By Pete Kennedy
Love brought Joseph Rollo to America.
He was a teenager from Sicily when he first visited the United States and met Anna Maria, the woman he would later marry. The couple sent letters back and forth across the Atlantic for about a year, and though he had never planned to live in America, she convinced him to attend college in the Philadelphia area.
Rollo, who returned to the United States in 1976, shortly after his 19th birthday, will turn 60 this year. As a lawyer specializing in immigration cases and international law, he has helped thousands of others make journeys similar to his own. Looking back, he is almost in disbelief at the leap he made as a young man.
“Not only I was under shock for moving from a small town to a metropolis, but I needed to learn English to attend college classes in a matter of a month. I am very thankful for the support, love and encouragement I received from my wife and her extended family especially during those trying years,” Rollo said.
At Villanova University, he earned a political science degree and then a law degree. He found mentors in the late Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Armand Della Porta, for whom he clerked for a decade, and the late Judge Anthony De Fino.
While working as a clerk, Rollo gradually established his own practice. Joseph M. Rollo & Associates, with an office in South Philadelphia, has successfully guided thousands of people through the immigration process.
The small staff inside his office on bustling South Broad Street includes his associate, Christine Flowers, a lawyer who is also a well-known columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and paralegal secretary who he just rehired after a 25-year hiatus. When the phone rings, the caller might be speaking English, Italian, French or Spanish, and at least one person on staff will be able to take it.
Rollo has seen the process of becoming a lawful permanent resident constrict during his career, particularly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001. Many innocent people have been “caught in the net,” he said. He fields phone calls from restaurant and construction company owners nervous that an immigration raid, or even the loss of one key employee, could irrevocably harm their businesses.
“I don’t condone the fact that many people come in illegally, but the overwhelming majority of them have been motivated by probably the most primordial of needs — feeding a starving family or children. They’ve come over the border … because of the possibility of employment in the United States,” lured for many years by U.S. employers, especially in the southern agricultural states, who needed cheap labor, Rollo said.
He bristles at depictions of immigrants as dangerous criminals, saying they actually commit crime at a lower rate than the rest of the American population. Recent policy proposals that would split up children and parents who cross the border illegally are “nothing short of grotesque,” he said, noting that many of these families have made arduous, days-long journeys to escape gang violence and persecution and that separating a child from a parent would simply be inhumane.
“It is mind-boggling how we, who have always tried to be a caring, compassionate society, could conceive of these things,” Rollo said. “If the Statue of Liberty could move … she would probably put the hand that holds the torch, in front of her eyes in shame, not to see the shameful actions taking place these days,“ he said.
Nonetheless, he remains optimistic that in the long run America will remain a beacon of freedom and justice. He has a compelling reminder in his office of the impact of his work helping immigrants; his secretary is the daughter of one of his earliest clients, a hard-working Guatemalan man who came to the United States legally but was just eight days from being deported. He was sponsored by his employer and Rollo helped him eventually obtain a green card. Thereafter, he became a U.S. citizen.
Rollo lives in New Jersey with his wife of 38 years. They have two sons, Christian and Marco. He travels to Italy twice a year and maintains many business connections there. He is also one of the founders of the Sicilian Regional Association that operates out of a clubhouse at 1614 E. Passyunk Ave. The group hosts events related to Sicilian history and culture, and trips to Italy, including one coming up in June.
“Sicily dates back to even before Rome was founded,” Rollo said. “Up until 1492 when America was discovered, the Mediterranean was really the theater of civilization. And Italy and Sicily are smack in the middle of it.”