For Ricardo Jimenez Solis ’23, the Custom House in downtown Boston has a special meaning. At age 16, with only the slightest skill in speaking English, he left El Salvador with his family and settled in East Boston. The first time he went into the city by himself, he got lost and wandered around not knowing where to go — until he looked up and saw the Custom House Tower, a Boston landmark. “I had seen it before and knew it was close to the Blue Line, so I used it as a landmark to get back to the [MBTA] station,” he recalls. “To this day, I still think of that tower as my North Star in some ways.”

Navigating a new life in the U.S. was challenging in myriad ways. But with the support of other immigrants and compassionate immigration lawyers, Jimenez Solis — who in September will begin practicing at an immigration legal aid program in Massachusetts — is now achieving what his family hoped for when they left their home. “I know it sounds corny, but the American dream was still alive and well in El Salvador, so that’s what my parents came for,” says Jimenez Solis, who still lives in East Boston, now with his wife. 

Today he is not only an American citizen but a graduate of Harvard Law School, where he focused his studies on immigration law. It is surreal, beyond my wildest dreams,” says Jimenez Solis, who, as the recipient of a Skadden Fellowship, will work for the next two years at Northeast Legal Aid and its affiliate, the Northeast Justice Center, assisting refugees and other immigrants from around the world. “I could not speak English when I first came to the U.S., yet I have been able to learn the law, which is a language on its own.”

The organizations where he will practice both serve clients in and around Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn — Massachusetts cities with significant immigrant populations. His work will include representing clients seeking asylum under a new Biden administration program for expedited hearings, as well as those inside immigrant detention centers hoping to win their release.

“For families that just came through the border, a lot of time it’s a struggle to find attorneys or legal aid organizations,” Jimenez Solis says, “so this is a place to provide services to families that are placed in that program.” 

“I think of [becoming a lawyer] as an opportunity for me to pay forward all the support my family and I have received. We have worked really hard to get to this point, but at the same time, none of it would be possible without people in our corner that were willing to go above and beyond to help us when we needed them.”

While he feels a sense of accomplishment in becoming a lawyer, he says, “I also think of it as an opportunity for me to pay forward all the support my family and I have received. We have worked really hard to get to this point, but at the same time, none of it would be possible without people in our corner that were willing to go above and beyond to help us when we needed them,” including lawyers. “I like to think that as an immigration attorney, I will be able to be that kind of support for someone in the future, regardless of where they come from.” 

To help provide for his family, Jimenez Solis worked throughout high school and college as a legal assistant at an insurance company. After attending community college, which he describes as one of the best things he did for himself, as it enabled him to master English, he graduated with honors from Emmanuel College in Boston. 

Following his first year studying law at Boston College, he spent the summer working at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the public defenders’ office in Massachusetts. There, he learned about the Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Clinic at Harvard Law School, known as HIRC, which has partnered with Greater Boston Legal Services to advance immigrants’ rights for more than 30 years.

Since transferring to Harvard and joining the clinic two years ago, Jimenez Solis has spent more hours than he can count working on cases, including those involving teens from Central America whose stories were similar to his own. “I had clients that came from towns that were a bus ride away from where I grew up, and clients who were in the same position I was in when I first arrived in the U.S.,” he says. “I understand and have learned how to separate myself from the work because of my own emotional health, but also out of respect for my clients’ own experiences and circumstances. That being said, I often rely on my past experiences and cultural knowledge, where appropriate, to understand my clients and their needs.”

In the Crimmigration Clinic, which operates in the space between immigration and criminal law, he was supervised by its director, Phil Torrey, and by Sameer Ahmed, a clinical instructor there. His other clinical instructors included Sabi Ardalan ’02, the immigration program’s director, and assistant directors Nancy Kelly and John Willshire Carrera. “I felt I was learning from some of the very best” in the field, says Jimenez Solis. While emphasizing that he couldn’t possibly capture in a few words all that the clinicians taught him, he notes, “In one sentence: They taught me how to be a client-centered immigration attorney. If there is one value that all of my clinical instructors share, it is that clients and their needs come first in any kind of litigation you are doing. Their needs and goals should always drive the work you are doing for them.”

While he is set on becoming an immigration lawyer after his fellowship, he may try for a judicial clerkship first. In any event, he says, “I feel like I’m in the process of realizing what my parents brought me to this country for.”

Jimenez Solis adds: “Meeting with clients still brings memories of the kind of meetings I had with my own immigration attorneys. I try to keep this in mind at all times because I know how confusing navigating through our immigration system can be, even with an attorney helping you. And I know having someone that understands that, and is willing to answer questions and explain things to you, can be very empowering.

“I’m still learning every single day,” he says. “I’ve gotten to work with a lot of wonderful clients. Each one has been different but each one is a person who wants to live in this country, wants to work, wants to be safe, and who in a lot of ways reminds me of who I was when I first came to this country, wanting to make a life here.”

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