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“My job is saving lives. People are fleeing being jailed, attacked, killed, beaten, tortured and raped. They usually flee without their families. After they’re granted asylum, they can petition to bring their families and be reunited with their spouse and children. They can work and go to school legally in the United States and restart their lives.”
That’s the profound impact Lisa Laurel Weinberg ’92 is having as an attorney at the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSACC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she represents political asylum seekers from all corners of the globe before the Department of Justice-Department of Homeland Security United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, the Executive Office of Immigration Review and the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Starting as a volunteer asylum attorney in 2001 and becoming a staff member of CLSACC in 2008, she specializes in representing political activists, women with gender based asylum claims, disabled individuals, unaccompanied minors, torture and trauma survivors, people with PTSD and members of the LGBT community.
“I truly believe in and love what I do. My clients are all heroes. I learn so much from them about resilience, their cultures, and the political, current affairs and human rights situations in their countries,” she says.
“Professor Gottlieb sponsored me to do independent study in political asylum law, which eventually became my profession.”
Weinberg began representing asylum seekers at Ascentria Care Center, formerly Lutheran Social Services of New England, in Worcester in 2001. Seven years later she founded the LGBT Human Rights Protection Project, now an established program of Ascentria’s legal department, and continues to carry a small caseload for the project.
Prior to CLSACC, she was a political asylum and human trafficking attorney at the International Institute of Boston, an immigration attorney with the Law Offices of Randy Feldman in Worcester, and an adjunct professor with Worcester State College and the University of Massachusetts College of Public and Community Service.
Weinberg was a civil legal aid lawyer for several years before she began practicing political asylum law, and before becoming an attorney worked at a group home for mentally disabled adults and as a resident counselor in a domestic violence shelter.
In 2005 she was a pro bono legal advisor representing asylum seekers at the African and Middle East Legal Assistance Project in Cairo, Egypt, where she worked on refugee status determination appeals to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Later Weinberg volunteered for Asylum Access working at WARIPNET in Senegal to draft a written country assessment of the situation of asylum seekers in the country and to create a training program in asylum and refugee law.
In September 2014, sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Weinberg went to Artesia, New Mexico pro bono and secured the release of five Central American women, children, and babies detained at the Artesia, New Mexico Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
“They were fleeing from domestic violence, gang violence, abuse of their children and forcible recruitment of their children into gangs. The detention of children and their mothers is not only inhumane, but incompatible with a fair legal process. These people should be released if they aren’t determined a flight risk, rather than locked up where they’re denied free movement and have difficulty accessing legal counsel,” Weinberg says.
She recently signed up to be a volunteer mentor attorney for a new ABA/American Immigration Lawyers Association project representing unaccompanied minors.
“I truly believe in and love what I do. My clients are all heroes.”
Weinberg has received numerous honors and awards including “Top Women of Law” from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the “People of Courage Award” from Safe Homes/The Bridge, and the “Be the Change You Want to See in the World Award” from the Massachusetts State Women’s Commission. For her work on the Artesia project, the American Immigration Lawyers Association named Weinberg a Michael Maggio Pro Bono Honoree in 2015.
She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a bachelor’s in sociology, spending her junior year abroad in Sweden studying the nation’s social welfare system. Originally she was planning to become a social worker. “Then in my senior year at Marymount, an attorney spoke who had just helped win voting rights for homeless people in New York. I decided right there that I wanted to be a lawyer and effect change in people's lives through the law.”
At Albany Law School, Weinberg was co-chair of the student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a student lawyer in the Disabilities Law Clinic and an AYUDA Legal Aid Clinic National Lawyers Guild Summer Fellow. She was awarded Albany Law School’s public interest graduation award.
“I liked the small friendly environment of Albany Law,” she says. “Professor Gottlieb sponsored me to do independent study in political asylum law, which eventually became my profession. He was also my professor for a class on the Supreme Court. Every student had to make an argument before a fictitious Supreme Court. I am strongly pro-choice and Professor Gottlieb required me to represent a pro-life group. It was really hard but it was a great exercise in the practice of law.”
Weinberg is a member of the Boston Bar Association, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, The American Bar Association Refugee Law Committee and a board member of WEEMA International, a non-governmental organization working to improve the quality of life in southwestern Ethiopia.
She lives in Worcester, Massachusetts with her husband, Joseph O’Brien, and 11-year-old twins Wotatwa and Wondimu, whom the couple adopted from Ethiopia in 2010. An avid reader of fiction and the news, she loves international travel and her pets, and is active in local politics and helping to improve her inner city community.
About why she likes living in Massachusetts: “Everyone around here has an opinion about something and they’re happy to discuss it with you,” she says.