Long before last year’s election, attorney Helen Tarokic ran a busy immigration law practice in Wilmington.
“I’ve consistently been booking up at least three months in advance for new consultations for years now. There just aren’t a lot of immigration lawyers,” said Tarokic, one of two North Carolina board-certified immigration specialists in Wilmington, who opened her own practice in the Port City in 2011.
Despite pledges from President Donald Trump’s administration to crack down on illegal immigrants, Tarokic advises caution without overreaction.
“Not a single client of mine has been deported since the election, and I don’t think that people should be paralyzed with fear. So the message I’ve been trying to send is, ‘Prepare. Go see a lawyer. See what your options are. If you don’t have an option, find out if your spouse or child does because every case is different,’” Tarokic said recently during an interview in her law firm at the Offices at Mayfaire. “I think that the people-are-just-afraid theme concerns me because … so much hasn’t actually changed.
“People are still granting benefits; people are still winning their trials; people are still able to use the existing structure of the law, and the president can’t change the law.
He can just change some of his policies, and even with his policy changes of wanting to do greater enforcement, Congress still has to fund that, and they haven’t really funded that either.”
But she does worry about the long-term impact of administration declarations on investments by immigrants in Wilmington and other cities.
One of Tarokic’s clients, an executive who has investments here, has decided to opt out of what she sees as an anti-immigrant atmosphere nationally.
That investor, whom she did not name, “is in the process of scaling down operations and will be selling the franchise” Tarokic said.
“The theme was, ‘I’m going to take my money, and I’m not going to be part of this anymore. And if America isn’t going to be accommodating, welcoming, respectful of businesses, appreciative that immigrants are creating dozens and dozens of jobs in the Wilmington economy, then I really don’t need to put my money here,” Tarokic said.
She’s trying to convince another entrepreneur who is considering leaving to stay. Tarokic said she doesn’t see any negative changes to the investment visa program in the U.S. happening anytime soon.
“The America that’s in the news right now is not necessarily what’s happening on the ground here, and let’s stay true with that,” Tarokic said, referring to the advice she’s given.
In addition to operating an expanding law firm, Tarokic has won awards for mentoring and has worked to lead the field in obtaining humanitarian visas for victims of domestic violence and other crimes.
One of her legal assistants, Keegan Huynh, joined the firm after volunteering for a trip Tarokic sponsored involving his Spanish service-learning class at University of North Carolina Wilmington. Huynh and others traveled to an immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas, to explain rights of immigrants in the court process, interpret for attorneys taking down asylum statements and other tasks aimed at helping detainees.
“That kind of gave me a glimpse into what it’s like for immigration lawyers on the ground and the real impact you can have on peoples’ lives down there,” said Huynh, whose father moved to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam War.
The ability to help people fuels Tarokic’s efforts.
“She’s one of the most empathetic people that I know. She’s totally supportive, always has like a positive, chipper attitude. I don’t know how she does it, running around with clients for 16 hours a day,” Huynh said.
On a recent Friday, Tarokic was celebrating a case her firm had won, with the help of new associate attorney Bradley Setzer’s work on a subpoena, in Charlotte Immigration Court the day before. The 90-minute trial ended in the judge canceling the removal of Felipe Diaz (right
), a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Wilmington for nearly 18 years and who supports a family of six with his landscaping job.
“Almost four years, we’ve been fighting for this case,” said Diaz, whose deportation was initiated in 2013 after a low-level DWI arrest. “It’s been tough … Helen, she’s working really hard for us.”
His removal was canceled based on the extreme and exceptionally unusual hardship his children and stepchildren would have faced, Tarokic said.
At Tarokic’s office on a Friday evening, balancing his 9-year-old stepson in his lap and with his 18-yearold daughter by his side, Diaz said of Helen, “She changed my life.”
Tarokic’s parents were immigrants, moving to the U.S. from the portion of Yugoslavia that is now Croatia. She met her husband while she was overseas studying the Croatian language, and they were married in 2011. The couple has two children.
An Illinois native, Tarokic graduated from Lake Forest College near Chicago with a degree in psychology and a minor in international relations. Deciding that becoming a therapist wasn’t the right move for her, she found a job at the law firm of immigration attorney Paul Zulkie in Chicago.
“From the moment I started working there, I knew this was something I could do for the rest of my life,” said Tarokic, who went on to graduate from Wake Forest University School of Law.
Despite her busy schedule and family life, Tarokic also conducts community sessions on immigration law. Tarokic is scheduled to host a two-day seminar May 19 and 20 at UNCW’s Morton Hall on human trafficking visas, or T visas.
“For me, immigration’s such an interesting puzzle. There are a million statutes and laws that all connect somehow or don’t connect in interesting ways, and I really like working on those puzzles,” Tarokic said. “And it’s really nice when a client gets a positive result, lots of hugs and happy tears.”