By Jo Mathis
Brad Thomson says he finally understands what his high school humanities teacher meant when he said, “If you have a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.”
The Ann Arbor native, who launched his own immigration law practice a year ago, says he could not be happier with his decision. Not only has all his pro bono work resulted in a business that is already thriving, but he says he cannot imagine doing anything more rewarding.
“Definitely the most satisfying part of my job is helping unite families, whether that means bringing a relative from overseas here to the United States or preventing a family from being torn apart,” says Thomson.
He also likes the fact that no two days are the same. One day he might be meeting a client at Immigration Court in Detroit. The next, he might meet with a client detained in one of the three main immigrant jails in Monroe, Battle Creek, or Port Huron. Or he will be meeting with a child’s principal.
Thomson said immigration is one of the most complicated areas of law.
“Everyone’s in agreement that there needs to be some kind of change to make it function,” he says. “There have been a lot of steps in the right direction recently, specifically with this Dream announcement for children who were brought here by their parents who don't even know their native country. For them to finally be able to get a work permit, and more importantly, to attend a university and have a career here, is huge.
“It opens up the American dream to them, which previously wasn’t there.”
The main niches are family immigration, employment immigration, and asylum and deportation defense.
In college, Thomson thought he wanted to be a teacher. But he could never find one subject he found interesting enough to become certified.
“Until I found immigration law,” he says. “That was the first time I fell in love with a subject where I thought, ‘I could do this for the rest of my life and never get bored.’”
But after college — and before he found immigration law — he saved up enough money as a substitute teacher/server/babysitter to live in Costa Rica and Honduras for a few months.
Living with host families, he bathed in a bucket of cold water, and sometimes went to bed hungry. All the while, he was gaining insights into the struggles of those who live in poverty, he says.
Back home in Ann Arbor, he lived with his best friend, a refugee from El Salvador who was working as an immigration paralegal.
“I was literally getting jealous just hearing about what he did at work,” he recalls.
So he applied for a position as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer to relocate refugees in Miami.
“I was making a stipend of $800 a month, which comes out to $5 an hour trying to survive in the most materialistic place in the world,” he says. “It was a rough year. But it was great in that it helped me realize this is what I want to do with my life.”
Thompson recalls interviewing 14-year-old Jean Alvarez, and learning that corrupt Haitian government officials had murdered both of his parents. He found it hard to believe that Jean --with a 4.0 GPA and perfect behavior marks in school--was facing deportation to a dangerous country where he no longer had family.
“This interview was a pivotal experience in my life and it sealed my decision to pursue a career in immigration law,” he says. “Most importantly, the interview demonstrated the profound impact that I, as an immigration attorney, could potentially have in someone’s life. “
Back in Michigan, he took the LSAT, clerked at Hooper Hathaway law firm, and enrolled in the Wayne State Law School.
The summer before his first year of law school, he moved to the southern coast of Mexico in order to perfect his Spanish. That decision changed his life because he met his future wife, Mercedes, at her family’s small market when he stopped in to buy a Popsicle after boogey boarding.
He brought her to Ann Arbor on a fiancée visa.
While attending law school and for a while afterwards, he worked for immigration attorneys. That work confirmed his desire to work on family and deportation defense for the Spanish-speaking population.
When he opened his office in a professional building on Packard Road, Thomson gave pro bono consultations at know-your-rights events sponsored by immigration nonprofits at local churches. He says he was the only immigration attorney to show up at every event. So the nonprofits, realizing he was honest and had a passion for the cause, would later send him clients. He also got to know the pastors from churches with large Spanish populations. And referrals from satisfied clients also add up.
“It’s a topic of importance to native Spanish speakers because of how many undocumented people live here and because of how complex the immigration process is,” he says.
Thomson and his wife now have a 18-month-old son, Ayden. They live in an apartment up the street, which makes it convenient to walk when he does not want to drive his mo-ped or pick-up truck.
Thomson says his recent journey as an entrepreneur has been a challenge rooted in the country’s history of immigrants pursuing the American dream.
“Pretty much everybody here at some point came here as immigrants,” he says. “My family came here seven generations ago escaping religious persecution. I’m the first generation since 1747 not to grow up on a family farm.
“My American dream is being able to have a job I love. And the reason I love it is because I create these opportunities for other people to fulfill their American dream.”