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Immigration lawyer known as 'the angel of justice' among Latinos

With her hair curled and her TV makeup in place, Jessica Dominguez is ready to talk immigration. She sits across from Maria Velasquez, who nervously pulls at her hands. The 60-year-old Velasquez was ordered deported two decades ago and has lived in the United States illegally ever since.

"Stay calm," Dominguez says, "as if it were just the two of us in my office."

A studio light casts shadows over the living room in Velazquez's Inglewood home. As the camera rolls, Dominguez leans in and draws out the grandmother's story: how she fled the war in El Salvador, how she lost the chance to live legally in the U.S. because of an inept advisor, how her father has been diagnosed withAlzheimer's diseaseand she alone cares for him.

Dominguez's eyes fill with tears. The cameraman cuts.

Dominguez is known as "el angel de la justicia" (the angel of justice). Her television spot — part educational programming, part reality TV — airs once a week during Univision's "Despierta America," the country's highest-rated morning show among Latinos.

When not on camera, Dominguez, an attorney, helps immigrants who come to her armed with stacks of papers and filled with hopes of living legally in the U.S.

She knows the odds are slim, and many are charged $150 for a consultation and advised to check her Facebook page for any changes in the law.

For those whose cases she takes, she is a fierce advocate, unafraid to go public if she thinks it will help. Her news conferences are often crowded with reporters from local affiliates and Spanish-language outlets, whose appetite for underdog stories is endless.

Her mission, she says, is to use the media to educate Latinos against immigration fraud. She is not paid for the segments on "Despierta America," but they have helped make her one of the most sought-after immigration attorneys in Los Angeles.

During a break, Dominguez chats with Velasquez. When the cameraman is ready to pick up again, Dominguez wraps her arm around the woman.

"We know that it was your birthday a few days ago, right?" Dominguez says. "What is one of the greatest gifts you could receive for your birthday?"

"A great gift would be my papers," she says.

Dominguez hands Velasquez a red box that holds a court document dismissing her deportation order.

Velasquez is crying. "This is the best present of my life," she says.

Dominguez embraces Velasquez. The cameraman moves in close.

::

Dominguez, 44, always believed she was destined to make an impact on the world. When she started her law career in 2002, she saw herself as a warrior against injustice, compelled into battle by her own personal struggles.

She kept a small office in Canoga Park with a desk bought from the Salvation Army and became a familiar presence in downtown courts. A few months in, she attended an immigration workshop in L.A. and came across a broadcast reporter looking for someone to explain the law in Spanish. Dominguez's knowledge and ease in front of the camera led to more television appearances.

In 2003, she heard about a Mexican woman who had been kept as a sex slave. After being convicted of conspiring in the murder of her captor, the woman served 22 years in prison and, upon her release, was to be deported.

Dominguez took the case and helped organize rallies, started a letter-writing campaign and besieged elected representatives. People had to know about the injustice, she said. Her advocacy drew international attention.

Hilda Solis, a congresswoman at the time (and now the U.S. secretary of labor), and Marta Sahagun de Fox, wife of Mexico'sthen-president, joined the fight. Dominguez enlisted a team of lawyers, one of whom won the woman a visa for victims of human trafficking.

At a family celebration in 2004, she embraced Dominguez.

"She is my angel," the woman said, a line that was repeated in a story in La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper. From that moment Dominguez was known as the angel of justice.

She was eventually asked to anchor a weekly spot on Univision's local station, giving legal commentary and answering immigration questions from people on the street. Earlier this year, she was invited to tell her clients' stories in three-minute weekly segments on "Despierta America," a variety show that features news and celebrity gossip.

She was thrilled.

"I have great joy in knowing that people who watch these segments could potentially save themselves from being defrauded," she said. "Call me an idealist, a dreamer or whatever else, but I truly believe that each of us have the power to change the world one day at a time."

The stories she tells on TV — most of which have been resolved beforehand — blend melodrama and sincerity, leading some to question their value.

Attorney Luis Carrillo, himself an occasional television commentator, said he holds Dominguez in high esteem as an immigration attorney, but he sometimes finds her segments heavy on emotion and short on pragmatic solutions.

"There's a million tragedies across the nation when it comes to unjust immigration policies," he says. "But if you don't offer the tools that will help, then it's just personal aggrandizement."

Jody Agius Vallejo, who is with the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC, cites similar shows on Univision and Telemundo and admires how they portray Latinos.

"They show immigrants whose lives are embedded in the U.S.," she says. "I think it resonates because there's so many mixed- status families.... It really gives people a sense of hope for the future that this could happen to them or this could happen to people they love."

::

Dominguez was born in Peru, and her parents divorced when she was 6. In a custody hearing, her father, whose family had money, was represented by an attorney. Her mother could not afford one.

As the judge talked with her parents and her father's lawyer, Dominguez sat on a bench and watched, holding her younger brother's hand. She wanted to live with her mother.

When the judge granted sole custody to her father, her mother let out a wail. That moment in the courtroom was Dominguez's first lesson in the power that attorneys have in the lives of families.

Another lesson came years later.

Living with her father didn't work out, and she left Peru to be with her mother, who was living illegally in New Jersey.

Dominguez was 14 and knew only a few words of English: chicken, hen and "one little, two little, three little Indians." She kept a dictionary next to her bed and tried to learn one word a night. She longed to go to high school but was sent to work instead, packing cookies in a factory. After her brother rejoined the family, they moved to Los Angeles.

When Dominguez's tourist visa expired, her mother sought the help of a notario, an immigration consultant many Latino immigrants mistake for a lawyer. He promised them green cardsfor $5,000.

"The first payment we sent out every month would be to this notary," Dominguez said. "Then the rent."

After two years of payments with occasional reassurances from the notario, Dominguez's mother went to visit his office. He was gone.

Dominguez wanted to track him down, but her mother dismissed the idea.

Dominguez eventually became a citizen when she married. She started a family, and when her second child was born with disabilities, she struggled to get school officials to provide therapy. Though she succeeded, she saw that parents with lawyers tended to get better results. She decided to go back to school.

After college, she applied to law school, graduating from the University of La Verne College of Law in Woodland Hills in 2000. She planned to go into family law but decided to focus on immigration after seeing so many families become targets of fraud.

::

Dominguez's office now is in Studio City, and her husband makes her commute easier by driving her to work from their home in West Hills. She oversees three lawyers and eight paralegals.

The office bears little resemblance to the space she rented in Canoga Park. Small statues and drawings of angels and newspaper clippings featuring Dominguez and her clients adorn the walls. A back room has been converted into a TV and radio studio.

Velasquez sought out Dominguez about a year and a half ago after seeing her on Univision. Dominguez learned that Velasquez had applied for asylum in the late 1980s, and when her application was turned down, she was ordered deported. She didn't leave because she wanted to stay near her family, nearly all of whom live in the U.S. She worked for a packing company before quitting to care for her father.

Dominguez thought there were a few details that could work in Velasquez's favor. Velasquez's father, a legal resident, had once sponsored her for legal residency; she didn't have a criminal record and had longstanding ties to the country.

When Dominguez asked immigration officials to join her petition to reopen the case, they agreed. After the case was resolved, the lawyer called Velasquez.

She asked: Would you like to share your story on TV?

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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