Burlington immigration attorney Leslie Holman  has practiced law for 27 years, but says she’s never seen two more “incredible and exciting” developments than those of the last few weeks.
She’s talking about the U.S. Senate’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform  on June 24, followed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision the next day that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act . As immigration reform moves to the House, Holman is perfectly positioned to influence the national immigration debate.
Last month, Holman was named president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association , which represents more than 13,000 lawyers and law professors around the country. Over the six years she’s served in AILA leadership posts, Holman has been a liaison to foreign consulates, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Immigration Services, Border Patrol, and other government agencies that enforce U.S. immigration laws. If and when the House calls a witness from the AILA to testify on Capitol Hill, it’ll be Holman in the hot seat.
Holman is the AILA’s first president from Vermont, according to Crystal Williams, AILA’s executive director. She says Holman’s proximity to and experience with immigration officials at the northern border gives her a unique expertise, as well as an early awareness when problems are starting to arise, “like why all the trucks are starting to back up at the border.”
Holman has also earned the respect of Vermont’s congressional delegation. Kelley Goulette, a constituent advocate for Sen. Bernie Sanders who often handles immigration issues, says Holman has been a great resource on the more complicated immigration inquiries that come across her desk.
“Leslie has an unbelievable amount of energy and dedication that she brings to her work,” she says. “We are fortunate to have her enthusiasm and services in our community.”
At first glance, the 51-year-old attorney doesn’t look like a force to be reckoned with. Barely five feet tall and 86 pounds, with wispy blond hair and an easy smile, Holman looks as though she could be knocked off her high heels by a stiff breeze.
“I’m little, as you can see, but I’m a fighter,” she says. “I can be a pit bull. I won’t quit.”
Indeed, Holman’s passion and tenacity are evident from walking around her downtown Burlington office, which is filled with photos and gifts from clients from around the world. Each one, she says, tells a story.
In the reception area hangs a large African tapestry — a thank-you gift, she explains, from a Togo man whose wife Holman helped bring into the U.S. On a shelf in a conference room sits a hollowed-out egg, hand carved in intricate detail, that was a gift from an Armenian craftswoman for whom she could not secure a visa.
“Her work was clearly incredible,” she says, “but I could not show sufficient ‘international acclaim.’”
On another wall hangs a framed concert poster from Senegal’s Baaba Maal , whose March 28, 2010 performance at Burlington’s Flynn Center Holman sponsored. In fact, Holman underwrites an international arts event every year as her way of “giving back” to the arts community. As she puts it, “It was through the arts that I found my calling in immigration.”
That’s not surprising, given her background. Holman grew up in New York City, the daughter of a Polish father from Brooklyn and a Hungarian Jewish mother whose family fled Hungary right before the 1944 Nazi invasion.
Because of her parents’ international roots, Holman was sent to L’Ecole Française, a now-defunct bilingual school in Manhattan, which she attended from kindergarten until age 14. It was there she learned to speak French fluently — a skill she uses daily in her work.
After graduating from Hofstra Law School in 1987, Holman went to work at a large Wall Street law firm but found the work impersonal and unsatisfying. The long hours, combined with the highly litigious nature of cases that often dragged on for years, left her depressed and demoralized.
“It was a great way to pay back my loans, but I’ll tell you, I cried every day on my way to work. It just didn’t appeal to me,” she says. “I was a litigator, so I was fighting every day for a living.”
Holman’s fluency in French introduced her to West African dance, which in turn introduced her to immigration law. Upon learning she was a lawyer, Holman’s teachers and fellow dancers would ask for advice on their immigration cases. Though clueless about that area of law, Holman felt compelled to get involved.
“I couldn’t help it,” she admits. “Most immigration lawyers are just social workers in disguise.”
Holman came to in Vermont in 1995 when her husband, Andrew, landed a job with Nordica skis. When the company relocated to New Jersey six months later, the Holmans decided to stay put.
Since 1999, Holman’s legal practice has focused exclusively on immigration and naturalization matters, with clients from all over the world representing all income levels. Once, a poor client from Latin America tried to pay Holman with a goat. When she graciously declined, the client honored her by naming the goat after her — then sent Holman a photo of the animal with “Leslie” painted above its stall.
Today, about half of Holman’s clients are individuals trying to reunite with loved ones overseas. That area of immigration law has exploded in recent years, she explains, now that so many people meet each other over the internet.
The death of DOMA, Holman says, is a game changer. Some clients have waited more than a decade to bring same-sex partners into the United States. For years, Holman had to arrange “creative solutions” for binational gay couples, such as one partner living in Montréal and the other living in Burlington, with a house in St. Albans where they could meet on weekends.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I’m still ecstatic about this,” she says of the DOMA decision. “I can’t tell you how long we’ve fought and hoped for this.”
The other half of Holman’s clients are businesses, such as Vermont hospitals and health care clinics — she’s not at liberty to disclose which ones — that have found it impossible to find skilled employees within the U.S. But since 9/11, and especially since the Great Recession, those work-visa applications have become much more difficult to get approved.
“We’ve got good, clean industries here in Vermont that need workers, and they can’t get them,” she says. “My business clients will tell you that people do not petition for visas they don’t need. No one would go through this process unless they had to.”
One of Holman’s recent success stories is that of Stephen and Edna Sutton, a couple from Newcastle, England. Several years ago, the Suttons, who ran a classical music recording company in the U.K., decided they wanted to relocate to Vermont and start a record label here.
With Holman’s help, the Suttons bought an old workshop and gallery, where, in 2009, they opened Brandon Music , a small gift shop and English tea room that serves up food and live music. In 2011, the Suttons bought the defunct Brandon Training School building, into which they’re investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to create the Compass Music and Arts Center .
Stephen Sutton says the immigration paperwork for non-citizen investors such as he and his wife were “hideously complex,” but he credits Holman with shepherding them through the system.
“Leslie has been working very hard,” he says, “so that entrepreneurs such as ourselves can get in and take their own risks.”
Foreigners such as the Suttons may have an easier time securing visas under the Senate bill passed last month, which Holman describes as a seismic shift in policy. But Holman says she’s troubled by some aspects of the legislation, including its increased border security provisions and how they’ll affect Vermonters.
“The bill is not perfect. There are provisions I hate,” she says, adding that some of the measures are “militaristic” and won’t accomplish what they’re meant to. “There is no question it will affect us as a border state. How? We don’t know.”
But Holman is confident when she predicts the climate for her business clients will improve if Congress adopts immigration reform. She says the bill that passed the Senate includes provisions to allow more H-1B visas for foreign workers with specialized skills. But that could mean more limitations on family-based visas.
Despite those concerns, however, Holman remains optimistic that both Vermont businesses and families will be in a better place if and when immigration reform is passed and DOMA fades to a distant memory. In particular, she holds up Vermont-based immigration officials as an “exemplar” of what the entire system should look like.
“I think in Vermont we are fair, and our immigration service and the people in the government are unique,” she says. “They do their jobs, but they do them in a way that I find is unusual around the country ... They take the time to look at the lives whose futures they’re deciding.”