Alexander Eiffe, Immigration Attorney, 37
There is a lot at stake in immigration law. There is always the potential for familial separation, loss of ability to work, years of waiting for approvals that may never come — no matter how dire the situation may appear. It is complicated and emotional.
Immigration Attorney Alexander Eiffe does not sugar coat it for his clients. He doesn’t make long-shot promises. He knows there is so much riding on his success. He knows their lives are in his hands.
He knows their stories are complex. He’s got an immigration story of his own – which at the age of 37 he is just beginning to discover new chapters.
Alexander was born in Bogota, Colombia in the 1980s but adopted by US parents as an infant. For decades the residents lived under the specter of a conflict between the government and paramilitary, criminal and guerrilla groups, funded in part by drug trafficking.
“It was a little bit dangerous at the time,” Alexander says. “It was not a good time to be a white American lady walking around the streets of Colombia.” Still his mother came from New Jersey to get him. He’s got a treasured video of his family members meeting him for the first time at the tarmac of an airport.
The family moved from NJ to Winston-Salem where he grew up. “I never grew up speaking Spanish. For all intents and purposes, I am a middle class white kid from New Jersey. I am also Colombian and I am an immigrant. I have always been proud of that. For people who are adopted, there is often a little bit of a disconnect on identity issues.”
He studied philosophy in undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill, but decided he needed to do something more practical. He went to Villanova University School of Law, and moved back to North Carolina shortly after graduation.
It was only by coincidence that he ended practicing immigration law. He got a job with A.G. Linett & Associates in Greensboro in 2012. “The reason I am an immigration attorney is that this office got back to me a week faster than one that would make me a social security disability attorney,” he says.
In the early days, there was so much to learn both about the law and being an attorney. “I think I three-hole punched someone’s original birth certificate. It often feels like they don’t teach you to do anything practical in law school, for instance I didn’t know how to use a fax machine.”
He was quickly thrust into the world of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era policy that granted people who were brought to the US as children the right to work legally.
From there, Alexander took on U Visa cases, applying for victims of crimes to be able to stay in the US, Adjustment of Status cases for spouses of American citizens and many other types of cases. (He handled his wife Aziza’s case. She is a native of Uzbekistan who he met at a synerG Young Professionals event while she was getting her undergraduate degree in economics at UNCG.)
Trump-era immigration policy changes added new and challenging complexities to the work.
For four years immigration attorneys across the country would wake up wondering what new detrimental policy or interpretation would be thrown at us, and many honestly left the practice of immigration law for their own mental health. Alexander works with child victims of abuse or parents who are facing deportation and separation from their children. Some people in the country without legal permissions can be barred from entering the US for a decade if they leave just once. “Even if you have kids who are underage (here), sometimes, none of that matters. There is nothing you can do.”
Alexander tries to tell his clients what they face, plainly.
“It’s almost like being a doctor. You are going to have to give bad news. The legal issues exist. The best thing you can do is give them a straight answer about what their options are….It does scare me sometimes how easily I can give that answer and that explanation now because I have done it so many times.”
The single mothers facing deportation. The genuinely good people. Those are the cases that get to him.
His fellow Americans often don’t understand, Alexander says, that the federal government isn’t specifically targeting criminals for deportation. They are picking up plenty of regular people who happen to not have the right papers.
And for those who argue that those people should have gotten in line like all the legal immigrants, like Alexander himself, he wants them to know those lines are sometimes decades long, if they exist at all.
To prove his point, Alexander pulls up a recent US Visa Bulletin, which forecasts when certain visa applications are going to be processed by the federal government. In some cases, the government is just now looking at applications filed 25 years ago.
Alexander takes his work into the community to help citizens and immigrants better understand policies and laws.
He taught Immigration 101 to city staff and police. He has spoken with families in local schools. He educated people about the travel ban. He helped service providers understand the cultural differences immigrants navigate in domestic violence situations.
And he works in the community encouraging people in need of immigration advice to talk to a licensed attorney. He’s taught Immigration 101 again as part of a Let’s Talk Law event with the Greensboro Human Rights Commission.
He also spent the month of March consulting – free of charge – people impacted by the war in Ukraine. Working with his wife and other volunteer interpreters, he advised 5-8 people every day.
A single Facebook post promoting the service reached around the US and the world. “I was taking calls and Zoom meetings from basically all over the place,” he says. Many were trying to find a safe place in the United States. Their cases were complex.
A 16-year-old exchange student in Wisconsin who didn’t know if she would ever see her family again or if she had a home to return to in Ukraine. Russian nationals who did not agree with the war and were asking about asylum. Ukrainians who had come to the US on travel visas and wondered whether they could stay.
“I always present people with all the options. What I think might be best might not be best for you,” he says.
Alexander’s still figuring out his immigration story.
He recently found his birth mother. He knew her name from some of his birth documents. He found her on Facebook.
From her profile picture, he saw it: his own, distinctive nose.
Her first message to him was one of sorrow. An apology for his suffering. But Alexander never felt like he suffered as an adoptee, as an immigrant. “I had a very happy life and happy childhood. She couldn’t have known that.”
She told him he is the oldest of four brother and sisters. That finding him again was one of the best days of her life.
She told him he was stolen. “One of the best times in my adoptive parents’ live was the worst for her.”
Alexander’s still trying to figure all that out. Next year, he will fly to Colombia with Aziza and their two young children to meet her.