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‘We are all immigrants here’: Attorney knows clients’ experience firsthand

St. Louis-based immigration lawyer Evita Tolu came to the United States from her native Russia in 1993 and became a citizen four years later. After graduating from Saint Louis University School of Law in 2000, she intended to practice corporate law but instead developed a client base from people with immigration-related queries. (Photo by Dana Rieck)

St. Louis-based immigration lawyer Evita Tolu came to the United States from her native Russia in 1993 and became a citizen four years later. After graduating from Saint Louis University School of Law in 2000, she intended to practice corporate law but instead developed a client base from people with immigration-related queries. (Photo by Dana Rieck)

Evita Tolu knows what her clients are going through when they ask for her help. That’s because she experienced many of the same processes 26 years ago that they’re working through now.

Tolu came to the United States from her native Russia at age 25 in 1993. She became a citizen in the summer of 1997 when she married an American.

Now, as a St. Louis-based lawyer with an immigration-focused practice, Tolu said she is better able to empathize with her clients and anticipate their questions as they work, study or navigate the path to U.S. citizenship — particularly during a time when immigration-related issues are generating controversy in the United States and around the world.

“I am definitely more compassionate” because of her experience, Tolu said. “As an immigrant, I understand why they came here because I came for a better life, I came for an opportunity and I worked really hard for everything that I have today and most of my clients work very hard.

“They want to stay in compliance with the law, they want to do the right thing and they don’t rely on the system for welfare or anything,” she added. “They want to have their piece of the American dream.”

In recent months, Tolu said, she has experienced a marked uptick in the number of clients seeking her out to review their immigration status and ensure they can remain in the country legally.

“[They’re saying] ‘Hey, this is what I have, and I need to fix it because I don’t want to be exposed to any adverse effects,’” she said.

She attributes their concerns to the heightened political climate around immigration. She notes that the resulting scrutiny of immigrants makes it more difficult for all people who attempt to immigrate lawfully to the United States — not just for those trying to cross at the nation’s southern border.

“We all pay for what’s happening at the border,” she said, noting that two of her recent cases illustrate those difficulties.

One involves a small, veteran-operated business petitioning to employ a highly skilled engineer with two master’s degrees from India. The employer’s request was denied because of an erroneous claim by the government that the engineer remained in the country illegally, she said.

“My client is in full compliance with immigration law. Somebody did not do the checks and balances and did not bother to go through the system to check if this person ever violated immigration, and he hasn’t,” she said.

“And the employer got the denial letter, so now I have to go and appeal this case and reopen it and to prove the basics — that there is no immigration law violation,” she added. “But that costs my veteran business thousands of dollars and the time in getting it all done.”

Another recent client, who entered the United States in 1992, became a lawful permanent resident, she said. He mistakenly voted in 1999, which was illegal for him to do. And although the federal government formally “forgave” him in 2000 for voting, it recently decided to deport him for the same incident, she said.

Tolu said she believes recent shifts toward more aggressive enforcement policies have had an impact on that case. She said her client has no criminal record, has children and grandchildren who are U.S. citizens and draws both pension and Social Security benefits.

“It is very emotional — for the entire family and for him personally — because he cannot go to [his] home country,” she said. “He has no pension there, he has no savings, no home, no children — no one.”

Tolu’s law career began more than 20 years ago when she completed paralegal training at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and joined a Florissant-based law firm in 1996.

“[That firm] had nothing to do with immigration,” Tolu said. “But I enjoyed the legal field, and I enjoyed the challenge of going to courts and helping attorneys.”

From 1995 to 1998, Tolu worked as a legal assistant for what was then Husch & Eppenberger, where she met two attorneys who inspired her to go to law school — one was Rodney W. Sippel, now the chief judge for U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri.

“At Husch Eppenberger, I was involved in corporate law and corporate litigation,” she said. “So I was very fascinated by the field, and going to law school, that’s what I thought I was going to do — I was going to be a corporate attorney.”

She earned her law degree from Saint Louis University School of Law in December 2000.

“I had no idea or inclination to become an immigration attorney. But then once I graduated, people started asking me questions about immigration, so that’s how I started developing my client base,” she said.

After the birth of her first child in October 2002, she joined what is now Stinson to develop her immigration practice. She left the firm in January 2006 to practice immigration law independently in St. Louis and Florida.

Her caseload consists of about 70 to 80 clients at a time, all in a variety of circumstances. She said she takes the cases she knows she can win and declines to handle those that lack supporting facts and law.

“So I’m very selective about the type of cases I take because, as you know, in our country and in this climate there are so many clients who cannot be helped, and I will not even bother to take people’s money and make them promises on which I cannot deliver,” she said.

Tolu said she has noted more public discourse about immigration during the current administration of President Donald Trump, who has made reshaping national immigration policy a priority. But she said she anecdotally observed more immigration raids during the administration of former President Barack Obama.

“Well, the first shift I noticed as a practicing attorney was when Barack Obama was the president,” she said. “It was an unprecedented number of deportations and cases referred to the immigration courts that probably should not have been referred.”

While her clients, for the most part, are natives of regions other than South America, Tolu said the ongoing influx of migrants at the Mexican-American border has indirectly affected and unnerved them because, in response, enforcement actions by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have increased overall.

“So they’re not picking and choosing just Hispanics,” she said. “If there is a tip, they will go after everyone they can apprehend.”

Tolu says that while the circumstances of her immigration story may not mirror that of all of her clients, her experience helps her to be the best lawyer she can be on their behalf.

“We are all immigrants here,” she said. “I mean everyone.”