A raft sets sail from Cuba with a half-dozen people on board, headed toward American soil. They are spotted by a ship that left port in Miami, heading south. The phone rings in the office of Enrique Gonzalez III ’91, one of the world’s most prominent attorneys in immigration law and top executive at Fragomen, a global law firm with over 600 attorneys and 6,000 professionals spanning more than 65 offices worldwide.
Gonzalez quickly assesses the situation and provides immediate counsel regarding the intersection between maritime law and immigration law (requiring the ship to rescue the rafters and/or alert the U.S. Coast Guard) and next steps in their journey (delivery to Key West, Florida, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a “credible fear interview” in the asylum seeking process).
Though Gonzalez can dispassionately cite chapter and verse of immigration law—no matter who the client or how complex the problem—his passion for immigration law has driven his career and made him a soughtafter expert in legal, political, and civic spheres.
For Gonzalez, immigration is personal and professional. His parents were both born in Cuba, met in New York City, and gave birth to Enrique Gonzalez III in Queens, New York. They instilled in him a deep appreciation for hard work and opportunity: “The people who come to this country make it better,” says Gonzalez. “Regardless of all of the issues our country is facing, it is still the greatest country in the world.”
Gonzalez was not pursuing a career in immigration law when he came to Cornell Law School from Tulane University with a degree in political science. His plan was to become a corporate attorney. He interned and clerked with a Miami-based international banking firm and, after graduation, began “dabbling” in immigration cases involving bank executives. “Eventually, I was assigned more and more immigration and less and less banking work,” he recalls. Then, in 1996, the offer came to join Fragomen where he found perfect alignment for his passion and purpose.
Founded in 1951 in New York City, Fragomen helps its clients, from start-ups and nonprofits to the world’s largest corporations, recruit top talent and meet workforce demands. “We want to make things better in every country where Fragomen sits,” says Gonzalez who was recently named cochair of the firm (effective January 1, 2023) after fifteen years as managing partner of its Miami office.
Gonzalez, who has been listed among the Best Lawyers in America every year since 2010, sees immigration law as integral to economic prosperity. “We are one of the reasons America functions. We make it possible for corporations, whether established or startups, hospitals, universities, and all other types of organizations to hire the engineers, inventors, researchers, and other professionals they need. During the pandemic, our clients still needed quality control specialists to complete the building of airplane components and we got them to where they were needed. . . . From athletes and entertainers to COVID-19 researchers, we help talent throughout the world move to where they are needed when they are needed.”
Gonzalez’s personal and professional interests also aligned when his friend U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) recruited him in 2013 to work as his special counsel on immigration. Gonzalez took a year off from his legal practice to serve Rubio and the public interest, helping to draft the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act that was approved by the U.S. Senate on June 27, 2013. “It was the only comprehensive legislation on immigration to make it through the Senate in three decades,” says Gonzalez, who led the Republican Senate staff on the bipartisan team that became known as the Gang of Eight. The process of bringing it to the Senate floor was grueling.
His counterpart on the Democratic side was Leon Fresco, another Cuban American, now a partner with Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C. “Enrique is the consummate professional,” says Fresco. “Working with him on the Senate immigration reform bill in 2013 was one of the greatest experiences of my life. He brought a level of insight, dedication, and camaraderie that was truly unparalleled. He is one of the rare people who is nice to everyone, but also extremely effective and determined. Young lawyers should study Enrique and emulate what they see.”
The bill never made it to the House floor. A disappointed Gonzalez returned to private practice where, he admits, it’s a lot easier to get results.
Fresco maintains that “many of the ideas from that bill will eventually become law. It is inevitable. And Enrique will have had a big part in that.”
Gonzalez’s experience in both private and public sectors has been invaluable to the students at Cornell Law School, where he has come to speak and is engaged as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council.
At the invitation of Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice, Gonzalez also participated in the Law School’s 2018 groundbreaking conference, “Dreamers and Beyond: Our Broken Immigration System.”
Gonzalez’s disappointment with political divisiveness has not dampened his passion to make progress on immigration reform.
Passion is also a word used by grateful clients to describe how Gonzalez dives into each case. “Enrique literally did everything he could to find a legal way to allow me to practice medicine in the United States,” says Nestor Valeron, M.D., emergency medicine physician at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. In August 1994, Valeron left Cuba in a small boat. The goal was to get to America, but he ended up in the Cayman Islands in a refugee camp. Ultimately, family members in Miami hired Gonzalez. “He met me in Kingston, Jamaica, stayed with me in a hotel room and waited on long lines to help me get a visa.” Dr. Valeron would go on to treat and save the lives of countless children.
Armed with stories like Dr. Valeron’s, Gonzalez motivates young lawyers and law students. “I tell them to identify what they’re passionate about and what their purpose is.” Through his support of scholarships at Cornell Law School (the Austin T. Fragomen Annual Scholarship and the Charles Evans Hughes Scholars program), he ensures that promising students have an opportunity to pursue their own passions and purpose.
“Our whole family is a family of immigrants,” says Gonzalez’s eldest daughter, Carolina. When she was just fifteen years old, she was inspired to help create a nonprofit organization that helped “dreamers” (young adults brought to the United States as children) to remain in this country, go to school, and pursue careers. “Even at such a young age, I was taught that I could ease the burden for someone else,” says Carolina, now an accomplished writer in New York City. “My father’s passion and devotion have no bounds.”
Whether through his generosity to Cornell Law School students, his board engagement with UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, or through recruitment of women and minorities to Fragomen, Gonzalez is all about opportunity. With women comprising 50 percent of the partnership, Fragomen earned the top spot among similarly sized firms in Law360’s 2021 Glass Ceiling Report. Additionally, Law360 recognized Fragomen as the number-one firm of its size for minority attorneys and equity partners in its “Diversity Snapshot” from 2017 to 2021.
“You can be diverse and be at the top,” says Gonzalez. “That’s our purpose. And we pursue it with passion.”
~ EILEEN KOREY