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Margaret W. Wong: The Immigration Empire

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Margaret Wong

Margaret W. Wong is a nationally renowned and award-winning immigration attorney. She is the owner and managing partner of a leading immigration law firm with nine locations across the USA, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. She is listed in Top Lawyers and Super Lawyers and is rated AV Preeminent. Her law firm has represented clients before all 10 U.S. Circuit Courts and has been involved in more than 30 precedent-setting decisions. She is an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, serves as a foundation board member of State University of New York at Buffalo, her alma mater, and was co-chair of the Immigration Law Committee of NAPAPA Bar Association. Margaret Wong is the author of “The Immigrant’s Way,” published in four languages, and has written numerous articles on immigration law.

Regarding her early life, Wong was born in Hong Kong as the eldest of four children. Two generations of her family were trailblazers in the Chinese newspaper industry: her grandfather started one of the first Chinese newspapers designed to be consumed by all the people, not just those in the Beijing palace, and her mother was one of the first Chinese female reporters in Shanghai, covering the Chinese Civil War and China’s war with Japan. Her parents’ gift to their children was a love of reading, a compellingly vibrant work ethic, and an unrelenting drive to succeed.

“We had a good childhood and my father always encouraged all of us to work very hard and always be learning,” she says. “As I grew up, I realized that there were better opportunities for me outside of Hong Kong. The nuns in my French Catholic school intentionally did not teach us home economics or typing skills. They didn’t want us to just become wives, mothers, or secretaries. I knew that in the United States, I could achieve my potential to the fullest; we had always heard of the United States as a place where anyone could come and make a life for themselves – the American Dream. I wanted to come and pursue it for myself. I also knew, from the very beginning, that I wanted to help people.”

Wong realized her dream of immigrating to the U.S. in 1969. Aside from the companionship of her younger sister, Cecilia Wong, she came with next to nothing. “I had very little money in my pocket and only my dreams, determination, and my sister. To fulfill my desire to help others, I originally wanted to become a doctor. I still did not have a lot of money, but I got full scholarships at Ottumwa Heights College and Western Illinois University. I studied hard and got my degree in biology and chemistry in 1973.”

Wong seemed to adapt to her adopted home rather easily, taking advantage of every opportunity to expand her knowledge and working hard to earn enough money to support both herself and her sister. By the time she received her bachelor’s degree, Wong’s interest in medicine had gradually declined. A prefect from her high school had always been something of a role model. As Wong watched her move to Britain to attend law school and eventually build a thriving practice, she realized that law was a career where she could achieve both her dream of serving others while exercising her agile mind. “I watched her and admired her so much,” says Wong. “I thought that I could do the same. I still wanted to help people and working as a lawyer seemed like the perfect fit.”

Now determined to become a lawyer, Wong attended the SUNY Buffalo Law School on a full scholarship, only one of four women in her class. “It was a different time back then,” she says. “It was not that common for women to attend law school, let alone women of color. I believe I was one of the first foreign women be admitted to the New York Bar or Ohio Bar, in 1976. Even so, jobs were nearly non-existent. In those days, ideas of sexism and racism were common, but I wasn’t about to give up.”

CONNECTING IN CLEVELAND

After graduating and passing the bar, Wong first worked as the chief legal officer for HUDfunded projects for the mayor of Buffalo. She moved to Cleveland in 1977 after Central National Bank offered her a position in their management trainee program. This experience augmented her already extensive knowledge by offering her training in management and reading numbers that would prove helpful throughout her career.

“I was recruited by the Central National Bank of Cleveland,” says Wong, “I was a credit analysist, and took three classes at John Carrol University to improve my accounting skills. By the time I had completed those, I could read numbers like nobody’s business. In fact, I found it fascinating how numbers can actually tell a story-a complete narrative. Most importantly, I learned that numbers don’t lie.”

Bolstered by this additional experience, Wong began working at the law firm of Berger & Kirchenbaum. While there, she once again encountered sexism and racism. She boldly decided to take matters into her own hands. A year after arriving in Cleveland, she opened her own law office.

I fell in love with this part of the law after working on my own visas and those of a few family and friends.”

“When I started, the firm consisted of only me alone,” she says. “I thought it might only be temporary until I found another position. At first, it was not even specifically an immigration law firm; I fell in love with this part of the law after working on my own visas and those of a few family and friends. It is a complicated process, but I enjoyed the challenge and I realized that I had the attention to detail to do it well.”

Wong’s courage has not gone unrewarded. Steadily, she has built her small, one-person firm into one of the most prestigious and highly respected in Ohio, if not the country. Her law firm now includes herself, three partners, Scott Bratton, Fabiola Cini, and Francis Fungsang, and nine other associates for a total of thirteen lawyers. She also employs dozens of paralegals and support staff. Along the way, she has shared her success with other women who, like her, needed a foothold in the working world. Most importantly, she has helped thousands of people realize the joys of citizenship and building a life in the U.S., just as she did so many years ago.

Now in their 42nd year, Margaret W. Wong Associates, LLC, continues to stand out within the legal community with offices in nine cities throughout the country.

Her inexhaustible energy meant that Wong also diversified. While maintaining and building her growing practice, she partnered with various family members to open other enterprises. “I also opened a restaurant, Pearl of the Orient, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, that my sister, Rose, now owns,” she says. “My brother, George, owns a second restaurant, Pearl West, in Rocky River, Ohio.”

IMMIGRATION LAW TODAY

Inspired by her strong family ties and the fact that she herself was once a newcomer to our shores, Wong has dedicated her career to helping others find the happiness she’s found in our country. As a naturalized citizen, Wong takes great pride in her work.

Of course, it’s not all roses. Now more than perhaps at any other time in our country’s history, immigration has become a tangled and challenging arena. Politics and economics have forced previously buried issues to come into a glaring spotlight. Negativity and, unfortunately, prejudice, have made Wong’s work particularly difficult.

“Right now, immigration is a very important and visible issue,” Wong says. “It is an exciting time to be an immigration lawyer, but also quite challenging. The law has changed a great deal in the past 40 years and now we have to work even harder. The system has many problems and I think it can be oppressive to immigrants and their families as well as hurting the United States in the long term. In this country, we give the oppressed a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The best and brightest in the world want to come here to work. I came to this country because of the values and ideals here that the whole world looks to. Many immigrants have come before and since for the same reasons. Sometimes, it seems that we have forgotten this. The situation and tone around immigration today makes me sad.”

It’s a very difficult time to be an immigration lawyer.”

“It’s a very difficult time to be an immigration lawyer,” continues Wong. “Timing is everything and we have to remember why we went to law school. Actually, it’s a challenging time for all lawyers because in-house counsel has become so prevalent. It’s important that we remember that the practice of law is a service. Our job is to get it done, whatever that might mean. Whether handling malpractice, criminal or, as in my case, immigration, we are the servants of our clients.

“For me, immigration law is very personal, and I’m particularly affected by how all the red tape and complications touch every member of the family,” she adds. “The most important thing is to really understand what the clients want and then to bring all my education, training and experience forward to help make that happen for them.

THE OLD WORK ETHIC

With so much on her plate, it’s not surprising that Wong starts her day quite early. She seems to have boundless energy, stamina, and determination to keep fighting the good fight.

“I have a very busy schedule and my routine keeps me going,” she says. “I get up at 4:30 every morning to start working or to go to the airport. I like to visit our offices all over the country so I can always know what is going on. I work in Cleveland on Sundays; on Mondays, I go to our office in Nashville; Tuesdays in NYC; Wednesdays are back in Cleveland; I spend every other Thursday in Atlanta; and Fridays are in Columbus. Each office has a different character and different types of clients. The only downside to this busy life is that I do not have as much time as I might like to read and write. Even so, this year, I am hoping to finish my second book.”

With what little free time she has, Wong enjoys swimming, reading, and writing. “I think this love of reading started at a very early age, encouraged by my family,” she says. “I support the local libraries in Cleveland, and I am a huge fan of many authors. I often get to host luncheons for them when they visit the city. John Grisham and Scott Turow’s early works, Pat Conroy, Malcolm Gladwell, Atu Gawadi, and Amy Tan are some of my favorites. I am always in awe of their discipline and hustle to get themselves published.”

Looking back on her life and numerous achievements, Wong says that she is most proud of how far she’s come. “I came from being just a poor student in Hong Kong to leading a large law firm and several businesses with my big, happy family at home and at work,” she says. “We have created jobs and helped tens of thousands of clients achieve their American dreams. Our firm has also been at the cutting edge of immigration law for decades: for example, we were one of the first to start the conversation about child protection in “Matter of Wang.” that eventually led to the Child Status Protection Act in 2002. We also started a trend about intelligent advisement for immigrants in criminal cases. Additionally, it is such a pleasure to be a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and help teach the next generation of young lawyers.”

Overall, I really feel like I have become the person I always wanted to be here in the USA.”

Wong has won virtually every award possible and yet remains humble and continues to strive for greater things. “Overall, I really feel like I have become the person I always wanted to be here in the USA,” she says with a slow smile. “I was also able to bring my family here as well; my parents and husband are buried on American soil. When the time comes, I will be proud to be buried here also.”

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