Katya Banta is an immigration paralegal, law student and mother of two who had never stepped foot in Texas before she moved to Tyler.

Banta, 40, is a paralegal at Coe Estrada Law Firm just off Front Street in Tyler. A lot of her work involves helping clients get visas to be in the United States.

A Russian native, she came to the U.S. as an exchange student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and moved back there after graduation. She and her husband later ended up in New York when he was in graduate school.

Banta also has personal experience in immigration law, and once had to sue immigration authorities on her own behalf after a visa she applied for in the post-9/11 era should have taken 90 days but instead took three years.

Banta is studying for her law degree at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Minnesota and plans to become a full immigration lawyer next year.

She lives with her husband, Josh Banta, a professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, and two daughters, 11-year-old Vera, and 6-year-old Clara.

Where are you from, specifically?

Saratov. I’m a big-city girl. It’s on the Volgograd River in an area known as Stalingrad. It’s the European part of Russia, southern Russia. Our climate is like Nebraska-ish. So serious winters, actually like in Vermont where we can ice skate on the river, but summers are hot, too. Hot and dry.

What brought you to Tyler?

What brought me here was my husband’s job. He is a biology professor. So actually after (finishing his Ph.D. at) Stony Brook University he got a postdoc at NYU, and after NYU we just looked around the country and found a job. I’d never been to Texas before in my life until we moved here.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

I did an accelerated MBA at Hofstra University, which is 14 months, and then I started looking for jobs. If you think it’s hard to find jobs in Houston, try in New York, in business. Everybody and their mother does business. I applied for international advising offices for college admissions. No one would hire me, didn’t have much experience. It was really weird. In Russia, if you have an education, you can get a job. Here, you can get an advanced degree all you want but you have to have experience.

Then I was like, “Maybe immigration lawyers, they’ll want this international angle.” I had been by that point fighting with immigration for awhile. … I didn’t think about being one. I was just like, “Let’s work this international angle. I have experience I can bring because I lived through it. I have a student visa, exchange visa, fiancé visa, green card, and now citizenship. I had so much experience. I’m like, “OK fine. Maybe I can contribute something.”

I went to this attorney in New York and said, “I want to volunteer for you for awhile,” and he said, “Organize my files.” The firm did immigration cases, usually on cases from western Africa. It was a Chinese law firm in Chinatown, so all the Chinese immigrants came in and spoke Chinese. I learned how to do asylum petitions for (others from) Senegal, Gambia, places like that. They spoke at least some broken English.

I started working there, and I worked there up until we moved here, and I worked, kind of cold-called attorneys here. And by cold called I showed up in their offices and said, “Hey are you guys hiring. This is what my experience is.”

Why be a lawyer instead of a paralegal?

You can’t do certain things as a paralegal. You cannot go represent people in court. You cannot technically give legal advice to clients. I want to be able to do those things.

What’s your favorite thing about Tyler?

Everything is so close. Easy with kids. I mean, that was my big problem with New York City is by the time you get somewhere you’re just mad at life no matter how you’re getting there. By car, nobody has cars, so subway or walking. Whereas here you put the kid in and five minutes later you’re there.

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