Accessibility links

A Polish Lawyer - 2002-03-10

English Feature #7-34904 Broadcast June 4, 2001

New York City has long been a magnet for immigrants from around the world. Since newcomers are often drawn to sections of the city where their countrymen have already settled, New York is a city of vibrant, thriving ethnic neighborhoods. Today New American Voices takes you to New York's Polish neighborhood, and introduces you to a lawyer practicing in the Polish-American community.

Greenpoint, the section of New York where many Polish immigrants live, is a typical city landscape: block upon block of four-and five story buildings, interspersed with churches, professional offices, shops and restaurants. Like many New York neighborhoods, it is home to a mixture of nationalities. The newsstands sell publications in Spanish, Polish and Russian, as well as English. Many shop windows have notices, "se habla espanol"-- Spanish spoken here. But Polish predominates. The signs over most shops are in both English and Polish, most sales people are bilingual - and first ask whether they can help you in Polish, before switching to English.

The professionals who have offices in Greenpoint are mostly bilingual, as well. One of them is Jerzy Sokol, who has been practicing law in this neighborhood since 1998. The issues that he deals with as a lawyer say a lot about the life of the Polish-American community that he serves.

"I do real estate transactions, buy and sell real property, I've done some family practice, divorces, some litigation, and also very often child support, which is a very common issue here in New York and in the Polish community. But because I work in the Polish community, now my practice, like 50 percent, is immigration aspects."

Immigration law is a broad and complex field - the more so, says Jerzy Sokol, because Congress changes the laws every few years, adding new restrictions or new regulations. For his Polish clients, however, Mr. Sokol says, there is one overriding issue.

"The most important thing here is that you have many people who came here illegally, without inspection, you know, through Canada or Mexico, and you have people who came legally, with student visas, tourist visas, business visas. And they stay, they overstay, and then because they want to go back, or they now change their plans and there's a problem for them, because after the visas expire they're out of status and they have to do something."

The Greenpoint Polish community is over 100 years old. A big wave of new immigrants came in the 1950s. The late 1980s again saw many new arrivals, refugees from Communist Poland. In recent years there has been another upsurge in immigration.

"There are many young people who are, I think, driven by the situation in Poland, and it's unfortunately the situation is worsening. In the 1990s after that big change in Poland and other East European countries there was a lot of optimism, and the situation improved, but recently the economic situation is not really good, in some parts of Poland unemployment is very high, and people from those places have no jobs and are looking for any opportunity to go."

Jerzy Sokol himself came to America in 1987, when the Communists were still in control in Eastern Europe. A law student at the time, Mr. Sokol was granted refugee status and immigrated to the United States through Italy. His first job was cleaning a store in Manhattan at night. Then, through a friend, he got a job as a woodworker.

"It was interesting. When I was a kid I liked to play with wood, and I liked to make ships and airplanes from wood, so - but it was tough, it was very difficult, it was many hours of work, so after I worked for a while I thought no, this is not my future, and then I decided to go to school. So I studied English, of course, first, like for a year, year and a half, and also worked part time."

Like many of his friends, Jerzy Sokol went back to Poland after the fall of communism, married there and had a son. But at the urging of his wife, a doctor, he returned to the United States with his family, and in 1997 passed the Bar examinations, allowing him to practice law in the state of New York.

"America is a great country. I think it's one of the greatest in the world. Why? Because it's true, you can live the American dream, still. If you work hard you can achieve almost everything here."

As for himself, Jerzy Sokol says that what he would like is to achieve is a balance between his professional and private life here in America. He has not yet reached his goal.

"I'm still on the way to achieve that. It's still a struggle. Especially, you have to move fast here, you have to keep up with this rat race in America. You have to work, save, buy a house, then pay a mortgage and this is like a big burden on you. It's very difficult to live the life that you want to live. I'm not yet on that level that I can feel comfortable that everything is running well. I'd like to have time for everything - for my house, my wife, my family, my practice, friends also… I hope in a few years I will get to that."

In addition to its large Polish-American community, New York City is home to the largest-circulation Polish-language daily newspaper outside of Poland. Next week on New American Voices the editor of the Nowy Dziennik, or New Daily, talks about the paper's goals and readership.