Seated in the back of the auditorium at the Ohio History Connection, Inna Simakovsky beamed as she surveyed the crowded room. Hundreds gathered to celebrate their allegiance to the United States in a naturalization oath ceremony for new citizens. Simakovsky, an immigration attorney, was not required to be present to see some of her clients become naturalized citizens. But she chose to be there.
“I come here to remind myself why I do what I do,” Simakovsky said. “It recharges my soul.”
Simakovsky said practicing immigration law today is different than what it was before. With the current administration, her work days can be chaotic.
“I never thought we’d be in a place where there’s so much hatred toward people like me,” Simakovsky said, choking up. “Why do we have such hatred toward people that are us?”
She knows the plight of refugees because she was one. Simakovsky, 48, came to the United States in 1976 as a child refugee from the former Soviet Union.
As Jews, Simakovsky and her family were persecuted and discriminated against under communist rule. Wanting to escape the oppression, they left the Soviet Union, knowing there was no return.
The Simakovskys spent about five months in Italy while their documents were being processed. They were finally adopted by a Jewish family and arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, with a suitcase and about $100.
After her mother traced back some old family ties in Columbus, they moved to the city in 1977, where Simakovsky began first grade.
She completed her primary and higher education in Ohio and graduated with a juris doctor degree from Ohio State in 1998. She then worked on immigration cases for several nonprofits on the West Coast before returning to Columbus in 2004.
“I’m a nonprofit girl,” Simakovsky said. “But I also had the desire to advocate.”
Feeling limited by the boundaries in the nonprofit sector, Simakovsky began practicing private law with a law firm in 2007. She established her own firm, Simakovsky Law, in 2012.
She and a fellow attorney won the first legal status for an immigrant seeking sanctuary in Ohio. For Simakovsky, helping immigrants is more than just a day job.
“She is so driven to help,” said Lauren Powers, operations manager at Simakovsky Law. “For many, it may just be a job. But for Inna, it’s an all-encompassing thing; for her, this is life-giving.”
Despite her years of practice as an immigration attorney, Simakovsky still enjoys face-to-face interactions from the start, Powers said. She continues to give out her cellphone number to her clients even today.
“She practices what she preaches,” Powers said. “Watching her in action is really inspiring.”
In addition to her law practice, Simakovsky is also involved in several other efforts to help immigrants.
Simakovsky heard about the overground railroad project when it was in its initial stage. The project helps immigrants traveling from the border by donating food, water and other necessities like toiletries and diapers and meeting them at bus stations in several cities around the country.
She soon got on board with the project and became one of its founding members for Columbus, making her office a donation drop-off point. She and her staff visit the Greyhound station regularly to meet those stopping in Columbus and provide the collected items. Simakovsky is also the legal adviser for Vineyard Church Immigration Counseling Services and holds regular legal clinics.
She said that she knows and understands what it is like to survive. Her personal experiences and struggles are instrumental for her to help immigrants—who are now in similar positions as she was decades ago—navigate the legal landscape. “My work is challenging, but rewarding,” she said.
Simakovsky, her husband and three children live in Bexley with her parents just a block away.
“A true immigrant family,” she called it.