Angibel Tome-Martinez

Working within the legal system has been a lifelong goal for Angibel Tome-Martinez. A great student, she was about to start college at age 17 with a full scholarship. “I just had to provide proof of residency,” she says. “That license-sized card was the only thing keeping me from being able to go to college right out of high school, and because I didn’t have that, a lot of my dreams and aspirations took a major halt.”

Or to put it bluntly, “when I graduated high school, I found out the hard way that I was an illegal immigrant,” she explains.

Born in Venezuela, Tome-Martinez was only 9 when her mother came to the United States with two children in tow. The family embraced everything American. Her older brother is a now a successful businessman. Two siblings were born here: a brother who excels at playing baseball and a sister, a Navy Junior ROTC student, who plans to serve in the military.

While “Angie” was bright enough to skip second grade in her native country, she says “learning was a struggle” in her new home near Atlanta. There were cultural differences, too. Girls were expected to grow up faster here, but she kept her Barbie dolls in her school locker until she was 14. “I was called a baby a lot,” she adds with a wistful smile.

Tome-Martinez remembers her mother buying a home, paying taxes and raising the children to be contributing members of society. “I had no idea that I was an illegal immigrant,” she says. “At 16, I was just excited to be close to graduating.”

The shocking discovery set off a decade-long journey for the aspiring attorney to get her career back on track. “I went 10 years battling through the immigration system so I could adjust my status here,” she explains.

A champion for others

Now 28 and a criminal justice student at Chattahoochee Technical College in Acworth, Ga., Tome-Martinez uses her experience to help others. She recently opened her own business to help families navigate the legal immigration process.

“It’s not as easy as people think,” she says. “You hear a lot of, ‘Just do it the right way.’ Well, there are only a few right ways to do it, and the ways that there are, they are lengthy processes. It’s a lot. Like if you have a sister that wants to petition for her brother, he’s going to be put in a visa waiting process that takes about 15 to 16 years if they’re from Central or South America, and he has to stay unmarried. Really? He’s 20 years old now; in 13 years, I hope he’s married and has children.”

Again, she speaks from experience. Married at 19 but left as a single mom with two children, to pay the bills Tome-Martinez took jobs as a paralegal and as a hotel banquet captain.

She joined SkillsUSA while working on her associate’s degree, recently earning a national gold medal in its Criminal Justice contest. “During my mock interview for the competition, they asked me why I wanted to do law enforcement and go to law school,” she notes. “And I said, ‘With my major, my main goal is to give back to my community. As a law enforcement officer, I can give back to my community in one way, and as an attorney I can give back to my community in another way.’ ”

Helping more people contribute

Tome-Martinez started IFLA–Immigration and Family Legal Assistance to help people like her mother, who is still navigating the system. “Getting a visa to come to the United States is a lengthy process,” she says, “and they scrutinize everything. Everything. Your financial circumstances in your home country. They want to make sure you have ties in every way to your country so that you won’t stay here. But the people that have those means don’t need to come here. The ones who come here are people who are running away from violence, who are running away from persecution, and they just want to be able to work and provide for their families.”

Her website, GetIFLA.com, states that even one mistake on the immigration paperwork can result in the denial of an application or even deportation. But except where a criminal record is involved, an experienced paralegal can usually help people work through the process, she says.

“Yes, there are illegal immigrants that are criminals, but certainly there’s plenty of us that would willingly and lovingly provide and give back to the community.

“And I feel like if we gave an opportunity to the people that want to contribute to our country — and I said ‘our,’ because to me, I’ve been here since I was 9 years old, this is home,” she adds. If we gave those people the opportunity, you know, the hard-working single mother, the father who just wants to truly provide for his family, if we gave them an opportunity to integrate themselves into our society legally, there is no telling how many wonderful things that would open the door to.”