Founder and Managing Partner, Margaret W. Wong and Associates
By Sue Starrett
As a foreign student on full scholarship, Margaret Wong arrived in America in 1969, along with her sister Cecilia, four suitcases, and $200. They came from British Hong Kong to attend an all-girls’ Catholic junior college in Iowa. During college, they worked in the cafeteria, rising early to make sure breakfast was ready.
For seven summers, Margaret was employed by a hotel in the Catskills, first as a chambermaid and eventually as head waitress. She earned enough to cover her tuition at Western Illinois University and for law school at the State University of New York Buffalo. She passed the New York and Ohio bars and subsequently moved to Ohio, seeking work as an attorney.
Law firms were not receptive. This was the mid-1970s, when firms were only mildly welcoming to women as associates and partnerships were almost unprecedented. So after working as a credit analyst and management trainee at Central National Bank (now KeyBank), Wong rented a small office and began her own practice. Wong didn’t break the glass ceiling, she simply did an end-run.
From those humble beginnings in 1977, Margaret W. Wong and Associates, LLC has become a 15-attorney firm recognized internationally for its expertise in immigration and nationality law. With offices in nine cities, its home is in Cleveland. Collectively, its employees speak 11 languages and handle everything from work visas to deportation. Among the attorneys are Wong’s and the late Kam Chan’s two children, Allison and Steven, along with Cecilia’s sons, Francis and Joseph Fungsang.
The office locations are strategic. Wong is in cities where courts hear immigration cases and where precedent is set. “Immigration practice takes patience, passion, and hard work. No pain, nothing gained.” She says that although the core immigration laws haven’t changed during her career, enforcement and bureaucracy certainly have. American immigration law was formerly the purview of the U. S. Department of State, but today it is overseen by Labor and Homeland Security. The latter was created in response to 9/11 and as a consequence, casts immigration among issues of national security.
As someone who struggled to keep her own immigrant status aligned with governmental regulations, Wong knows what her clients want: to live, work, and drive in America legally.
“Immigration practice takes patience, passion, and hard work. No pain, nothing gained.”
“It’s such an honor to be American. Every day I’m humbled and tickled pink that I am in this country working and living, have a family here, and am able to address questions about immigration,” Wong says in a video series that launched in late April. In it, she discusses the knowledge and wisdom she has gleaned as an immigration lawyer and in doing so, shares her legacy.
“I’ve had calls and cries for help every day for 40 years. At times I felt powerless and dejected and depressed…because I couldn’t help. But for those I could, I’ve done a lot. For that, I’m always in gratitude,” she says. As an immigration lawyer, she is part social worker and part public defender.
The video series (http://bit.ly/margaret-wong) is not Wong’s first foray into the media. For a number of years she has hosted several radio shows in New York City, and her book, The Immigrant’s Way, is now in its fifth edition. In addition to offering a comprehensive history of immigration to the United States and the related laws and regulations that determine legal status, it is a how-to manual that offers glimpses of the poverty, loss, and injustice Wong has experienced.
Wong faces every day with her ferocious work ethic, resourcefulness, experience, and compassion. An early riser since her cafeteria job days, she is the first to arrive at the office – when she is in town. Recently she spent Monday in New York, Tuesday in Atlanta, Wednesday in Cleveland, Thursday in Nashville, and Friday in Columbus. That said, Wednesday night dinners are sacred for Wong and her family, several generations of whom eventually moved to Shaker Heights. A resident for 23 years, Wong continues to appreciate the diversity and kindness of the people in the community, as well as its proximity to her office.
From being among the first non-U.S. citizens to practice law in Ohio to being named the first Chinese-American president of the Federal Bar Association’s Northeastern Chapter, Wong has received many honors and appointments. Chief among them are her induction into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, charter membership in the Ohio Supreme Court’s Continuing Legal Education Commission, an Outstanding Alumni Award from the State University of New York Buffalo, and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. She serves on many boards, including those of her undergraduate and graduate schools, Cuyahoga Community College, Global Cleveland, Notre Dame College, and United Way, and is a gracious philanthropist to the institutions that gave her life direction and meaning.
Wong believes “that any great lawyer needs to have a clear and healthy mind and a healthy body, and always be in a state of gratitude and joy when she works with her clients. No matter how tired we are, we fight. We keep our clients in our country and do whatever will fit within the confines of the law. Their pain becomes our pain, their successes are our success.”
Originally published in Shaker Life, Summer 2018.