Elizabeth RicciHelping Veterans and with Legal Issues
Named one of the "25 Women You Need to Know" by the Tallahassee Democrat, Elizabeth Ricci, class of 2000, is respected not only for her professional work, but for her service within the Tallahassee community. Her dedication to her community can be seen both locally and internationally as she has served in Guatemala while in the United States Peace Corps.
Where did you grow up?
I'm originally from New York but grew up mostly in South Florida.
What is your background?
I worked in my family's immigration practice in high school and college, where I studied international business. After finishing my undergraduate studies, I was a small business development volunteer in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. After that, I went to the NSU Law Center, where I studied Immigration under Ira Kurzban. I have practiced immigration law since graduating from law school.
Did you always know you wanted to study law?
I always thought I would either go to law school or journalism school. While in the Peace Corps, I studied for the Law School Admission Test from my hammock in my yard in Guatemala.
Why did you choose the NSU Law Center?
I chose the Law Center because it was-and still is-in the international hub of South Florida. I also wanted to meet and learn from Ira Kurzban, who has been a partner in the law firm of Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzeli, and Pratt, P.A., in Miami, Florida, for almost three decades. He is past national president and former general counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He has received national recognition for his work in the immigration field and was named by the National Law Journal as one of the top 20 immigration lawyers in the United States. He has been listed for a decade in Best Lawyers in America for his work in immigration and employment law and has published immigration law articles in the Harvard Law Review and San Diego Law Review. He wrote Kurzban's Immigration Law Sourcebook, the most widely used immigration source in the United States. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to learn from someone so respected in the field.
What organizations were you involved in while at the Law Center?
I clerked with the Children's First project and with the Center for the Study of the United Nations Systems and the Global Legal Order (SUNSGLO), which began as a not-for-profit organization. The birthplace of SUNSGLO was at the NSU Law Center. The founder was Yassin El-Ayouty, who was a distinguished visiting professor. I argued on the First Amendment Moot Court team and was editor of Broadly Speaking: Nova Law News. I was also justice (president) of the Fleming Chapter of Phi Alpha Delta (PAD). Through PAD, I organized a statewide moot court competition at the Florida Supreme Court. Major Harding, then chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and Scott Maddox, who at the time was mayor, as well as other Tallahassee legal elite judged the competition. I later went on to be the district justice for that law fraternity for the state of Florida.
What are your favorite memories from your time at the NSU Law Center?
I met my husband and law partner Neil St. John Rambana while at the Law Center. At the time, I was the editor of Broadly Speaking: Nova Law News and he was vice president of the Student Bar Association. My office was next to his, and that's how we met. We've been married ten years. We have two wonderful daughters. We opened our own firm, Rambana and Ricci, PLLC, which is a personalized, full-service, multilingual immigration law practice focusing on complex litigation and administrative immigration issues. We represent clients ranging from large companies to families from Australia to Zimbabwe. In addition to offering traditional immigration services, we offer strategies for complex immigration issues before the Board of Immigration Appeals and federal courts, as well as advising employers in W-4 and I-9 compliance, servicing stateless individuals, and wrongly detained U.S. citizens, filing health and religious waivers, and filing waivers of the labor certification for those aliens whose work is in the national interest (EB-1 and EB-2 cases). I have also had the honor of representing members of the United States Armed Forces who found difficulty in gaining citizenship status.
Who was your favorite professor?
My favorite professor was Marilyn Cane from whom I took Corporate Law and under whom I studied at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, England in 1998.
Did you participate in a clinic while here at the Law Center?
I participated in the Business Practice Clinic at Holland and Knight in Tallahassee. Through the clinic, I made great local contacts and improved my electronic legal research.
Do you still keep in contact with classmates from NSU Law?
I still have many close friends from the NSU Law Center, and I visit with them when I am in South Florida. We also stay connected to each other through Facebook. Since many of my immigration clients have legal issues that give rise to issues outside of my practice, I try to refer cases to Law Center alumni.
You worked on immigration cases involving two U.S. military veterans. What were those cases about?
Axel Runtschke was a U.S. Army veteran, and I took his case pro bono in 2010 after he had tried to gain his U.S. citizenship for about four years. Axel Runtschke enlisted in the Army when he was 17 years old. He was so young to sign him up at home and not at the recruitment office. German-born, Runtschke had entered the United States on a student visa when he was 12 years old. He informed the recruiter he was a conditional permanent resident, which meant that a formal petition to remove the condition would eventually be required. The recruiter told Runtschke that he would take care of petitioning to remove the condition. Being young and trusting, Runtschke finalized the enlistment, served on active duty from 1997 to 2000, and then in the reserves until 2005. He did not give the residency matter further thought. In 2006, he lost his wallet and went to Social Security to replace his card. It was at the Social Security Administration Office where he learned that he was, and had been, in the United States illegally since shortly after enlisting. The first thing I did was file for his naturalization. Although he passed the naturalization test, he was denied naturalization because the petition to remove the condition on his residency was not filed in a timely manner-in fact, it was 12 years late. I repeatedly petitioned and offered a full explanation about what transpired, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rejected the petitions. By then, Axel Runtschke was in foreclosure since he could not legally work to support his family. The case garnered a tremendous amount of attention and community support. We started a fund for him, and one anonymous donor alone gave $3,000. Runtschke quickly got back into financial shape, was able to keep his home, and even had a few job offers.
We eventually received an interview date for his citizenship interview and oath. He was sworn in the same day. He always wanted to be in law enforcement, and I'm happy to report that he is in his last weeks of the police academy.
Another veteran, Michael Mitchell, also came to the United States as a child and became a permanent resident. Born in Patmos, Greece, Mitchell received two draft notices-one from Greece and the other from the United States. Because the United States was his home, he chose to serve the United States. He was told that if he served, he would be naturalized. Upon his honorable discharge, the promise was reiterated. After months, and finally years, of hoping and waiting, the citizenship promise never materialized. It was more than 40 years later, when Mitchell read the Axel Runtschke story that he reached out to his congressional representative and to me. I took his case pro bono and filed for his citizenship under a former military provision. The case was rejected, but I was persistent and re-filed. Immigration eventually scheduled an interview, which I attended with him. I remember the immigration officer asking if he'd be willing to bear arms on behalf of the country, and Mitchell replying that he already had. He was naturalized the same day, and we all shed a few tears of joy. Mitchell is now working as a cook in a franchise. These two cases really showed how immigrants are not necessarily those who come to mind regarding legal issues with our veteran population. These stories also showcase that our community does care for those who have served our country and how a community can come together to right a wrong. The Veterans Clinic will be a valuable resource for veterans and military personnel to be able to resolve their legal issues quickly and successfully.
The NSU Law Center Veterans Clinic will assist veterans with cases that will have the greatest impact on the stability and success of its clients, such as landlord-tenant cases, consumer matters, domestic relations, and state or federal misdemeanors, among others. Why do you think programs to help veterans are important?
One of my veteran clients told me about the difficulties he had transitioning into civilian life after being discharged. After the initial praise and thanks from his community faded, he said there was virtually no follow up from the military regarding his personal or professional well-being. The Veterans Clinic can make much needed pro bono resources available to empower veterans since unfortunately, they are most in danger of being unemployed, underemployed, homeless, or face family law discord.
Do you have any advice you can give current NSU Law Center students?
Get involved in student organizations, make good contacts, and be professional. Your classmates now can be friends, referrals, opposing counsel, or maybe preside over one of your cases later!