Ray Wood’s vocation and avocation: Lawyer mends the holes in people’s hearts

GUILDERLAND — Ray Wood uses the investigative skills he honed in a career ferreting out corrupt lawyers to find fathers whose children never knew them — starting with his own grandfather.

Wood, who was admitted to the bar in 2013, specializes in immigration law and opened his own practice in 2017. For most of his professional life, he investigated dishonest and corrupt attorneys, with the New York State Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, a little-known state agency in downtown Albany.

“I have tracked down lawyers who are trying to hide, so finding people who aren’t trying to hide is easy for me,” he said of his hobby, which involves using DNA, databases, social media, and other avenues to try to help people find long-lost parents.

All of the work searching for people’s fathers is done pro bono, he said. “I do it to relax.”

Often, Wood said, he finds that people have “a hole in their heart” from not knowing a parent’s identity. So far, he has found the fathers of four half-Vietnamese men.

Wood worked at the Lawyers’ Fund for 27 years, immersed in every area of the law. Corrupt lawyers steal from clients, he said, in areas including matrimonial law, real-estate law, and immigration law.

“I always had a special place in my heart for immigrants,” he said, after seeing how some attorneys would steal from hundreds of immigrant clients, and the clients, whose immigration status might be precarious, would say nothing.

“A lot of times, they wouldn’t even say a peep,” Wood said.

His work at the Lawyers’ Fund, Wood said proudly, included monitoring the prosecution of these attorneys so that, when it was over, the stolen money could be returned to the clients. All lawyers pay fees that are placed into a kitty, Wood said, which is used to pay back clients in cases like the ones the Lawyers Fund investigates.

When Wood opened his practice, some of the first cases he took were immigration-related, and he found the research involved in them fascinating. “Everyone’s details are so different,” he said, and the details can make a world of difference.

One immigration-law policy, he said, is that, if someone comes from another country on a visitor’s visa and marries a citizen within 30 days of arrival, it’s considered automatic, and the person is deported and given a lifetime ban. Marrying within 60 days is almost as bad: there’s a presumption of fraud, he said, “and you don’t want any of that.”

New clients often call to ask how they can get a green card for a wife or husband, and his first question is always, “When did he or she come here, and when did you get married?”

If they got married within that first 60-day period, the immigrant spouse must leave while the paperwork for the green card is filed from the United States, and it usually takes about a year, Wood said. If the couple gets married after Day 61, they can stay together in the United States, and the process of getting a green card takes about six or seven months.

An exception would be if the immigrant spouse were afraid to return to his or her home country due to fear of persecution. That would become an asylum case, Wood said.

“People think, ‘Let’s get married and then call the lawyer,’” Wood said. “Luckily, sometimes people say, ‘Let’s call the lawyer first.’”

His phone “burns off the hook,” he told The Enterprise during a recent visit to his office at 2022 Western Ave. in Guilderland, and indeed he is interrupted every few minutes. He talks with one client about the language the man’s wife speaks — Mandingo — and says they will need to find a Mandingo translator to accompany them to court.

He learns from another, an American man, that the woman with whom he lived in Nicaragua for 14 years has just come to the United States and they have already gotten married. “When did she arrive, and when did you get married?” Wood asks. Turns out it was too soon, and the couple will now have to spend a year apart.

He gets a lot of calls from people confused and worried about changes to immigration policies. For instance, he said, President Donald Trump recently stated that he would like to put an end to birthright citizenship for people born in this country to non-citizen parents.

Wood gets calls from people who became citizens in that way, asking questions like, “I’ve already filed to try to bring my father over, will that not work now?’ He reassures them, “It’s just something he tweeted.”

Mostly, Wood steers clear of political conversation about immigration. His focus, he says, is on helping individuals. “The immigrants I’ve met have been really, really good people,” he says.

Immigration law is federal, so he can work for clients anywhere in the country, and sometimes takes clients as far away as California or Florida whose friends have recommended him. They fly him out, he said, because immigration issues are so crucial to their lives.

Wood grew up in Mississippi and came to the University at Albany for his undergraduate studies for several reasons. It was a good school and cheaper at the time than the comparable alternatives in his home state, and it was on a bus line, which helped, since he had no car. An aunt of his lived locally, and he lived with her.

After a couple of years in college, he had to stopped to serve in the Army for a few years, to make money to continue. “I came from a poor family,” he said.

The first relative he found was his own. His father had been adopted, but had never been interested in finding his father. The stepfather who had adopted him had been his real father, as far as he was concerned.

But Wood wanted to find his “real grandfather,” and set out to do it using DNA and other tools. By the time he found him, the man had died, but Wood was able to connect, he said, with other relatives.

“Lucky for me, they’re nice people” he said. “You never know who you’re going to get.”

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