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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    April 01, 2015

    10 Questions
    Raluca Vais-Ottosen: A Long Journey from Romania to Wisconsin

    Growing up in communist Romania, Raluca Vais-Ottosen often dreamed of exploring other parts of the world. After earning a law degree in Bucharest, she applied for a student visa and made her way to Baton Rouge, La., where she earned a Master of Law degree from Louisiana State University. Now she’s heading the Immigration Group at DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C. in Madison.
    Raluca Vais-Ottosen

    Raluca Vais-Ottosen, Bucharest, Romania, 2003. Master of Law, Louisiana State University, 2004.

    Raluca now practices immigration law with DeWitt Ross and Stevens SC, Madison.

    What was your personal experience in immigrating?

    I came to the United States in 2003 on a J-1 visa to pursue an LL.M degree at Louisiana State University. After that, I obtained a temporary work visa, which I almost did not get because the number of work visas for that year had already run out. I was finally able to obtain that visa due to a change in law that took effect that year increasing the number of work visas available. In 2008, I became a permanent resident and, when I became eligible for U.S. citizenship, I took that final step too, becoming a citizen in 2011. It was a long and convoluted process, with a different type of application and supporting evidence at every stage.

    How did your experience immigrating to the United States influence your special interest in immigration law?

    I had never really planned to be an immigration attorney until I started realizing how difficult it can be to navigate through the U.S. immigration system. In my own experience I soon discovered that, with a few exceptions that did not apply to me, it often does not matter how skilled you are, or how much education you have, or how well you have integrated in the society. The U.S. immigration laws are very restrictive and, in many respects, they are simply not adequate to accommodate today’s level of world migration, technology boom, and professional mobility. It was challenging for me, and I was fluent in English and had two law degrees. I could not even begin to imagine how difficult it may be for someone with less education or with a language barrier.

    Being an immigrant myself gives me the advantage of having seen the immigration system from the perspective of both the applicant and the advocate. I can relate to my clients because, to some extent, I was in their shoes: as a visitor on an exchange-student visa, as a high-skilled worker on a work visa that would not have happened but for a change in the law at just the right time, or as the beneficiary of a family-based immigration petition.

    What do you like most about being an immigration lawyer?

    It is a fascinating field to be in because it is constantly changing, now more than ever, due to the expanding globalization and shift in social policies. More important though, it is a constant reminder of where I came from and of the things we shouldn’t take for granted.

    What area of the law or legal principle in the United States did you find most different from Romanian law?

    The employment law field, particularly the employment-at-will doctrine. That principle doesn’t exist in Romania, and the general rule there is that employees may only be terminated for cause, and if they resign they have to give advance notice. By contrast, the U.S. employment-at-will doctrine requires neither cause nor advance notice.

    I first heard of the employment-at-will doctrine during my LL.M program at LSU, and my first reaction was: “Who would ever agree to work in this system?” And although I was told that this is the general rule in the United States, I found it impossible to understand how such a system could actually work until, a few months later, I found myself accepting a job … at will. Ironically, the job was with a law firm focusing in employment law.

    What was the hardest adjustment when you came from Romania to the United States?

    The food, in more ways than one. First of all, I grew up during communism, in a period when most food was rationed by the government. And although this had changed long before I came to the United States, a lot of us still had that rationing system ingrained in our subconscious, to the point to which we were rationing ourselves. So having large servings or seeing leftovers go to waste was not something that I was accustomed to. Another big difference was the food itself. All the preservatives in the standard grocery store items were as foreign to my body as I was to this country. Needless to say, organic food was well beyond my means at the time.

    How about the easiest adjustment?

    The easiest adjustments came in the form of much simpler things, such as having access to high-speed Internet, or not having to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch the Oscars because of the time-zone difference.

    Is Madison your final destination?

    It is. I have lived in five cities throughout two countries. My home town, Piatra Neamt, will always be home. Living in Baton Rouge, La., was an amazing experience and it was a very important chapter in my life. I met many wonderful people there, especially my husband, and they were all crucial to my ability to adapt to life in the United States. But Madison offers such an eclectic, yet unpretentious, environment, that I simply feel that I belong here. And Wisconsin as a whole is really beautiful, and I enjoy traveling throughout the state. You can find something new to explore in Wisconsin during every season.

    What do you like to do in your free time?

    I like to make things, from scented candles to apparel, crocheted sweaters, jewelry, or improvise a tune on the piano, which I never record and I can hardly ever replicate. I also love the sense of community that Madison has, especially the summer music festivals on Madison’s near-east side. I have volunteered at those events for a few years and it gives me great joy to be able to contribute to the city’s cultural scene and place making.

    Are there any Romanian customs you continue to observe?

    There are a few. There is a sweet bread that is traditionally served at Easter, called cozonac. I still bake it for every Easter holiday or, if I don’t bake it, I try to find someone who does. But it is not always easy to find one that I like because the recipe has various types of fillings, which differ depending on the region of the country where it originated.

    Another custom that I maintain is pickling and home preserving. This is something that was extremely prevalent during communism, mainly out of necessity. The climate in Romania is similar to the one in the Midwest, so fruits and vegetables were seasonal and very hard to find during the winter, as they were not imported from other regions. And even though access to fresh produce or store-bought relish is no longer an issue, I still make my own pickles and I still roast vegetables in the fall and can or freeze them to have until the next season.

    Do you have any advice for foreign nationals who are coming to the United States?

    If you have any intention in making the United States your home for the long term, whether permanent or not, find out if you have any options as early as possible. Learn what you can and cannot do in your current status. In many instances, your current immigration status or the type of visa you currently hold may prevent you from prolonging your stay in the United States unless certain preconditions are met. In addition, most applications in the immigration field take months, or even years, to be processed by the U.S. government and many of them do not provide any temporary status while the case is pending. More often than not, timing is everything. So don’t leave everything until the last minute.

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