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Graham Ojala-Barbour’s interest in immigration stems from meeting undocumented immigrants while he was in high school. (Photo: Kenzie Bruce)
Graham Ojala-Barbour’s interest in immigration stems from meeting undocumented immigrants while he was in high school. (Photo: Kenzie Bruce)

Breaking the Ice: Immigration practice helps ‘one person at a time’

Name: Graham Ojala-Barbour

Title: Principal attorney, Ojala-Barbour Law firm

Education: B.A., religion, Spanish, Pacific Lutheran University; J.D., University of Minnesota Law School

Graham Ojala-Barbour, who focuses on immigration law at his eponymous St. Paul firm, said his caseload is expanding as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests rise.

Ojala-Barbour’s interest in immigration stems from meeting undocumented immigrants while he was in high school.

“Going to law school at least partly was inspired by my desire to help people who haven’t had immigration status here but who have lived here and done good work and good things,” Ojala-Barbour said.

Ojala-Barbour also is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic. In this role, he’s argued relatively early in his career in U.S. District Court and before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ojala-Barbour said he was proud of the 8th Circuit’s stay of removal for a client whose arrest by plainclothes ICE officers at the Ramsey County Courthouse was the subject of a viral video.

Away from court, Ojala-Barbour adheres to a popular practice of his Finnish heritage.

“For a truly excellent life a daily sauna is preferred,” he said.

Q. What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A. Talk to me about something that’s happening right in front of us.

Q. What prompted you to study law and pursue it professionally?

A. I always thought that I would like to be a writer. There was a time when I thought that I would like to try to work to change immigration policy. But as a young person I figured out that it was rewarding to help one person at a time. What I thought the policy should be, I didn’t have the power to make that change. But I do have the power to help one person at a time in a way that I found is actually quite satisfying.

Q. What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A. I just finished “The Glass Castle,” by Jeannette Walls, which I loved. I’ve been reading a book of poems by Ada Limon.

Q. What is a pet peeve of yours?

A. Waiting, which is kind of ironic because immigration cases tend to take years and years.

Q. What are your favorite aspects of being an attorney?

A. My favorite thing is feeling the appreciation and gratitude that my clients have to stay in this country and be with their families.

Q. Least favorite?

A. In my area the law is quite restrictive, so there are a lot of people who I’m not able to help, which I don’t like.

Q. What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A. Painting watercolors with my son.

Q. If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A. There’s a beautiful park called Crosby Farm Park down by the river [in St. Paul].

Q. Is there an attorney or judge, past or present, whom you admire most?

A. Professor David Weissbrodt [University of Minnesota Law School] was a huge influence and inspiration. He reaffirmed for me that I want to be a lawyer. He’s helped so many people advance their careers and work for human rights.

Q. What’s a misconception people have about working as an attorney?

A. You can’t just show up in immigration court and show that you’re a good guy and get to stay here. There are very narrow pathways for people to be able to stay and fight deportation. The paths are quite narrow and restrictive for people who don’t have status and it’s not at all easy.

Q. What if any is your favorite depiction of the law, the legal professional in popular culture?

A. I don’t feel like I’ve seen a movie or a show or read a book that connects with my experience as a lawyer. So maybe I need to write that book. What it means for me to practice law doesn’t have anything to do with anything that I’ve seen in pop culture. So maybe there’s a place for me to add something.

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