One Immigration Lawyer’s Mission To Keep The American Dream Alive | Esma Onal

America is known as the land of opportunity. For immigrants and individuals from all around the world, it can seem daunting to gain entry into the U.S., which is why people like Esma Onal are so integral to our nation’s growth. As an Immigration Attorney, and immigrant herself, Onal knows firsthand what it truly means to live the American dream, and now she spends her days giving her clients that same vision. 

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Esma Onal Immigration Attorney

The American Dream is based on equal opportunity and freedom. It’s the foundation of what makes this nation so strong. Immigration is how the U.S. became what it is today and without it, we wouldn’t have access to a multitude of cultures and experiences that make this country so diverse. 

As an immigrant herself, Onal has experienced what it is really like to come to the U.S. and gain opportunities. For her, that experience took the form of becoming a distinguished Immigration Attorney, helping a large population of people with different stories and backgrounds create a better life for themselves.

Onal comes from an immigrant family, and is an immigrant herself. She grew up and graduated high school in Turkey, and immigrated with her family to the U.S. in February 2005. Becoming a lawyer was a goal for her since she was a child. She initially did not know which direction to head in when it came to studying, and eventually practicing law; however, as the child of an immigrant, and after experiencing the immigration process herself, getting into immigration law seemed like a natural progression.

“I felt connected as a professional, but also on a personal level. My connection to the immigration process has given me an immense amount of determination and dedication for what I do today. Being an immigration attorney is not just a job for me, it’s my passion.”

Onal earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Delaware in 2012 and a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in 2015. 

Onal explained that studying Criminal Justice in her undergraduate years was an integral step in her journey to becoming an attorney. She wanted to ensure that she had a full grasp on the U.S. legal system and how it operated before diving into the intricacies of becoming an attorney. 

During her schooling, she was able to gain experience through multiple internship and externship roles, including serving as a Legal Intern for the Delaware Department of Justice, a Judicial Intern with the Westchester County Court, a Law Clerk with Tooma & Ozisik, LLP, and a Research Assistant for the Institute of International Commercial Law.

While at Pace Law, she also became a Student Attorney working for the Immigration Justice Clinic at John Jay Legal Services Inc., while also working part-time as a Law Clerk in the field of immigration law. Her work ethic and determination pushed her to gain as much valuable experience as possible while becoming fully educated in the legal world. 

In her clerking role, she noticed herself getting emotionally involved with the victims and their situations. This partially motivated her to really dive into immigration law, so she could use her personal emotional connection to motivate her to do the best she can for her clients. She got to speak with numerous disadvantaged individuals who came to the U.S. in pursuit of the American Dream. 

Throughout her journey to becoming an attorney, she earned recognitions, such as the Civil Liberties Winifred Sobie Pasternack in 2015 and a Pace Postgraduate Fellowship in 2016. Upon graduating, she joined a private law firm in Long Island City, NY as an Associate Attorney, where she worked between the years of 2016 and 2018. Following this period, Onal also served with another private firm in Washington D.C. Metro Area in a similar role.

Onal now works as an Immigration Litigation Attorney for Frenkel, Hershkowitz & Shafran, LLP in Manhattan, NY, where she has been for the past three years, handling various complicated matters before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Executive Office of Immigration Review.

While she mainly represents individuals before immigration agencies and courts in the East Coast States, she can represent individuals in all 50 states since the federal law governs the immigration practice across the nation. 

Onal’s caseload has a wide range of variety: political opinion, religion, sexual orientation, sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, mixed marriage, and so on.

Besides her high-volume asylum caseload, she also handles other complicated matters before EOIR, ICE, and USCIS, such as U visas, VAWA petitions, waivers, citizenship, bond and parole requests, cancellation of removal, family-based petitions, adjustment of status, consular processing, and other immigrant and non-immigrant visas. She represents individuals from all over the world.

Onal is admitted to practice law in the State of New Jersey and the District of Colombia. She is also a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the New York State Bar Association, and the New Jersey State Bar Association to stay consistently involved in ongoing changes in the legal industry.

Esma Onal Immigration Attorney

“When I win a case and see the results of the individuals I help, who are truly just trying to live a full, authentic life, it motivates me even further to continue to work hard, and fight to give those a voice who are used to living in an environment of suppression.”

Esma Onal Immigration Attorney

More than half of her clients are asylum seekers, working to stay in the U.S. and ideally gain a green card to become a citizen. However, it should be emphasized that as a litigation attorney, Onal has been able to help a wide variety of survivors who have lived through unimaginable darkness. Her work has given a voice to the voiceless, and given so many the opportunity to take control of their lives.

“America is a nation of immigrants. We are a diverse country full of people who came here, or whose families came here, to create a legacy and lead a better life. Everyone wants to live freely as themselves with the opportunity to grow and make a name for themselves. When I help someone in the U.S. gain immigration and/or citizenship status, that person can leave the courthouse knowing that the possibilities are now endless for them. They can now go out and make a difference, and contribute to society in a meaningful way,” she explained.

Onal has helped numerous people of all backgrounds come to America to embrace the freedom of speech, religion, and opportunity. From gay couples who are discriminated against in their countries, to individuals who are from places that will persecute them for their religious practice, Onal has been an integral piece in keeping the American Dream alive.

As a practitioner, Onal sees the issues and struggles that exist within our legal system every day. Specifically, when it comes to immigration, that sector of the law falls under the executive branch, not the judicial branch. According to Onal, this can lead to cases being held in a partial court environment. 

“Sometimes I feel like I’m arguing against everyone when I’m simply trying to make my case for the judge to get the best possible outcome for my client. It’s a major national issue, not having immigration law fall under the judicial branch, even traffic court falls under that branch. The fact that the individuals working in immigration law technically are employees of the U.S. Department of Justice, so when new presidents and administrations are elected, their individual policies can cause major changes to occur within the system, and can prolong certain cases.”

“As a practitioner, it’s one of my dreams to bring immigration law into the judicial branch, to give it a greater foundation for procedure,” she stated.

Immigration has been a major topic of debate within the past decade, and beyond, in this country. Onal explained how even within the past six months, the borders have been more lenient, which leads to immigrants being processed improperly, leading to a slew of issues when it comes to their entry into this country. 

Immigrants are being kept in detention centers for months at a time only to speak to a judge for less than 10 minutes, if they’re lucky. There’s no real balance or equal policy when it comes to immigrants, which creates an unfair environment entering into the lengthy legal process involved in becoming a citizen, seeking asylum, etc. 

“I get very concerned regarding the way our immigration process currently works. There are countless cases of individuals being released from these detention centers with no direction, resources, or ability to even seek asylum. There’s also a lack of education that isn’t made available to people in these situations. They come to the U.S. to work and think that they need to gain asylum, overall, the system needs to be polished.”

Onal described a specific case where she had an individual reach out to her in an attempt to stay in America on asylum to escape a violent domestic environment in her home country. Onal provided police reports, hospital records, official statements, pictures, and more in her argument. She had everything she needed to help give this woman the safety she was looking for in America. 

However, the politicization of immigration law has clouded the ways in which some judges handle cases like this. 

“This was my first time speaking with this particular judge in a legal setting, and I unfortunately went into it expecting a denial, because he had a 95% denial rate when it came to asylum cases. The experience in that courtroom that day was one of the worst of my whole career. The judge had no respect for me, my client, or the severity of the situation I was presenting in front of him. 

My client, like myself, was from Turkey, so we had a Turkish interpreter in the courtroom as well; however, the interpreter kept miscommunicating what was actually being said, and the judge grew more and more frustrated the more I pointed this out. The reality of that situation should have been met with praise over the fact that I was pointing out that these legal proceedings were being misconstrued due to a language barrier, but it was met with anger. 

Especially when it comes to immigration, there are individuals from all over the world trying to come into this country, so the courtrooms should be prepared for that in terms of having interpreters and translators that will paint a fully clear picture of the statements being made in these trials. This is just one of the examples of why the system needs to be better organized and focused on in government,” Onal stated.

“Beyond the denial and prolonging of when some of these individuals can actually get into a courtroom to make their cases for themselves, when an immigrant is denied entry, it can take months for them to even be sent back to their original country, leaving them stuck in detention centers without any clear indication over what will happen to them. There’s so much emotional stress and trauma that they endure in these centers while they await processing or are constantly transferred to new centers every month. 

There’s so much lack of clarity, communication, processing, and assistance for individuals who are simply trying to come to America to live a safe, opportune life. 

I’m very happy with my career and everything I do, but the system makes my job very challenging, as it feels like it’s built for failure, and that’s not what America is truly about at its core,” Onal stated. 

Esma Onal Immigration Attorney

“One thing that I try to do to progress our system is to motivate each of my clients to vote if they’re able to obtain citizenship status. It’s integral that as a democracy we make our voices heard, even in smaller local elections, they all matter and impact other systems up the power ladder in this nation.”

Esma Onal Immigration Attorney

“Vote in every election. One vote may not make a difference, but hundreds and thousands will, and when we collaborate together to fight for the common issue of the American dream and make it available to everyone who wants it, we move towards a more equal world of opportunity. 

I don’t want people to feel hopeless. I have clients whose cases have been pending for 7 years, and when they come to see me to express how discouraged they are, I know I can’t do anything to help speed up the process, but I also know that we need to maintain a certain level of hope for what the system can do for us. It can feel like a useless battle sometimes, but my motivation to help as many people achieve their dreams as possible trumps that. 

My mission is to constantly make a positive impact, no matter how small. Even if I can give one client a little bit of hope for the future, that’s a win for me, and I will continue to work diligently to continue to make that impact,” Onal explained. 

Onal reflected on a case she recently completed with a woman from Egypt. She came to America with her two kids; 12 and 13-years-old. She came from a conservative Muslim family in Egypt, but identified as more liberal personally. Due to her views, she experienced many domestic violence situations by her relatives, leading to her desire to come to the U.S. 

When she came to the U.S., her asylum application took years to process, so she was living here with no clarity regarding what the future would look like. One day, her grandmother in Egypt called her and told her she was dying, and wanted her to come back to see her one last time before she passed on, and also give her some money and valuables that her grandmother knew the rest of the family would never send to the U.S. for her. 

She ended up taking the risk of going back to Egypt while her asylum case was still pending. What she didn’t know, however, was that she was supposed to inform her immigration attorney of her travel plans before leaving, which she didn’t. Because of this, her asylum case was considered to be abandoned, and while she was back in Egypt, she was forced to hide in her aunt’s house. Her uncles unfortunately ended up finding her and robbed her of what her grandmother gave her before assaulting her to the point where she nearly died. 

Her injuries were so severe she was bedridden in Egypt for a month, and wasn’t able to come back to the U.S. to go to trial. However, one year later she managed to find a way back to the U.S., and one of her first stops was Onal’s office. The case itself was reopened due to the extraordinary circumstances of why she was stuck in Egypt for so long, and Onal took full control over it. Onal’s determination, motivation, and passion led to this individual being granted asylum in October of 2022. 

These stories are an integral piece to the success Onal is able to give to her clients. By sharing the good, Onal is keeping the conversation regarding our immigration system going. These discussions are what democracy is all about, analyzing the intricacies of a certain system, and using our voice to put people in power who want the same as us; in this case, a fair opportunity for everyone who wants a piece of the American dream. 

To learn more about the amazing work Esma Onal does everyday, check out her firm’s, Frenkel, Hershkowitz & Shafran LLP, website by clicking here!