“Despite what’s happening at a Federal level (and this was true under Obama as it is under Trump), it’s great to see state governments taking the lead on things like immigration reform, criminal justice reform, climate justice, and education. I think federalism allows most of the country to progress, despite what’s happening at the federal level. Sometimes states are best equipped to experiment with ideas on how to address social issues, and I’m optimistic states will continue leading the way to solving some of our more pressing problems.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jose Almanzar, an environmental attorney with Periconi, LLC in New York City. Jose was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States when he was six years old. Jose is passionate about the environment and conservation, and carriers that passion into his profession.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in the Dominican Republic, in the small suburb of San Francisco de Macoris. When I was 5 years old, my father left the island, leaving behind my mother and sisters, and moved to New York City to work. Every week, he would send money to my mother, so that we could save up and eventually rejoin him in New York. This was the beginning of our family’s slow migration to the United States. Two years later, after saving up enough money, my mother and I followed suit, but we had to leave my two younger sisters behind, who would join us about two years later.
During those first two years, my parents and I lived in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of NYC known as Washington Heights — or Little Dominican Republic as many refer to it. We first rented a bedroom on 170th Street and Audubon Avenue. I was just 6 years old, but I have distinct memories about this bedroom: it was small, there was a fold-up bed, that my parents slept on, a couch (my bed), a small dresser, and a short table that we put our tiny rabbit-ears black & white TV. I remember watching Tiny Toons and eating Vienna Sausages, while my parents came in and out of the apartment. I also recall my babysitter, a very nice nun from the church around the corner. We eventually moved to another bedroom, on 190th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. This one was a little bigger.
Once my parents had saved up enough money to get an apartment, my younger sisters finally joined us. We were reunited in 1993, and had our own digs: a small, two bedroom rent stabilized apartment off 185th Street and Wadsworth Avenue. The apartment was small and I had to share a bedroom with my sisters. We didn’t care — at least we were New Yorkers.
I’m a proud product of the New York City public education system, attending elementary through high school in New York. I think I finally became comfortable speaking English in the fourth grade and by the fifth grade, I had lost my Spanish accent. Because my parents were both working full-time jobs and my middle school was in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I’ve had the privilege of riding the subway system since I was 10 years old. It was exciting as a kid taking the train by yourself and things were different then…I don’t think parents would put a 10 year old on the train by himself these days.
In Middle School and High School, I played on organized sports teams (basketball and baseball), played instruments (saxophone) and participated in school functions to keep busy. Summers were busy playing in the Police Athletic League (PAL) baseball and tennis summer camps and getting into and out of trouble in The Heights. I had fun as a kid and am grateful for my experiences in NYC, despite the financial and other challenges my family faced. Like all families, we had our share of ups and downs, but we were happy to be together. My parents worked their asses off to provide food for us and to ensure that rent and utilities were always paid (even if a little late sometimes). We never had money for savings and thankfully none of us ever experienced serious medical issue that would have required prolonged hospitalization…no one had health insurance back then.
After graduating from High School (The High School for Environmental Studies), I attended Binghamton University (SUNY), where I majored in Environmental Studies.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
From what I’m told, Dominican Republic was financially and politically unstable in the 1980s (it still is to a great extent, although things have improved since last decade). In fact, I recall at least 3 violent riots with burning tires and glass bottles thrown everywhere in the streets of San Francisco de Macoris — people were upset with elected officials, what’s new? One distinct riot, I remember being stashed in the sink at my grandparents’ house. Bottles were being thrown through people’s windows and all of the kids were instructed to hide.
So I think living through those experiences put my parents in a place where they were pressed to leave their home, family and friends, to seek a better and more stable life for their children. I am forever eternally grateful to them for making that tough decision.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I was just 6 years old (almost 7) when I came to the US in August of 1990, so I don’t remember too much from those first few moments. I do remember being nervous while flying (for the first time), but I was with my mom, so I imagine I was fine.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am eternally grateful and thankful for the sacrifices my parents have made to get our family together in the US. Like many immigrants, my parents came to the U.S. with little-to-no money but needed to take a chance so that their children would have an opportunity to be educated in the U.S…and to escape the violent protests back at home. Because of my parents, I was able to attend elementary school through high school in NYC. I was the first in my family to graduate from an American High School.
For us to get an education in the U.S. was so important for my parents, so early on I made it my priority to try to do well in school and not disappoint them. After going to college, I worked for a few years as an Environmental Scientists and decided that take a shot at law school and marry (in a sense) my passion for the environment and interests in a legal career.
I thank my parents for everything that I’ve accomplished in my life thus far.
So how are things going today?
Personally, for me, things are going well. I’m healthy (*knocks on wood*) and have a career as an Environmental Attorney, which allows me to continue with my passion for the environment and conservation. I have two beautiful, healthy, mixed-race kids (my son is almost 5 and my daughter is 11 weeks old…their mother, my partner, is American-Italian-Irish who was born in NYC) that are my world. I’m so grateful and thankful for everyday that I’m able to spend with my family.
However, with my general personal happiness, each day I am troubled by the reports of anti-immigrant sentiment growing around the country. It’s as if we’re forgetting that America is a country of immigrants and that we, for such a long time, have been a beacon of hope for the people from other countries. I am hopeful that things will change, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that each day I spend a significant amount of time thinking about those most unfortunate people (i.e., refugees, people seeking asylum, undocumented immigrants) who only want what’s best for their families and children, and the abuse they endure on a daily basis.
I was fortunate that my parents had the wherewithal and resources to immigrate to the U.S. legally, but I know that is not always an option for families. I wish people were more empathetic and caring about the plight of the struggling.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m a practicing attorney, so I have the privilege to practice law in the United States. I recently signed up to do pro bono work through a non-profit organization (Safe Passage Project) that represents Unaccompanied Minors in Immigration Court in New York City. I will be going through their immigration law training program with the hopes of representing undocumented children facing immigration court — no child should be forced to represent themselves in immigration court, but that’s the system we have.
I’m also involved with programs for children and focused on education. Through New York’s Dominican Bar Association, I’ve participated in several Career Days, where I speak with to primarily immigrant high school students about my story. I hope to continue doing this at various schools, including my alma mater, The High School for Environmental Studies, later this year and into the future.
The environment is still very important to me, so I tend to keep up on issues with respect to environmental laws and regulations (it is part of my job) and I donate money and time when I can to several non-profits dedicated to protecting our environment and advocating for environmental justice, such as EarthJustice, Natural Resources Defense Council and WE ACT. I’m also the Co-Chair of the Environmental Justice Committee for the New York State Bar Association’s Section on Environmental and Energy Law, and stay active/informed on EJ issues affecting our state. In fact, later this Fall, we are planning an Environmental Justice Summit at the Albany Law School, that will explore EJ issues currently affecting Upstate and Downstate New York. You should come!
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
1. Increase the quota for immigrants to arrive from each country.
2. Ensure that no immigrant, regardless of status, faces immigration court alone.
3. Guarantee that DREAMERs receive a clear path to American citizenship.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Trust in the kindness of strangers. Despite the bad things in the world, Americans are generally good people who want to help and see immigrants succeed.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are countless organizations, local and national, who are dedicated to helping. Whether it’s education, housing, food, there are people who want to help. Seek them if you need help and don’t lose hope.
3. Education is key. I know that college is not for everyone, so I’m not here advocating that everyone has to go to college…but you have to learn something (a skill or trade) if you don’t go to or graduate from college. It’s imperative that you demonstrate to the world that you are responsible, trustworthy and have basic skills. A college education is not the “end all be all,” but it is a place to start if you don’t learn a trade.
4. Remain positive. I’m a firm believer that positive thoughts and hard work yield positive results. Even when life is beating you down, you have to dust yourself off and keep on trying. Eventually, positive things will happen, but you have to remain in a positive state of mind. Don’t dwell too much on things that are out of your control, just keep being positive and doing good work.
5. Learn how to set goals and be accountable to yourself. So many people go through life without intention. What I mean is that people go to school and get a job, just because they were told it’s something they have to do. Instead, life is more meaningful and your efforts will be more focused when you have a clear task in mind. Whether something mundane as “I want to run a 5k race this Fall” or something potentially life changing like “I want to attend business by next year” — set clear goals and think of how you plan on achieving them. Write them down.
I like to set short term goals (achievable in 3–6 weeks), mid-term goals (3–6 months) and long term goals (3–6 years). I then follow up with myself every so often to see where I’m at and am accountable to myself when I don’t follow through. You have to be able to be honest with yourself and know when to reevaluate goals.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
1. Our youth. I think our young people (18–25 year olds) are more vocal and empathetic about the plight of struggling people than I can ever remember. I believe they will lead us politically to a revolution that will change how we conduct ourselves and think of others.
2. Climate change is real. I think the vast majority people, regardless of political affiliation, now agree that the Earth is getting warmer and that humans are the primary reason for it. For so many decades, we spent time arguing the validity of the foregoing position, but now that we can all (for the most part) agree to it, the U.S. will lead the way. We just need our Federal Government to get on board…it might not be with this current federal Administration but I’m hopeful that we will get back on track. This is a long-term problem that will require a global partnership and private solutions along the way.
3. Federalism. Despite what’s happening at a Federal level (and this was true under Obama as it is under Trump), it’s great to see state governments taking the lead on things like immigration reform, criminal justice reform, climate justice, and education. I think federalism allows most of the country to progress, despite what’s happening at the federal level. Sometimes states are best equipped to experiment with ideas on how to address social issues, and I’m optimistic states will continue leading the way to solving some of our more pressing problems.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I’m going to cheat and put 2 people: I would absolutely love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Michelle Obama and/or Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I am so inspired by their stories and by everything they’ve accomplished in their lives…it would truly be a dream of mine to be able to speak with them in person.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.