Glenn Formica’s 11th floor law firm on New Haven’s Church Street was full. He had clients in the lobby and a conference room crowded with volunteers working on research and documents to help his pro bono clients obtain legal status as immigrants.
Down the hall, in his office – where a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall along with his Boston University and Catholic University diplomas and a picture of his own immigrant relatives – he had gathered a group of advocates willing to discuss what’s it’s been like to be undocumented in Connecticut. The stories they told were full of pain. Carmen, a Norwalk resident, described how her husband, a construction worker who came to America from Mexico and never had any problems with the law, was randomly swept up in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid and taken to a detainment center in Massachusetts three hours away. He was injured at the facility and fell ill. With the loss of her husband’s income, Carmen, a home health aide, and her children were evicted from their apartment and forced to live in a shelter.
At first, Formica was hesitant to take Carmen’s case – his pro bono load was full – but you realize pretty quickly that this man wouldn’t sleep if he turned her family away. So he jumped in to help, driving the six hours round trip to Massachusetts several times to appear before a court judge to help Carmen’s husband.
Formica, 50, has taken several high-profile cases in recent years as ICE has stepped up its efforts under the directive by the federal government to deport immigrants, end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and bar asylum seekers from entry.
“It’s hard. I’m sort of cursed with the fact that there is a great need and I know how to help,’’ Formica says. “If you know how to help, it’s really hard to say you won’t.”
Formica didn’t start his law career wanting to be an immigration attorney. He was in real estate, actually.
“I thought I was going to be preppy, wear L.L. Bean boots and work on zoning [issues],’’ he says.
A strange set of circumstances led him to this line of legal work. And it’s also worth mentioning – and he does – that his family has its own immigration story to tell.
Formica’s grandfather was a merchant marine from Sicily in the 1920s who jumped ship at a U.S. dock. His grandmother came to the United States on a visa and never went back. His roots also include ancestors from the Mayflower and founders of the New Haven Town Green, which his office overlooks. His wife of 20 years is an immigrant from Australia and became a naturalized citizen in 2016.
“I’m three-fourths Italian and one-quarter Swamp Yankee,” Formica says.
Most citizens in the U.S., he points out, have relatives who came as immigrants, often as refugees and often without proper papers.
“Most people say their parents and grandparents came legally, [but] I would challenge that. There were very limited visas, and most were undocumented and ‘illegal’,” he says. Attorney Formica’s blood boils at defining any human being as “illegal.”
After four years and with no trouble with the law, his grandfather was able to become a U.S. citizen.
Until 1996, he says, immigrants were able to become U.S. permanent residents and eventually citizens, but a change in federal philosophy and policy, and Congressional unwillingness to pass comprehensive reform, set up difficult barriers for this generation of immigrants seeking a pathway to legal status and citizenship. Carmen’s husband, who he was able to get freed from detainment, is a good example of the rigid policy shift and barriers attorneys face in helping them.
“It took 120 hours of work to get somebody out who should have been out with a phone call,” he says, about Carmen’s husband’s incarceration. “What these stories emphasize is that these policies aren’t abstractions. They really hurt people. The cruelty hurts.’’
Formica’s first foray into immigration law came 20 years ago when he was working as an attorney for a real estate law firm in Cheshire. He was approached by a Franciscan priest, John LoSasso, pastor of Immaculate Conception parish on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, New York. LoSasso, a friar, asked Formica to take a difficult immigration case of a 15-year-old Eritrean boy who was the nephew of a Franciscan brother.
Though he knew very little about immigration law, Formica couldn’t say no to helping the brothers and won the case after filing an immigrant juvenile petition. Over the years, LoSasso sent him more cases.
“People would just show up and say, ‘Brother John said you could help,’” he says.
Formica found himself pivoting from his original career goals. In 2001, he launched his own practice in New Haven, focusing on immigration law.
Formica says he never learned how the priest got his name and never met LoSasso in person until last year. LoSasso was frail and in a wheelchair but came to help support a parishioner who was detained in New Jersey, and who was being represented by Formica in lower Manhattan’s immigration court.
“What I found odd was that he seemed to know everything about my career,’’ Formica recalls. “When I asked him how he found me 20 years ago, he would tell me, with a smile, that it was ‘a secret of the Franciscan Order.’ That last case turned into a drama as the immigration judge had first refused the parishioner bond, which we all thought meant he would be deported. Brother John was in and out of the hospital while the case was pending but would always manage to make it to the different Immigration Court hearings that were scheduled on his parishioner’s case.”
LoSasso died a week before the judge made a surprising decision in the case and released his client. At LoSasso’s memorial service, Formica was given LoSasso’s prayer beads.
“What I also learned at his memorial service was that his whole monastic career was dedicated to working with immigrants in the Bronx,’’ says Formica.
There are times, he says, he has “questioned whether I am worthy of his gift.’’
To keep helping immigrants seeking legal status, his law firm, Formica P.C., also takes injury cases. The revenue helps him fund his pro bono and low bono cases. He has also stepped up efforts to help organize and train teams of volunteers around the state to help clients, including a group in Hartford and in the the Guilford shoreline area. His clients also get help from a variety of immigrant advocacy groups like Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), based in New Haven.
“I would like Americans to become aware of the importance of immigrants to our lives. Countries that don’t accept diversity are countries that fade,’’ he says. “People have to understand what it takes to be an immigrant is a very special human being. They are going to come into an unwelcome society, be treated like criminals, chased, and dehumanized – and despite all that, they will fight to raise their family here and our country will always benefit.”
Carmen and her husband were able to pull their lives back together with Formica’s help and Carmen went on to establish a chapter of ULA in Norwalk.
“I like to see my clients empowered, not as victims,’’ he says.
In recent months, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing court action to a halt, Formica and his clients have faced new challenges – the government closed borders, fast-tracked deportations and tried to rescind university visas for foreign students. His defense motions were hampered by the logistics of phone-in court appearances, and clients were facing the danger of catching the virus in the facilities where they were detained.
“Right now, it’s a very toxic environment. People are terrified. Terrified of the virus, terrified economically, and terrified of ICE,’’ says Formica.
A bright spot came in June when the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA. But he says the pandemic has caused a backlog of cases, bringing the wheels of justice that normally move slowly to an even worse crawl.
But Formica is far from giving up. That’s because, he says, his work is spiritually fulfilling.
“I’m not a saint,’’ adds Formica, a father of three who describes his workload as 24-7, “I’ve always received from my immigration clients more than I’ve given.”
Written and Photographed by FRAN SILVERMAN