You don’t need to be an immigration lawyer to have heard the news – President Obama’s recent executive action may affect millions of immigrants living in the United States. And while some people are busy debating whether he should or shouldn’t have taken this action, others (particularly solo and small firm lawyers with student loans to pay) are wondering how many immigrants in their community may be seeking assistance in applying for their work permits.
As an attorney who practices immigration law exclusively, I tend to strongly discourage other attorneys from dabbling in immigration law. It’s a unique and sometimes illogical area of law with many malpractice traps for the unwary. However, the structure of the executive action significantly reduces a practitioner’s chances of encountering an unforeseen “gotcha” while assessing and preparing these cases. It’s not going to take a legal genius to figure out who qualifies and how to apply. Plus, with the sheer volume of people who will need assistance, it will be impossible for the immigration attorneys alone to handle the demand, no matter how quickly they scale up their businesses. And a lawyer with any background will be much more equipped to assist these clients than the notarios, those ever-pervasive unlawful practitioners of immigration law.
So let’s talk turkey: If you are an attorney with limited immigration experience who is interested in taking on some executive action cases, what should you do to prepare? And what are the red flags for cases you may want to refer out?
Know what “it” actually is
If you pay any attention to the media stories circulating out there about the executive action, you may be thinking that it is a “reform”, an “amnesty”, and a quick route to citizenship next week. Unfortunately for my clients, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Obama’s executive action is based on a concept called “deferred action” that is codified in federal law. It basically says, “We have every right to deport you, but we are currently choosing to use our resources in other ways. But we will give you a temporary work permit since we are letting you stay for now.” That’s not to say it is not a great benefit to these immigrants and their families. But don’t believe the hype. And don’t promise anything else to your clients!
Get the nitty gritty on who qualifies
I’m not going to cover the detailed requirements in this article. Instead, I’m going to point you to the place you can get all of the information: www.uscis.gov. See the program descriptions, requirements, and FAQs. This website isn’t static; more details will roll out as we get closer to go time. This is also where forms will be published once they’re available. You can even sign up for email alerts. Do it.
Don’t overreach your limitations
Once you understand the basic requirements of the program and start taking client consultations, you will probably notice your potential clients fall into four categories:
- Definitely qualifies.
- Definitely doesn’t qualify.
- Falls into a gray area that you aren’t sure about.
- What the @&#?! That is the craziest story I’ve ever heard.
Don’t worry – this is pretty typical of immigration practice. But if you’re an executive action dabbler, do your clients, yourself, and your malpractice insurer a favor and only accept those category 1 clients. Refer categories 2-4 to an immigration lawyer to sort it out. Why refer the category 2 people if they clearly don’t qualify? Just because someone doesn’t qualify for this specific program doesn’t mean they qualify for nothing under immigration law. There are literally hundreds of visas and other programs available. Never give the impression that their case is hopeless unless you are qualified to assess all of the immigration options that may exist.
Build a machine
Any (successful) immigration attorney will tell you that immigration cases are not profitable unless you have a well-oiled machine. And I mean that in the best possible sense. To process these cases efficiently, it is crucial that there are detailed written procedures in place to start serving the client as soon as you are hired. The bare-bones essentials include: a client questionnaire to get information that will be entered into the application forms, a list of documents the client needs to bring to you, a standard cover letter to be tweaked for each client, and a checklist so you and your assistants can be sure every form and every exhibit is included every single application. And don’t forget to create a system for checking case statuses and following up with clients, because these cases are expected to take at least a year to process.
Enjoy the ride
Good luck on your immigration adventure! Once you get started you will understand why many immigration attorneys enjoy their work so much – you will meet tons of genuinely nice people who are wonderful additions to American society. And if you help them, you will receive many word-of-mouth referrals and even the occasional authentic, home-cooked meal.