Karen McCarthy first became interested in immigration law when family members and friends went through the process and she saw how difficult it can be. Growing up in a small town in New York, she worked on a farm alongside immigrant workers who risked their lives to come to the United States. She knew she wanted to help them.
A prestigious Equal Justice fellowship brought McCarthy to Colorado during law school. Then, in 2015, she felt like the time was right to open her own practice, Elevation Law in Summit County. She saw a need in rural communities for help. Having always been intrigued with “rebellious lawyering,” she wanted to do things her own way. The firm focuses on family-based immigration law, removal defense, and asylum.
In addition to her law firm, McCarthy helped found Mountain Dreamers to educate communities. The nonprofit provides grants to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients for fees and lawyers. DACA provides relief from removal for certain immigrants brought to the United States as children. Mountain Dreamers also has a legal defense fund to help families to stay together. The fund works with local advocates for survivors of crime to provide pro bono or low bono representation for at-risk populations. This can include protection orders, assistance with family law issues, or immigration applications. For those interested in helping, McCarthy suggests visiting the websites for Elevation Law (www.elevation-law.com) and Mountain Dreamers (www.mountaindreamers.org) where you can find opportunities to get involved. Mountain Dreamers hosts story-telling events where attendees can hear young people tell compelling stories, as well as fun fundraisers.
McCarthy admits that the last four years have been challenging. She emphasizes that your vote really does matter in her practice area and that different administrations can have a huge impact. For example, due to the family separation policy under the previous presidential administration, they are still trying to reunite kids with their parents. The changes the last attorney general made in asylum have also been devastating for people fleeing gangs and domestic violence. She hopes these will be rolled back with the current administration.
Just recently, Elevation Law won on a case that was particularly meaningful for McCarthy. After fighting for five years, they won asylum for a member of the LGBTQ+ community who had been persecuted in his home country and experienced extreme bodily injury as a result. Now, he can apply for permanent residence in one year and citizenship in five years.
As for most attorneys, Elevation Law’s practice has been impacted by the pandemic. They’ve been focusing on trying to keep clients and staff safe and are encouraging less face-to-face meetings. They have also been sending clients instructions on WebEx, Zoom, and e-signatures and have set aside an office where clients can use a tablet for WebEx or Zoom. Elevation Law has always tried to be flexible and creative with remote consultations as clients might live four hours away and might not have a driver’s license or access to transportation. They started using Zoom and email prior to the pandemic to communicate with clients all over the state, though McCarthy travels for urgent situations.
Many of Elevation Law’s clients are in the service industry and can be at high risk for COVID-19. Many were also laid off or had their hours cut. The firm has been helping by getting out information about rental assistance and other programs. The staff also volunteers at a soup pantry when they can. The office even stopped invoicing when COVID hit to let people adjust to the unprecedented situation, and they feel fortunate not to have had to furlough any staff.
For those considering a career in immigration law, McCarthy advises that it is a challenging area technically and emotionally. An immigration judge she interned for described the practice as fighting death penalty cases in tax court because you are dealing with life and death and a complex area of the law. An immigration lawyer’s greatest fear is losing an asylum case and the client having to return to his or her home country. Despite the challenges, McCarthy encourages other attorneys to consider immigration law because, “We need more good lawyers on our side!”
McCarthy is one of four members of the CWBA Mountain Chapter. While they are all spread out, she says it is exciting to see people join even if they live an hour or an hour and a half apart. The group enjoyed a snowshoeing event in February and are planning a wine and chocolate tasting. McCarthy has met a lot of amazing attorneys and finds that the CWBA is a great way to connect with lawyers from other backgrounds. Her firm handles Special Juvenile Immigrant cases, which require an APR or guardianship hearing. Because of this connection to family law, she says it is great to get to know family law practitioners and learn from them. McCarthy finds that CWBA colleagues have been so friendly and always willing to lend an ear, and incredibly supportive.
Outside of her practice, McCarthy describes herself as an outdoors girl. She is an avid backcountry skier and has completed an intermediate avalanche course. She also loves fishing, hiking with her two rescue dogs, yoga, and karaoke. What many may not know about her is her love of books. McCarthy is a self-described “book hoarder” with piles of books that she wants to read, and tries to find time, even if it’s just 15 minutes. She enjoys surprising friends by sending out books to them with notes or inscriptions.