When Sharlene Tillett walked into Alla Kazakina’s New York Legal Assistance Group office 10 years ago, she was trying to escape a life of domestic abuse and looking for someone to guide her on the long road to becoming a U.S. citizen. What she found was not just a lawyer, but a confidant, counselor, therapist and friend.
“She’s just there no matter what,” said Tillett, who immigrated from Belize in 1994 and has since received a green card with Kazakina’s help.
Kazakina, 55, is a senior staff attorney in NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit. She also oversees the group’s Immigrant Victims of Domestic Violence Program, which was launched in 2007 after NYLAG saw an influx of clients like Tillett.
Through her work, Kazakina has found that clients who have been abused in the past need not only a lawyer but a psychologist and social worker, and she often finds herself filling all three roles.
“When you see a client for the first time, you understand that this woman needs an order of protection to be safe, needs to stay in a shelter to be safe, needs public benefits to have something to eat, needs to have a custody case resolved to be with her children,” Kazakina said. “A lot of these things are not directly part of the work of an immigration lawyer, but to help this woman survive you need to deal with this.”
Kazakina’s dedication to her clients translates into long hours at the office, said Irina Matiychenko, the director of NYLAG’s Immigration Protection Unit. Kazakina typically puts in 12-hour days, Matiychenko said, and always brings work home with her.
“Alla is always on call,” Matiychenko said, adding that Kazakina has been known to give her home phone number to clients in case of an emergency.
The Immigrant Victims of Domestic Violence Program helps women remain in the U.S. by obtaining Violence Against Women Act self-petitions, U-visas and battered spouse waivers. NYLAG’s lawyers also represent victims at status and naturalization interviews and have handled nearly 500 cases for victims and more than 400 cases for their children since the program was established.
With more than 100 attorneys on staff, NYLAG provides free civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers. In addition to immigration work, the group handles consumer credit, employment, housing, education, LGBT cases and family law. With the help of more than 800 pro bono attorneys and other volunteers, NYLAG served more than 56,000 New Yorkers last year.
Kazakina, originally an attorney in the former Soviet Union, said she understands how difficult it is to start over in a new country because she has done it.
In 1988, Kazakina, who is Jewish, came to the United States with her husband and two young children as refugees fleeing religious persecution.
She worked as a paralegal and Russian legal consultant at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler before graduating from New York University School of Law in 2000. Interested in learning more about immigration law, she started volunteering at NYLAG and was offered a permanent position in 2002.
Tillett was one of Kazakina’s first clients at NYLAG, and as more women in similar situations sought the organization’s help, she became inspired to do more.
“Being an immigrant is extremely difficult based on my own experiences, but if you’re a victim of domestic violence it’s infinitely harder,” Kazakina said.
Immigrant victims, she said, often don’t understand their rights, the U.S. legal system or the services available to them, and may have limited English skills. Many victims who are in the country illegally are also afraid to come forward, Kazakina said, because their abuser has threatened to call immigration authorities if they report the abuse.
When women do come forward they face a rigorous immigration process that can take five to 10 years and requires victims to reveal difficult details of their abuse. Trust, Kazakina says, plays a large role.
“The client has to understand that she can trust you completely and you cannot be judgmental,” Kazakina said, adding that this is the one situation where her Russian accent is helpful because her clients trust that their attorney understands what they are facing. None of the clients Kazakina has personally taken on since the program started have been denied immigration relief, she said.
In addition to her client matters, Kazakina educates the immigrant community about their rights and available resources, writing articles, appearing on Russian-language television and hosting workshop’s with NYLAG’s partner organizations.
Kazakina said her tendency to go above and beyond the call of duty was instilled in her by her father, who told her, “You have to do for your clients not what you have to but a little bit more.”
Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG President and attorney in charge, calls Kazakina an “unsung hero” who “never says no to somebody in need.” He added that she has played a critical role in recruiting pro bono attorneys, in particular lawyers who are immigrants themselves, to work with NYLAG’s clients.
Jin Sun Park, who joined NYLAG as an immigration staff attorney three years ago, said Kazakina is the first person she goes to for guidance. She is not only knowledgable about case law, Park added, but provides helpful advice on how to interact with clients and ask the right questions.
“She’s the kind of lawyer that I aspire to be,” Park said.
Tillett, Kazakina’s client, said that her attorney’s straightforward, honest manner and ability to keep her client positive has made all the difference.
“That was a blessing for me,” Tillett said. “Alla was my outlet, the only one I could go to to let me understand what was going on and what I need to do to help myself.”
Though the work is time consuming and often challenging, Kazakina says the ultimate reward comes when she sees the look on a client’s face after receiving a green card.
“You are saving a person’s life by legalizing their status,” she said. “When you help them, you completely make a huge difference in their life and they make a difference in your life because you understand your work is important and you are happy.”