Interview at "We the Outspoken"
January 27, 2021
By Maya Santos
Spotlight on Oakland Immigration Attorney Natalia Vieira Santanna
Meet Natalia Vieira Santanna, an immigration attorney who runs a legal practice in Fruitvale, Oakland, CA. Originally from Brazil, Natalia is Outspoken about immigrant rights, and her story perfectly embodies the idea of women supporting women. In this interview, Natalia discusses her journey to becoming a successful immigration attorney and business owner. She also sheds light on how the U.S. immigration landscape has evolved in recent years and offers advice for aspiring female lawyers and entrepreneurs. (Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.) What inspired you to become an immigration attorney? My inspiration came from my experience as an immigrant in the United States. I realized for the first time what it is to belong to a community that is underserved and disenfranchised. And that sparked my interest in trying to do something about it. When I moved here, I did not believe that I could be a lawyer. I had a lot of insecurity regarding my accent, my English abilities, my ability to be accepted in the lawyer community which, in Michigan, was mostly dominated by white men. But once I had the support of my community, I decided to try. That’s what inspired me to use my skills to do some good for myself and for my community. What was your law school experience like? The very first year, I had this belief that I could keep working and going to school because that’s what I did through undergrad—I worked full-time and I studied full-time. It was a rude awakening when I realized that I would not be able to succeed if I did that. I had to stop everything and just study and take loans, and that was a really hard decision because that was not my original plan. I had a lot of difficult moments. Being in Michigan, I was considered “exotic,” even though I’m a white Latina. I had some really weird experiences interviewing for jobs. People would make everything about my nationality. Everything was about diversity. It was not ever about who I was other than that. So that was strange. But after all, I really liked the experience that I had at this school [Wayne State University Law School]. I could craft it and make it very specific to me. And I met amazing people. My best friends from law school I’m still in touch with, and actually, we moved together to California, so now we have a little Michigan hub here. Why did you decide to start your own immigration firm? My idea was to work at a nonprofit. But then I was a little disillusioned about the limitations of working in nonprofits. Work was mandated by the grants, and whoever was giving you the grants would tell you what to do and what kind of clients we should take and what kind of clients deserved representation. And then I met, again, this amazing community here of women lawyers who were starting their own law firms. And one of them was my mentor and she really encouraged me to do it. Knowing there were other women who were doing it and talking to them for months and learning from them, I got to the point where I was ready to try to have my own business to be able to represent the clients that I wanted to represent, to be able to take on pro bono cases, to have that freedom. Within your staff, you have English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Mam speakers. And you have also studied Arabic. Did you make a deliberate effort to be equipped to communicate with different groups of immigrants, or did this happen naturally as you gained staff members? It was a deliberate effort because I believe speaking the same language as your clients makes a difference. I cannot speak for my clients, but it is my perception that having, in my own experience, people like you represented either as legal assistants or as lawyers also has a good impact on the communities. So it was a deliberate decision to be able to better communicate with the clients and also as an employer, as a businessperson, to have my staff, my employees reflect the community that we’re serving. You founded Santanna Law Offices in 2014, which means you were an immigration attorney under President Obama and President Trump. What was it like doing immigration law under both these administrations? It was very different. There were a lot of challenges during the Obama administration, too. Obama deported a lot of people and made a lot of decisions that were not abolitionist, that were furthering incarceration of immigrants’ families. However, during the Trump administration, things got so much worse, to the point it became almost impossible to work. Taking away all politics, it became hard to be a professional because the law would change every few days. It’s hard to make a strategy when you have to change it all the time. It got really hard to predict what could happen with a case, so it became really hard to make good decisions for the client. And that’s taking away all the grief and the sadness of seeing an entire segment of the population being demonized for political purposes. That’s the population that I belong to and that I work with; that’s my community. So that was emotionally very, very heavy too. What do you think immigration will be like under the Biden administration? I’m reluctant to make any predictions. I know it’s going to be better because it’s really hard to be worse than it was, and he ran on a platform that made promises to improve the conditions of the law. I don’t have really high hopes that big changes are going to happen. I’m hoping that the damage that was done during the past four years is going to be reversed. I also know that this is not going to be instantaneous because there was a lot of damage and it was done at a deep level, like regulations, statutes, judges. But if I want to be really optimistic, maybe now that the Democrats have control of the Senate, I’m hoping for real immigration reform. I just don’t want to get too attached to the idea because we’re immigration lawyers coming back from a war zone. What is your thought process when deciding which cases to take? We have our focuses, which are asylum, family, U-visas. Unless I’m at capacity, I hardly say “no” to somebody because most of my cases are removal proceedings, so they are defensive proceedings. Even if the case doesn’t seem very strong, the law changes all the time. Cases that were strong become weak. Cases that were weak become strong. And if you are in court, you need to defend yourself and you need to ensure that, at least, your due process rights are being respected. Affirmative cases are a little different because you have to be a little more careful. Even if your client wants to apply for something, you really have to make sure that there is a huge chance of winning. Otherwise, you’re just putting your client at risk. During the past administration where it was so hard to predict outcomes because the law was so volatile, I turned away a lot of cases and asked people to wait. If I cannot do anything for the person, if there’s really no relief, the value that I can provide is notifying the potential client about their rights in case they have any immigration encounters and hoping for the best. You often take cases from women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. In your experience, do these groups face any significant problems regarding immigration? Because the kind of cases that we take are asylum, they are individuals and families who are fleeing persecution in their country of origin. Conditions in many countries are more than unfavorable, they’re violent against women and LGBTQ people. So they have to flee for their lives and that’s why we see more of those clients. I also enjoy taking those cases because I’m part of both communities, so I feel a personal connection. We see a lot of asylum seekers that are women because there is a lot of gender-based persecution in many countries in Central America, in Mexico, in Brazil. The levels of femicide and domestic violence are really high and the governments do not provide assistance nor protection. A lot of women are left with no option but to flee. The same is true for queer, LGBTQ folks. And trans women too. I take a lot of trans women’s cases. How can we (readers) help combat injustices regarding immigration? I believe there are several ways of helping. Each person has a different way of contributing. I think the first step is education. Learn about your neighbor. Learn how to respect your neighbor. Learn about different cultures so when you meet people from other countries, you don’t feel so biased. The first step is trying to identify and work towards reducing our own biases against foreign things. Then, taking a step further, doing our part as citizens and voting, if you can. When you’re voting, see how your representatives are with immigration issues. Even if you’re not an immigrant, even if it doesn’t apply to you, it affects your neighbor. There’s also plenty of opportunities to volunteer with local organizations and to donate money. And talking to other people who are in your circle that maybe don’t have favorable views. What advice do you have for young women who are trying to go into law and business? Coming from my own experience, it was really hard for me to believe that I could do it. So I think the first is believe you can do it. Then it’s really good to get mentors, too, to learn how to work the system because the system is sometimes rigged against women, against minorities. Have a mentor to teach you the tricks and all — how to get into law school, what to do in undergrad, how to survive law school. And also people that you trust to vent about all the frustrations that come from choosing that path. And to read a lot. It’s a lot of reading. The first year is the worst. [And for business,] it’s the same. First, you have to believe in yourself. Then, for me, it’s always been having a strong, supportive community of mentors and friends. I started my own business but I don’t think I made it alone. I have a lot of support and this is why I can do it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it because it’s like a mini-world that you create as you grow. I feel like I have an impact not only as a lawyer but also as a business owner. It took me years to get to this, but it’s really rewarding. It’s stressful and I have a lot of white hair, but also it gives me a lot of freedom that I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise.