Attorney helps immigrants find new life in the U.S.

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Marie Sayaka Nelson (center), an immigration attorney with Antone, Casagrande, & Adwers in Farmington Hills is pictured with her mother, Emiko, and sister, Alyssa, at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.


By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Working on an asylum case for a Christian family that had fled Iraq, immigration attorney Marie Sayaka Nelson had to interview the family for hours to develop their case.

“Part of the reason was because danger was such a normal part of their lives for so long,” she explained. “I had to ask very specific questions to learn things that would shock many of us, such as that before they left Iraq, a bomb went off so close to their house that shrapnel was scattered in their foyer. They were not being withholding — to them, it just was not a remarkable enough incident to mention.”

While this case seems like it should be cut and dry, there is a major backlog in the asylum office that has been flooded with applications in recent years, Nelson added.

“This means that by the time their case is actually adjudicated, conditions may have significantly changed in their home country, which may make the case more complicated,” she said. “Additionally, it makes life difficult for the family here, as they are not eligible to work in the United States until their case is granted or six months have passed after they filed their application.”

This is just one of many challenging cases for Nelson, an attorney with Antone, Casagrande, & Adwers in Farmington Hills.

Another memorable case concerns a girl adopted at a very young age by United States citizen parents, who did not know the child was not a U.S. citizen at the time of adoption.

“Over ten years later, the parents are still trying to get her United States citizenship, and came to our office for help,” Nelson said. “The problem is, we have no evidence of how she entered the country or proof of her foreign citizenship, so she is stuck in a legal limbo. We’re working with her country of origin’s government to obtain proof of her foreign citizenship, the first step among many to getting her United States citizenship.”

Nelson was inspired to become an immigration attorney by her personal background, as the child of a father born in California, and a mother who is a Japanese citizen and a U.S. Legal Permanent Resident.

“I was a dual citizen for 21 years and my parents very much raised me to embrace both cultures,” she said. “I went to Japanese Saturday school and spent most of my childhood summers with my extended family in Japan. Those experiences immeasurably enriched me both personally and educationally.”

Her appreciation for multiculturalism evolved into a more social-justice oriented perspective.

Developing a curiosity for Latin American culture, Nelson volunteered in Nicaragua, and tutored Spanish-speaking ESL students in Pontiac.

“As I learned more about the immigration system, I became aware that due to its complexity, having an attorney could make or break an otherwise meritorious immigration case,” she said. “I also know, from observing my mother throughout the years, how much courage it takes to move to a foreign country. For all of those reasons, working on behalf of immigrants always seemed like a worthwhile cause, and my experience in the field has certainly reinforced that notion.”

A native of Portland, Ore., Nelson grew up in the Detroit area and attended Lahser High School in Oakland County, before attending New York University to earn her undergrad degree, summa cum laude, in History, with a minor in Law and Society.

“I was particularly interested in social history, and studied topics as varied as the history of pirates to the Indonesian revolution,” she said. “Law seemed like a natural next step, since the analytical and research skills I developed studying history were easily transferable to the legal field.”

After graduating early, Nelson worked for KPMG’s Japanese Practice in New York City, assisting in tax matters for Japanese corporate clients, before attending Harvard Law School, where she focused on immigration issues as well as
consumer law.

“I was drawn to the human dimension of legal practice — being able to work with clients on a regular basis and provide a tangible service gives me a lot of motivation,” she said.

Her work as a member of the Harvard Immigration Project gave Nelson her first taste of hands-on immigration practice.

“It was a wonderful program,” she said. “I worked specifically on representing detained immigrants for their bond hearings at the immigration court in downtown Boston. I enjoyed the work so much that it encouraged me to continue to pursue immigration law.”

She spent a summer with the New York Attorney General’s Consumer Frauds Bureau working on large- scale anti-fraud litigation; and also provided direct representation to low-income clients facing debt and foreclosure issues at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center in Boston as well as with MFY Legal Services in New York City.

Nelson interned at the Policy and Strategy section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in Washington D.C., in its infancy at the time she was hired.

“It was an interesting section, as all of the other issue-specific sections — such as housing, employment, criminal — had their own policy attorneys, so we were a catch-all for all other civil-rights related policy work,” she explained. “It was actually pretty fortuitous, because that was the year President Obama was pushing comprehensive immigration reform, and a draft of the 800-page bill that the White House introduced ended up on my desk. Our office was
focused on reviewing the anti-discrimination provisions of the bill, and we advocated for increased protections. My experience gave me a great insight into the nature of policy work, and it also helped me learn that I preferred direct representation.”

Nelson, who received a Pro Bono Service Award for performing over 1,000 hours of pro bono work during law school, continues her passion for pro bono work by teaming with Antone law firm colleague Diane Hunt to participate in a clinic run by the Chaldean Community Foundation to help Legal Permanent Residents with naturalization applications.

Nelson makes her home in Ferndale, where she enjoys vegetarian cooking, farmer’s markets, yoga, running, bike riding, art shows, live music and reading.

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