VOICE OF CALM
Once a child soldier in Lebanon, Haitham E. Ballout rebuilt his life in the U.S. Now he helps others do the same
Published in 2011 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2011
In 1976, Haitham E. Ballout, barely a teenager, carried a Kalashnikov assault rifle into the hills of Lebanon. As a soldier defending his town, he witnessed many things no child should have to see.
Now, at age 49, there is a smile in Ballout’s eyes, optimism in his voice and a calmness in his demeanor. These are the rewards of perspective. For Ballout, life is a gift to be unwrapped daily. He has a family, including his wife and their four children; a house on the peninsula south of San Francisco; a mountain bike on which he loves to explore the natural beauty of his surroundings; and a thriving law practice focused on a hot issue: immigration.
He doesn’t talk much about his time as a child soldier. He is neither ashamed nor proud; as the family’s oldest son still living in the country, it was something he felt compelled to do.
“They said, ‘Here is your rifle and your ammunition,’ and off I went,” he says.
He would go to the front for two weeks, come home for a few days, then go back again to try to stop the outside forces, who were advancing with tanks.
“We were doing whatever we could to stop them,” says Ballout. “Firefights, seeing the horror of war, smelling the burned dead bodies and having friends die next to me—it was not good.”
Ballout and his six siblings lived in the mountains with their parents, who were teachers. There wasn’t much money, but there was enough to live on. Ballout’s U.S. connection started with a twist of fate. One of his brothers, Hisham, wanted the family to host an exchange student. Their parents agreed, though they wondered how they could feed another person. An agency connected them with a Swedish family, but the student canceled because of the frequent fighting in Lebanon. The agency replaced her with an American girl from California—with whom Hisham fell in love. They married and lived in Lebanon for a time; when the fighting got worse, they left for California.
Soon afterward, the soldiers came for Ballout. He wrote to his family about his experiences at the front; one of his letters made its way to Hisham. Appalled, Hisham came up with enough money to get his brother to California on a student visa.
At age 14, Ballout found himself thousands of miles away from his parents. It wasn’t easy, but it was better than being shot at in the hills of Lebanon.
“It’s funny, the little things you remember,” he says. “If my kids complain about sweaty feet, I remember I had the same boots and socks on for two weeks without ever taking them off. I will never forget—I saw somebody’s head blown off. And later his mother came to me and begged, ‘Please tell me, how did he die? What happened?’ I helped take him to the hospital. It was not an easy thing.”
Making a life in the U.S. wasn’t easy, either. With no ability to speak or read English, he was put in a special education class in high school in Hayward. Eventually he transferred to a high school in San Mateo, where he attended regular classes. He worked very hard on his English, which improved quickly. But he had little in common with the other kids.
“It was almost like the rest of them were infants,” he says.
When Ballout was just 16, he tested his way into San José State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. Even when his English skills were still limited, he excelled at two universal languages—math and science.
He lived with Hisham and his family, but rarely saw his brother, who was working very hard to support them. There was very little money. At one point, the phone was disconnected. “We had nothing—really, nothing,” Ballout says. “It was not fun at all.”
One thing he definitely had was determination.
“It wasn’t about being smart, it was about being dedicated to doing what is necessary to get what you want,” he says. “I remember day after day, spending hours after school in the library looking at the dictionary. I had to look up almost every other word because I knew nothing. It was a sad time—missing family, people making fun of you. The only thing they knew about Lebanon was Lebanese hash. The funny thing is that, to me, in Lebanon drugs were not something you even knew about.”
After he graduated from college, he used his engineering skills to work for his brother, who had paid for Ballout’s education and by then was running a company that sold and repaired commercial refrigeration units. One Sunday morning as Ballout sat reading The New York Times, a small display ad caught his attention. It said: “Thinking of law school?”
“I realized, my God, that is what I want to do,” Ballout says. “Law had never crossed my mind before, but it hit me that morning.”
Hisham wasn’t shocked to hear that his brother wanted to become a lawyer.
“He was a leader even when he was a kid,” says Hisham, who eventually moved back to Lebanon. “[He] always had an answer for everything. … And he always had a dream—to be somebody.”
On Monday, Ballout talked to a law school adviser. Two weeks later, he was enrolled in an LSAT class. He took the next-scheduled LSAT and shortly thereafter was sitting in his first class at Golden Gate University, the only law school in the area that accepted students midyear. This, he thought, is where I belong. While his brother paid for engineering school, Ballout managed to cover law school himself—he worked during the first year and took out loans for the last two.
“I loved reading those constitutional cases written by those justices,” he says. “It touched my heart. … I was coming from a country of chaos. It was an amazing feeling.”
Today, Ballout has offices in San Francisco, Burlingame and Lake Tahoe. He has been successful with personal injury work, representing plaintiffs against organizations including United Airlines, Swissair and Shell Oil. He has also handled big employment discrimination cases against defendants including Home Depot, Starbucks and the State of California.
His focus, however, is on immigration. And in his spare time, he likes to write children’s stories. In one of his first, a raindrop is afraid to jump from its cloud, so Mother Nature gently lifts it to the ground. Reassured, and happy it can do its job, the raindrop slides out of her hand and trickles to the earth, helping to heal the parched ground.
The story ends: “Mother Nature understood that each child has a distinct season to thrive in and be free.”
Freedom is important to Ballout. When someone’s freedom to live in America is on the line, he wants to be the lawyer they call. His own attempts to stay in the U.S. after coming on his student visa were nearly sunk by poor legal advice, he says.
“There is something wrong with that picture,” he says. “Somebody has to do better than that. Now, working with clients, a lot of times I have to gain their trust because, in their mind, their last attorney may not have treated them right. I just tell them, ‘Not long ago I was in your shoes.’”
In one case, Ballout represented a foreign citizen facing deportation. The man said he was brought to the United States by a U.S. government agent who escorted him around security at the airport. When the man came to Ballout, the government was trying to deport him for allegedly trying to buy illegal green cards. They had the tapes to prove it. He claimed that he had tried to buy green cards with cash in a hotel room because the U.S. government wanted him to help make a bust. He said the government had given him the cash and set it up. He even provided the first name of his mysterious government handler. Ballout persuaded the judge to ignore the tapes because there was no criminal conviction against his client, and immigration judges don’t decide criminal cases. The judge, says Ballout, returned a response to the government to the effect of: “Don’t show me tapes; show me a conviction, then I’ll decide whether to deport him.” In the end, Ballout’s client got his green card and now lives with his wife, a U.S. citizen.
Ballout has returned to Lebanon a few times to visit family. In July 2006, he brought his own family—his wife, Linda, and their children. War broke out again just as they arrived. With the airport closed, they were evacuated to Cyprus a week later via boat by the U.S. Department of State, escorted by U.S. Navy ships for protection. A more recent visit was two years ago, again with his family, and this time less eventful.
Sacramento lawyer Andrew Bohan, who attended Golden Gate with Ballout, says of his longtime friend, “He has always brought a calm to situations. I remember, during law school, a number of us were out hiking in the backcountry and we got disoriented. People were getting really anxious. Haitham was like, ‘It’s all good—we have to get over that ridge and we’ll be fine.’ That’s how he was, and is.”
Ballout acknowledges, “My wife sometimes says how steady I am. I think what happened before, it does help me keep things in perspective. I feel like I am lucky to be alive and lucky to be able to enjoy my family and my work and put my kids to bed at night.”
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Having served immigration clients for over 20 years, we’ve learned a lot about immigration laws and procedures. We’ve addressed hundreds of questions and concerns around immigration related issues such as Green Cards, deportation and detention centers.
To help serve you better, we’ve compiled and listed below some of the top questions we've encountered about immigration related issues. If you still have questions after reading, please don’t hesitate to contact us for a consultation.
I am married or engaged to my same-sex partner. May I petition my spouse or fiancee?
Yes, you may. Feel free to contact us for assitance with your petition. More info is available in the USCIS FAQ regarding same-sex marriages and immigration benefits.
Where can I get the Dream Act application?
The application is available online at www.uscis.gov/i-821d.
What is Obama's new policy of "Deferred Action" and how does it affect me?
What happens to Deferred Action if a Republican becomes President?
A Republican president may or may not continue the Deferred Action policy. However, a Republican president will not necessarily revoke deferred action granted to anyone while the policy was in effect. This means that, if a Republican becomes president, new applications for Deferred Action may not be accepted.
If a Republican becomes president, we cannot guarantee that Immigration will not act on the information it has obtained from Deferred Action applicants. However, Immigration has repeatedly emphasized that it will continue to focus its limited resources on criminal immigrants that are a danger to the community.
If I am granted Deferred Action, may I travel outside of the United States?
You may not travel outside of the United States while your Deferred Action application is being considered. If your application for Deferred Action is granted, you must apply for advanced parole in order to travel outside of the United States. Please call our office to discuss the process for applying for advanced parole.
If I marry someone outside the US, will that person automatically become a citizen?
No. Your spouse will receive a green card first if the correct procedure is followed, and if your spouse is eligible.
How long does it take to get a green card?
This varies by person and state. The process of getting a green card isn’t complex but the process could be time consuming.
Where can I learn more about immigration Law?
The Immigration and Nationality Act is a law that governs immigration in the United States. For the part of the law concerning most types of permanent resident status, please see INA § 245. The specific eligibility requirements and procedures for adjusting to permanent residence status are included in the Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] at 8 CFR § 245.
Who is eligible for a green card?
To find out who may apply for permanent residence in the United States, please contact us to get eligibility information. (Please note, your permanent residence status will be conditional if it is based on a marriage that was less than two years old on the day you were given permanent residence. For more information, please contact our immigration lawyers to learn more.)
How do I apply?
To find out how you can apply to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States, please contact us to learn more – we will help you identify what you need to do. After you submit your application materials, you will be asked to go to a USCIS office to answer questions about your applications. Don’t worry, we will help you through this process.
Will I get a work permit?
Applicants for adjustment to permanent resident status are eligible to apply for a work permit while their cases are pending. You should use USCIS Form I-765 to apply for a work permit. You do not need to apply for a work permit once you adjust to permanent resident status. As a lawful permanent resident, you should receive a permanent resident card that will prove that you have a right to live and work in the United States permanently.
Can I travel outside the United States?
If you are applying for adjustment to permanent resident status, you must receive advance permission to return to the United States if you are traveling outside the United States. This advance permission is called Advance Parole. If you do not obtain Advance Parole before you leave the country, you will abandon your application with USCIS and you may not be permitted to return to the United States. For more information, please contact us.
How can I check the status of my application?
We will contact the USCIS office that received your application on your behalf to ensure that the process for you is as smooth as possible. We will work with the USCIS staff to obtain the specific information that you may need.
How can I appeal?
The only applications for permanent residency (Form I-485) which can be appealed to USCIS are those based on a marriage which took place while the alien’s application was in process or those based on Section 586 of Public Law 106-429, adjustment of status for certain nationals of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. These appeals must be made to the Administrative Appeals Unit (AAU). Be assured that we can help you through this process if necessary.
Contact Our Immigration Attorneys
Do you need help with an immigration matter? Call a Northern California Super Lawyer at (650) 373-1122.
The Law Offices of Haitham Ballout have over 22 years experience with diverse immigration matters and we are eager to assist you in any way that we can.
Have you heard about the I-601A Provisional Waiver Expansion and you're wondering whether it applies to you?
Are you wondering whether you are eligible for Deferred Action under the Dream Act?
Are you or a loved one facing deportation?
Have you or a loved one been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement?
Do you need to file a fiancee or relative petition on behalf of your non-citizen loved one?
Are you an employer or employee who would like to obtain or update an employment visa?
Have you been the victim of a crime in the United States and are wondering about a U-Visa?
Has your petition been denied or have you lost an immigration case?
Are you wondering about immigration opportunities for a same-sex partner?
Do you want to find out how you can obtain a Green Card? Work Authorization?
Have you been charged with a crime that may affect your immigration status?
Whatever immigration challenges you're facing, give us a call. Our friendly staff is ready and willing to speak with you about any issue. Call us today to schedule a consultation. Not located in the San Francisco Bay Area? Don't worry! Our attorneys are glad to provide phone consultations.
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