Erin O'Neil-Baker

BY Ken Liebeskind

Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever

How do you balance your work life with your personal life?

There is no balance, it's always chaotic. I have two children, I've been married for 14 years and I'm never happy if I'm home and should be at work, or I'm at work and should be dedicating more time at home. I try to keep things in balance by prioritizing day by day where I should put my efforts.

What's your advice for other professionals on how best to balance work life with personal life?

Figuring out what your overall goals are and prioritizing for the long term and breaking it down to short term hour by hour. Figuring out your priorities and rearranging the priorities as necessary.

What are some of the things you enjoy outside of work?

I'm part of Renaissance Revival, an acapella choir group that performs 14th century works in Latin, German and French. It's based in Storrs and performs at St. Joseph Church in Willimantic. I'm on the Saxton B. Little Library Board in Columbia and volunteer at free clinics for deferred action students. I also enjoy reading and writing.

Owner, Hartford Legal Group

O'Neil-Baker offers undocumented immigrants hope

Erin O'Neil-Baker has devoted a decade of her career helping undocumented immigrants in Connecticut navigate a precarious and complex legal system.

The 38-year-old started her own law firm in 2005, which changed its name last year to the Hartford Legal Group after adding a new partner. The firm deals with the complications of immigration law in a nation that is attempting to streamline the immigration process, although it is suffering from Congressional gridlock.

That is something that frustrates O'Neil-Baker, who works to get her clients citizenship status.

"There was great momentum last June when immigration reform was passed in the Senate, but it got stalled in the House last fall," O'Neil-Baker said. "It was passed back and forth and hopes were again increased that something might happen, but now it seems Congress is not going to be able to make anything happen in the next year."

O'Neil-Baker assists undocumented immigrants and their families in their efforts to remain in the U.S. She has a lot of prospective clients in Connecticut: 3.4 percent of the state's population, or 120,000 people, are undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

O'Neil-Baker said her most memorable case involved a Guatemalan couple that has lived in New Haven for nearly 20 years, raising three children who were born here and are U.S. citizens.

The couple, O'Neil-Baker said, couldn't return to Guatemala because the wife's mother had been murdered and one of their children has a genetic disease that can't be treated there.

"We sought political asylum for the couple, but the petition was denied and they were placed in removal and deportation proceedings," O'Neil-Baker said.

How did she solve the problem?

"If undocumented people have been here for more than 10 years and have children who would suffer if they weren't here, they can get residency," she said. "The court saw the need for the family to stay together in the U.S. It was a wonderful day for the couple who can stay in the U.S. with their family."

O'Neil-Baker said many of her clients would benefit from immigration reform, but her job is to work within the confines of the law. She said the current legal system works for about 50 percent of her clients, but the other 50 percent are unable to seek any promise of immigrant status.

"I try to find the best way to meet client needs and if the laws don't apply you have to wait until they change," O'Neil-Baker said. "But I'm not a person who takes a dead end lightly. I don't stop looking for answers and find ways to use the laws to benefit clients."

She said she also helps people who are in deportation proceedings by finding ways to take care of their families.

One of the recent legal changes O'Neil-Baker said she takes advantage of is a measure adopted by the Obama administration in 2012 that allows undocumented children under 16, who came to the U.S. before 2007 and have graduated high school or are in school, to apply for temporary relief from deportation and work authorization.

"We have processed petitions for 40 individuals who would otherwise be illegal," she said. "They are now able to feel they are a part of the country, can apply for driver's licenses and Social Security cards and get work authorization. They don't have to sit in the shadows and can actively pursue their futures in the U.S."

Besides her law practice, O'Neil-Baker is active in the community, speaking out on immigration issues at neighborhood gatherings, radio talk shows, and other events. She also published articles on immigration in the CT Law Journal.

Kara Hart, a lawyer who represents victims of domestic violence at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, praises O'Neil-Baker for taking on pro-bono cases and working with government agencies to support her clients.

"She's very effective in representing immigrants and pushing the agencies that work on these cases in a timely and fair way," Hart said.

A mother of two who lives in Columbia, O'Neil-Baker said she takes pride in her work. "I like it when I can take a case of a person who comes in hopeless and doesn't understand there is a successful way they can live in the U.S.," she said. "I get a great deal of satisfaction out of imparting what I know. I explain their future isn't bleak, they don't have to be afraid and there are some good options for them that will improve their lives."

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