My Unexpected Path Into Immigration Law

Jeffrey O'Brien

by Jeff O’Brien, Founder and Executive Director

Becoming an immigration attorney was never my plan in life. I grew up with lots of lawyers in my family, so I initially didn’t want to pursue law. I always felt like it was “selling out” to a firm or organization to prepare arguments whether or not you believed in them. Opting for philosophy in college, I enjoyed the depth of thought it offered. However, after graduating in 1998, the scarcity of job opportunities for philosophers led me to an unexpected turn.

I decided to explore a new culture and language by traveling abroad. Armed with only a backpack, a passport, and a one-way ticket, I planned to stay in Bonn, Germany, for three months. I took odd jobs to sustain myself, navigating a foreign land with a language barrier. This experience provided a profound insight into the challenges faced by immigrants.

Staying beyond the initial three months rendered me "undocumented," with no legal way to work. I entered the "schwarzarbeit" or the "underground labor pool" to survive. Feeling like an "other" for the first time, I grappled with locals' non-acceptance and the constant fear of police checks.

My journey in Germany sparked a passion for advocating for the underdog. Despite swearing off law school initially, I enrolled. I began in intellectual property law, but I found it unfulfilling. Eventually, pro bono immigration work became my calling. Helping African asylum seekers seeking protection, I discovered the profound impact of immigration law on lives and families. In 2010, I launched O'Brien Immigration law practice, setting aside my idyllic American upbringing.

Two mountain climbers, one who was a former client of Jeff's, at the top of the highest peak in North America -- Mount Denali. She loved his services and took a banner of his office to the top for a photo opportunity.

Aligning Passion with Action: Mobile Pathways' Mission

My primary goal is to assist those who can't afford legal representation, especially the underserved. Mobile Pathways aligns perfectly with this mission. In professions like immigration law, explaining legal processes repeatedly is common, but not everyone can access this vital information due to financial constraints. Leveraging technology is crucial. Platforms like SMS, WhatsApp, and Salesforce can help share legal information widely. Salesforce, known for scalability, enhances our capabilities, making my vision a practical reality through Mobile Pathways.

Jeff is joined by Ana Ortega-Villegas (Mobile Pathways Program Director) and Poesy Chen (Mobile Pathways Co-Founder and Innovation Director) at the Fast Forward Accelerator In San Francisco, California..

Innovating for a Fair Immigration System: Mobile Pathways in Action

At Mobile Pathways, innovation is at the core of our efforts to create a fairer immigration system. Our new project, developing a "Community" platform, acts as a supportive hub for immigration advocates working with refugees in the United States. Built on Salesforce, prioritizing privacy and security, this community ensures a safe space for information sharing. It goes beyond conventional message boards, integrating with technological tools to provide crucial information, such as the likelihood of success for refugees in different states.

Moreover, our platform incorporates the latest AI tools, enabling us to monitor trends and predict future developments. Given the ever-changing immigration landscape, this real-time information is essential for offering informed advice to clients and staying ahead in advocacy. This innovative approach positions Mobile Pathways as a catalyst for positive change in immigration support.

Navigating Troubling Times: Concerns in Immigration

Recent developments and political rhetoric in Texas are deeply troubling due to the rising anti-immigrant sentiments. While large-scale actions like constructing detention centers are yet to materialize, there's concern that such ideas are desensitizing the public. 

Take Texas Senate Bill 4 (SB4), signed by Governor Abbott, for instance. This law suggests charging repeat border crossers with a second-degree felony, carrying a two to 20-year prison sentence. Think about its impact on a domestic violence victim from a country with inadequate protections. Is it justifiable for Texas to potentially incarcerate such an individual for up to two decades, separating them from their children? Apart from potential unconstitutionality, this law strikes as profoundly immoral, punishing victims seeking safety.

My journey from an aspiring philosopher to an immigration attorney has been anything but conventional. The twists and turns, from the alleys of "schwarzarbeit" in Germany to the halls of law school, have sculpted my perspective on justice and advocacy. As we navigate troubling times, the ominous echoes of anti-immigrant sentiments underscore the importance of our work. Mobile Pathways stands as a beacon of innovation, a testament to our dedication to a fairer immigration system. I look forward to forging ahead to a future where justice and possession prevail.

*Feature image: Jeff with an asylum seeker he supported.