SUN CITY CENTER
Jan Reid had a problem with immigration. Or more specifically, Ken, her husband of 14 months, had the problem. The former medical supply salesman from Canada wanted to become a permanent resident and eventually become a U.S. citizen, but their first lawyer didn't meet their needs. That's where Fernanne Kirkham stepped in. Although the immigration lawyer, who is originally from Jamaica, wasn't the Sun City Center couple's first choice to handle the application, the Reids are thrilled she did.
"He is now a permanent resident," said Jan Reid, 63, who grew up in Coral Gables, a planned community next to Miami. "After two years, he can apply for citizenship. We both think of Fern as a knight in shining armor. She came to the house and right away we felt comfortable with her."
Ken Reid, 77, from St. Thomas, Ontario, appreciated Kirkham's attention to detail and personal interest.
"I take a personal interest in all my clients," Kirkham recently said in her Kings Point home. "I believe every issue has a solution. In fact, 99 percent of the immigration issues could have a fruitful resolution if persons contacted a good attorney early (and) are willing to provide the attorney with the evidential documents as needed."
At the end of the day, she said, the greatest satisfaction "is knowing that you have made a difference in someone's life whether it is by removing worry from their life or achieving a particular outcome for them."
Natural fit for immigration issues
A lawyer's job is to help people understand and benefit from the law, said Kirkham, 61, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica, as a teen with her Jamaican father, an entrepreneur, and Cuban mother.
Like many lawyers, she offers free consultations at her Sun City Center office (137 S Pebble Beach Blvd., Suite 201B) to learn about the client's case so they can speak openly with her "without them worrying about the expense."
"Many clients hesitate in contacting an attorney through fear: fear of outcome or fear of the cost," Kirkham said. "And when they eventually do, many times it is too late."
The University of Florida law school graduate and member of the Florida Bar said from the time she was a young girl she always wanted to be an attorney.
Her practice covers the full spectrum of immigration issues. She also handles issues involving customs and international trade for corporate clients. Her immigration clients include newcomers from the United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico.
"Growing up in Jamaica built my ability to relate well to diverse cultures, which is an ideal fit for an immigration attorney," Kirkham said. "It is not commonly known that Jamaica's motto is 'out of many one people' and that the island was first a colony of Spain, then of England and is composed of immigrants from Spain, China, England, Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Cubans and Africa and has 43 foreign embassies.
"From kindergarten, I was exposed to different cultures and was intrigued with everything international."
She loves Jamaica but also 'home'
Kirkham returned to Kingston in 1996 to work, but a few years ago, she came back to Florida.
"I felt out of place in Jamaica," she said in the unmistakable lilt of the Caribbean. "I had a yearning to come home. Once you live in America, you get used to things working right.
"I love Jamaica, but I really enjoy living here."
Kirkham says it is a joy to live and work in the SouthShore area. She likes living near the water because she likes swimming in the ocean or in this case the gulf. Her favorite beach is Lido in Sarasota. The strict vegetarian also enjoys the health benefits of walking and hiking.
David Chin Yee, 62, her husband of 24 years, also grew up in Kingston.
Pro bono work at St. Anne
Unfortunately, Kirkham said, her mother didn't teach her to speak Spanish. A second language would come in handy when she is doing pro bono work along with the staff of St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin, where she attends services. She calls the assistance she offers at the church a way of giving back.
Erica Brezina has seen Kirkham's work up close. Brezina has been an administrative assistant at St. Anne since 2008. The Guatemala native occasionally translates for Spanish-speaking parishioners needing help with immigration issues.
She also sets up appointments with Kirkham for Hispanic families who need assistance with immigration issues, explaining what documents they need to bring with them.
"She is very helpful when it comes to immigration issues," Brezina said of Kirkham. "She fixes the condition of their (clients) status."
Changing face of immigration laws
In today's climate of heated rhetoric engulfing immigration issues and the heightened awareness after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kirkham said U.S. Immigration Services requires a lot of information and, consequently, some clients are "fearful."
"Some fear loss of immigration benefits while others fear loss of privacy from government," Kirkham said. "This type of client is reluctant to provide full disclosure about themselves, family, education/skills, character, criminal background, etc.
"Their reluctancy creates a challenge. Holding back information might delay or deny their petition, while on the other hand, full disclosure might have allowed me, the attorney, to seek certain waivers, or to provide them with greater protections under the law."
Kirkham noted, however, that she favors a comprehensive immigration reform that incentivizes legal immigration, especially in the business community.