riverside recently and asked shoppers for their papers. It could happen to his wife at any moment, he said, and their family would be ripped apart.
"We're both scared," Daniel said.
He and his wife are exhausted by the uncertainty and are leaning toward having her come clean and apply for legal residency. But on the other hand, they're worried that such honesty could come at a stiff price — the legalization process could drag on mercilessly, with Leticia stuck in Mexico for as long as 10 years.
Back in the lobby, Obama said during his speech that he didn't believe the U.S. "should be in the business of separating families." Epi and Tina sat next to each other as they listened, hoping against hope that he meant it.