2020 Pinnacle Awards: Elizabeth Ricci

Managing Partner, Rambana & Ricci, PLLC
Photography Alex Workman

A foreign-born veteran of the U.S. military living in Ocala had been under the impression for decades that he was an American citizen.

When he enlisted in the Marines, a recruiter told him that he would be granted citizenship in exchange for three years of military service. The man lived up to his half of that bargain. His service included deployment as part of Desert Storm and resulted in the revocation of his citizenship in his native Australia.

Upon learning that the military had not followed through with its pledge, the man confidently reported to a naturalization interview. Clearly, there had been some mistake, some oversight.

At the interview, said immigration attorney Elizabeth Ricci, the man “was treated like dirt.”

Ricci believes that there are tens of thousands of foreign-born military veterans in the U.S. who mistakenly believe that they are citizens. She has made them her pro-bono niche.

“It’s a common problem,” Ricci said. “These veterans go to get a driver’s license or a passport, and they find out that they are not a citizen and the military has washed its hands of them.”

The man from Ocala, Ricci explained, was denied naturalization “because he voted and the officer said he voted knowing he was not a citizen. But he didn’t know he wasn’t a citizen.”

Ricci is appealing the officer’s decision.

She has been practicing immigration law since shortly after her graduation from the law school at Nova Southeastern University near Fort Lauderdale. She and her future husband Neil St. John Rambana set up shop in Tallahassee in 2000. Rambana was born in Jamaica and is familiar with the immigrant experience. Ricci had studied immigration law under renowned immigration expert Ira Kurzban.

At the time, a temporary benefit referred to as the 245(i) was about to expire. It allowed foreigners with family or employer sponsors to pay a $ı,000 fine and apply to adjust their immigration status without having to leave the country.

“My then boyfriend and I saw an opportunity with the law changing,” Ricci said. “We got an office space and bought office furniture with an Office Depot credit card. We took out ads in the Thrifty Nickel. A relative loaned us money for start-up costs, and we learned everything we could as fast as we could.”

That opportunity would become a career, and Tallahassee would become home.

These days, Ricci devotes much of her time to working with exceptional ability aliens who possess skills and training seen to be in the national interest.

Her clients that way have included
Dr. Yeliz Cemal from the United Kingdom. Cemal had an opportunity to join a plastic surgery practice in Pensacola, and Ricci led her through the process of applying for a green card and work permit.

“I would have been absolutely lost had I tried to navigate that process on my own,” said Cemal, who now practices in Charlotte, North Carolina. “She was always available via email or phone to answer any questions I had. She put me at ease, and I would recommend Elizabeth without hesitation.”

Her public service record of more than 20 years extends from time spent with the Peace Corps in Guatemala in ı997 to current involvements, including service as a Girl Scout leader and as an adjunct instructor at the Maclay School in Tallahassee where she explores legal issues with students.

She is indebted to her mother who worked hard as a single parent to provide well for her. She greatly admires fellow Pinnacle Award winner Marjorie Turnbull and said that she would like to grow up to be like her. And she respects the determination and savviness of Rebekah Rivers, the owner and operating principal at a Tallahassee real estate firm.

“Always seek the yes,” Ricci advises young people. “The no is always out there. Be creative, and come up with why you can do something.”

Categories: Pinnacle Awards