News and Events
Freedom Fighter: Alumna Jessica Dominguez
By Jovie Baclayon
“I like to get involved with cases that present an unusual challenge,” says Pepperdine alumna and immigration lawyer Jessica Dominguez “I’m not saying that I can get a victory for everyone but I always think it’s worth a try.” With a passion for fighting injustice and constant support from her family, last year Dominguez took on a case that other attorneys had deemed hopeless, and freed a client who had spent more than 22 years behind bars.
In November 2003, just two years after becoming a lawyer and opening her own firm, Dominguez received a phone call from the niece of a woman who was a former inmate at a California prison after being convicted for conspiracy to murder. Maria Suarez came to the United States when she was 16 and was sold as a slave for $200 to Anselmo Covarrubias, who raped and tortured her for five years. In 1981, a neighbor murdered Covarrubias and Suarez hid the weapon. Her story of abuse and torture went unheard, and she was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. Suarez was paroled in 2003 but learned that, under federal immigration law, since she immigrated to the United States, she would be deported to Mexico despite the fact that she became a permanent legal resident when she turned 18.
Dominguez identified closely with Suarez’s story because Dominguez herself emigrated from Peru when she was 14-years-old and did not speak a word of English. She understood Maria’s desire to build a better life and find work, and was compassionate about Suarez’s years of torment and abuse. However, Dominguez had a big decision to make. “I couldn’t tell Maria right away that I could take her case because I had to talk with my family first. I knew my services would be pro bono and being in practice for such a little time, I had to be realistic about giving my time freely,” says Dominguez who has been married to her husband, Javier, for nineteen years. They have two sons, J.P., 18, and Joshua, 14. “My eldest’s exact words were, ‘This is definitely a case you must take on, mom.’ My entire family agreed that Maria was someone we needed to fight for,” she says.
Family plays the biggest role in every aspect of Dominguez’s life. Already a mother of two when she enrolled in a two-year program at Pierce College, Dominguez knew she wanted to continue her education at a four-year university near her family in West Hills, California. One of the foundations of the Dominguez family is helping others, which is what drew her to Pepperdine’s Seaver College. “That’s really what Pepperdine is about ‘Freely ye receive, freely give’ which reinforced the values that I already had and that I instilled in my children,” she says. She graduated from Pepperdine in 1996.
As an undergrad majoring in social studies, she participated in an internship program organized by Dr. Tomas Martinez, professor of social sciences, in which students volunteered at different organizations. If her children weren’t in school, they would accompany their mother to help. “Pepperdine had many opportunities so there was no excuse for not being able to find a volunteer program to fit my needs,” says Dominguez who went on to obtain her law degree from the University of La Verne at their campus in Woodland Hills. “In the summer my family would help ESL (English as a Second Language) students and after school programs. Since then we’ve been involved with anything and everything we can in order to give back to the community.” The Pepperdine spirit continues in the Dominguez family, who helps organize an annual citizenship fair where attorneys in California give free consultations to immigrants. Her eldest son, J.P., who will enroll as a freshman in Seaver College this Fall, also translates for attorneys who do not speak Spanish.
In the months before Maria Suarez’s deportation hearing, the Dominguez family attended rallies and parades and collected signatures. Her goal was to try everything and anything to help Suarez, a woman who radiates forgiveness, love and peace, she says. Dominguez enlisted the services of the Coalition Against Labor and Trafficking, and spent countless hours rallying support, researching the case and speaking with colleagues. “I prayed and said, ‘God, if this is a case you think I can make a difference with, I know I have the energy,’” says Dominguez. Her six months of dedication and hard work paid off. On May 25, 2004, Maria Suarez walked out of a detention center and now lives in Southern California with her family.
Dominguez’s victory landed Maria Suarez on the cover of California Lawyer magazine in December 2004. “They wanted to use my photo but I told them all of the credit goes to Maria because she is the one who put up with this for almost 25 years,” says Dominguez humbly. “My grandma raised us to believe that we’re all equals and no one is better than anyone else. I’m just grateful for being part of God’s plan with this case, because it’s all His miracle not mine.”