Sara Dunsky smiling
San Francisco immigration attorney Sara Dunsky

Q&A: An immigration lawyer who does her bubbe proud

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Name: Sara Dunsky
Age: 37
City: San Francisco
Occupation: Immigration lawyer

J.: What kinds of cases do you handle?


Sara Dunsky: My work falls into two categories: family-based immigration and humanitarian immigration. There are various types of familial relationships that might qualify you for permanent residency or a green card. If your spouse is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, they are eligible to request a visa for you. In some cases you can petition for your child or parent or sibling. The rules for what hoops to jump through and the wait times depends on the petitioner’s status, residency and citizenship.

Humanitarian immigration includes asylum requests — if you have experienced persecution or a have a well-founded fear of it based on several categories [political, religious, social group]. It also includes self-petition under the Violence Against Women Act; if a spouse that you’ve escaped is a U.S. citizen, you can self-petition to remain in the U.S.

And if you’ve been a victim of a serious crime in the U.S., and you’ve cooperated with the investigation, you can petition [for a U Visa]. Members of the undocumented community don’t report things to the police. But law-enforcement officers like this law because it makes it easier for [undocumented] people to help with their investigations.

Do you do pro bono work?

About a quarter of my practice is pro bono and the rest is low bono. I don’t do a good job of turning anyone away. One hundred percent of my clients are on payment plans, and some of those plans just don’t ever take off. I have thought in the last year about what it would take to become a nonprofit entity. That may be a project for the future.

Did Trump’s immigration ban — currently suspended by the courts — affect your work?

The ban does not affect my clients. They are almost exclusively from Mexico and Central America and a small cluster from Tibet. Some of the changes likely to come down soon will have more of an impact. The real impact it has had is to freak everybody out and be completely dispiriting and horrifying.

In your job, you can’t escape the horrors of the news. How do you cope with that?

It is a work in progress. I am presently working on a part-time schedule because I had my daughter nine months ago. She is very in-the-moment, so I’m trying to enjoy being with her. But then I worry about the kind of world I’m going to leave her. I’m also a member of the davening team at The Kitchen [independent S.F. congregation]. It’s a group of people who participate in the music — singing and playing instruments. I experience a lot of joy getting to do that. And there’s something about being in that space that usually allows me to put aside what is going on in the world. And I’m also listening to “Hamilton” on repeat.

Do you do much trial work?

I’m going to immigration court a handful of times a year. It is its own system of courts. It only deals with one thing — when the government has decided they want to remove you from the country. At some point it was called deportation, and at some point it became “removal,” but that’s just putting a nice sheen on something terrible. It is an adversarial procedure, where there is a lawyer trying to kick you out of the country, and there is a judge, and if you’re lucky, you as the immigrant may have a lawyer. The few who are represented are vastly more likely to stay in.

What would a typical client be like?

Say you have a minor from Latin America who came to the U.S. at a very young age with his family and was sexually abused at his elementary school. In that kind of case, we would submit an application for a U visa, which is for victims of serious crimes. You have to demonstrate that the crime qualifies and show certification to immigration that you cooperated with law enforcement. You have to demonstrate that you have suffered sufficient harm — in a case like this, the child may have been teased and ostracized by classmates, and he may suffer from depression and other health consequences. Currently the system is so backlogged that it’s taking three years to decide them.

Do you ever think about the role of Jewish values in your work?

My desire to claim my own Jewish identity has definitely increased to some extent through my connection with The Kitchen and other Jews driven to make the world a better place. But even more, since the election, I feel that we are part of a group that has been targeted in the past. In this country I feel relatively safe and assimilated, and that’s even more of a reason to stand up for others, to own that identity. For what it’s worth, my bubbe who passed several years ago would be horrified by what’s going on right now. She was a big source of Jewishness when I was young, and what I’m doing would make her proud.

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David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky