|Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2010|
Resilience is one of the things immigration attorney Chanpone Sinlapasai admires most about her clients, particularly the children who have been victims of human trafficking. It’s also one of the character traits that best defines Sinlapasai, who has overcome her own set of hardships to make it where she is today.
Born in Laos, Sinlapasai, her parents and her younger brother fled to Thailand. They lived in the Chiang Kong refugee camp near the Mekong River from June 28, 1979, until the following July. Though she was just 4 years old then, some memories remain vivid for Sinlapasai.
“I remember just how impoverished we were, and my mom and my father tried to do everything they could to make money,” she says.
Sinlapasai’s father fought alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War and had built relationships with those who remembered his service. Those connections allowed Sinlapasai and her mother to sell Coca-Cola within the refugee camp to earn an income.
Through Catholic Charities and the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the family immigrated to the U.S. on July 7, 1980. Though they arrived just after the 4th of July, Independence Day remains an historic event for the family.
While they were happy to be safe, the Sinlapasai family experienced extreme culture shock. They flew to Los Angeles via a Pan Am jetliner — the first airplane the children had ever seen — and then on to Stockton, Calif.
The pastor who had sponsored them had left the U.S. on a mission, so there was no one to meet them when they landed in Stockton. A woman who worked at the airport was kind enough to help and eventually got them connected with the church that had sponsored them.
It was a beleaguered process, however, because the Sinlapasais didn’t speak English and the airport employee didn’t speak Thai or Lao. In addition, everything from the airport to the food seemed overwhelming.
“It was very scary,” Sinlapasai says. “When we got here we were given hamburgers to eat, and I remember crying because it was so foreign. We were wondering where the rice was.”
The Sinlapasais were assigned to do farm work, and Chanpone recalls helping her family in the fields before she began going to school. They reunited with relatives who already had immigrated to Stockton, and 11 family members shared a two-bedroom apartment.
“We were so grateful just to have a roof and to be safe. We took every day as a gift,” Sinlapasai says.
They slowly adjusted to life in America, thanks to the help of social workers with the refugee resettlement program. A relative helped her father get a job with an electronics company and they learned to get around the city via public transportation.
Sinlapasai began to learn English and translate for her parents. The first English words she learned, though, were the racial epithets she and her brother were called at school.
“It was rough growing up in Stockton and not knowing the culture,” she says. “My brother and I were called ‘chink’ and we were chased every day after school.”
After graduating from high school, Sinlapasai attended Santa Clara University and earned dual bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy in 1998. During college, she worked for high-tech company Rambus, where she met several women who had earned master’s and doctorate degrees and were supportive of her ambition to go to law school.
However, when she told her parents of her plans, Sinlapasai learned that the money her father’s employer had given him to fund his children’s higher education had instead been spent on a family temple in Laos.
“Education is not big in my family,” she says. “They wanted me to be a teacher and get to work right away because you have to work to survive. I wanted to be in school because I knew that was the only way to get ahead.”
Sinlapasai set her sights on Lewis & Clark’s Northwestern School of Law. Her offer letter came with a scholarship, and she immediately knew what her practice specialty would be.
“I always wanted to be an immigration attorney because of what my parents and family had gone through and how difficult it was to get through the system,” Sinlapasai says.
Upon entering law school in 1999 she joined Opportunity for Law In Oregon (OLIO), the Oregon State Bar’s Affirmative Action program. Through the program, she met Rick Okamura and the pair married six months later. She graduated in 2002 and is a member of the Cornelius Honor Society.
The couple works together in Marandas & Okamura, a small firm in Lake Oswego where the diversity of the staff reflects that of its clientele. For example, Sinlapasai is half Thai and half Lao. Okamura is half Japanese and half British. Attorney Kenny Kennedy is Filipino and African-American. Marandas’ family emigrated to the U.S. from Greece. His wife, Walleska Marandas, is the firm’s office manager and her parents emigrated from Nicaragua. And two of their four staff members, including Walleska’s brother, come from other countries as well.
Sinlapasai and Marandas are the firm’s immigration specialists, and they assist clients with visas, citizenship issues, removal defense and appeals. Sinlapasai also represents clients in family law matters including marriage dissolutions, custody agreements and child support.
Sinlapasai’s passion for helping immigrants extends to her volunteer work and civic activism. She is a board member for Portland’s Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, current chair of the Asian Family Center Advisory Board, and she provides pro bono services in cases involving immigration and family law. To help promote cultural diversity and understanding, Sinlapasai serves as an advisory board member to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Multicultural Advisory Committee.
In addition, Sinlapasai is a member of the Department of Justice’s Victims of Crime Act Advisory Committee and the Crime Victims’ Rights Compliance Project Advisory Committee. Cases involving human trafficking, she notes, constitute the most difficult part of her work.
“What we went though as refugees was terrible… but (other people) being victimized and being held in a position where they have no choice, whether it’s forced labor or sex trafficking, is unimaginable to me,” she says.
The mother of three young children, Sinlapasai says cases involving children are especially difficult.
“Each case has its own story, and each one breaks my heart. We work very carefully and we work at their pace, so some cases take years and other cases move quickly,” she says. “I’m just amazed at how these children process what has happened to them and move on. I could not be that strong.”
There are also several rewards, however. The biggest, Sinlapasai says, is witnessing the resilience of the people who come to her for help.
“It’s amazing to see people still filled with hope after all they have been through,” she says. “I hope immigration law will change for the better so these folks who work so hard and contribute to their communities will have a chance to gain legal status.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2010 Melody Finnemore