Raquel Salas has come a long way from her humble roots in the Dominican Republic, where her family lived in a cement-walled home with patchy electricity and no running water. Today, she’s a successful Grand Rapids lawyer with her own full-service firm, Avanti Law, that boasts 18 employees and $1.1 million in annual revenues. Salas was named one of Western Michigan’s most influential women by the Grand Rapids Business Journal, while Avanti Law has been named the top female-owned law firm and top Hispanic-owned business in the state. “It’s why immigration is so close to my heart,” Salas says. “If the system hadn’t allowed me to come here, I wouldn’t have this story to tell.”
Salas credits her success to a lifelong entrepreneurial streak. As a child, she made extra cash selling empanadas and stitching outfits for her friends’ Barbie dolls. Later, she sold pizzas from her doorstep, a business so successful that her mother continued it after Salas left home. “I’ve always been in love with business, and with creating and developing things,” Salas says. “Ever since a young age, I found a way to make money—my parents would give me 10 pesos, and I learned early on that I could use those 10 pesos to make another 10 pesos.”
Salas completed a bachelor’s degree and studied for an MBA in Puerto Rico, making extra cash by typing up friends’ papers, or selling Mother’s Day gift baskets. After marrying an American, she moved to California in the hope of attending law school, but her English wasn’t good enough. After two years of rejection, she was finally accepted into the program at Western Michigan University. “I’d never even heard the word ‘Michigan’ before,” she says. “But I really wanted to be a lawyer.” Salas struggled to understand the early lectures, but persevered, eventually transferring to Michigan State, where she graduated magna cum laude. “I never took for granted the fact I got accepted, so I did my work while other kids were partying,” she says.
After a few years at a corporate law firm, Salas struck out on her own, and quickly turned Avanti Law into a thriving firm that represented small businesses and Latinos. Immigration law was and remains central to this work. Now a citizen, Salas sponsored her mother and some of her siblings to come to the United States. And yet not even her legal knowhow has been able to overcome the obstacles of America’s immigration system; she was forced to tell one sister—herself a successful attorney in the Dominican Republic—that securing a green card could take a decade or more. “It’s heartbreaking she isn’t here with us,” Salas says.
Many of Salas’s clients have far worse problems. It’s wrenching, Salas says, when undocumented immigrants who’ve lived in America for years are targeted for deportation. “There has to be an easier path to citizenship, or some sort of legal presence in the U.S. for those who’ve been here so long without getting into trouble,” she says. Many undocumented immigrants start their own businesses to sidestep problems with work authorization, Salas adds, so their deportation hurts not just their families, but also their employees. “People who’ve been here a long time, who’ve started their own businesses, who are doing good for themselves and others—there should be a way to handle those cases differently,” Salas says.
People who’ve been here a long time, who’ve started their own businesses, who are doing good for themselves and others—there should be a way to handle those cases differently.
As an immigrant, Salas empathizes with others struggling with the system. She is determined to fight for them. “It makes me stand up for my beliefs more strongly,” she says. “I see every day how the system works, and how it doesn’t.” But she believes that it will take political action to make a lasting difference. “It’s important for people to put aside personal feelings, and stop worrying so much about Democrats versus Republicans,” she says. “We need to come together, and realize that we have a problem that needs to be addressed.”