How to Make Immigration Law Work for Clients
An all-too-often overlooked aspect of immigration law is the wellbeing of those whose lives it shapes. As an immigration lawyer it is sometimes not sufficient to simply do one’s job, but to go above and beyond in delivering compassionate, attentive advice. We hear from L Durbin on what makes an exceptional professional in this field.
Immigration law can often seem overwhelming, especially to clients whose needs are often both urgent and personal. What facets of immigration law do you most often assist clients in understanding?
Immigration law is deceptively complex. I focus on navigating clients through all the potential pitfalls of this system. I work primarily with the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), the agency responsible for adjudicating applications for both non-immigrants and immigrants coming to the United Sates. Our firm assists a variety of clients – from asylum seekers to families, and start-ups to billion-dollar corporations – achieve their desired immigration goals. USCIS aims to have a customer service focus; however, due to bureaucracy, complexity, and the size of the organisation, it often falls short of delivering. USCIS cannot provide legal advice and often cannot effectively assist their customers, resulting in making matters more difficult for the applicant, petitioner, or beneficiary. We take that burden from the client.
I also work with the Department of State (DOS) in visa processing and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) for those in removal proceedings. These are the three main agencies I navigate clients though in what is often one of the most puzzling, stressful, and high-stakes events in their lives.
To navigate the US immigration system, you must understand the intersectionality of immigration law, federal policy, local practice, and individual variances in circumstances. A nuanced approach that only an experienced immigration attorney can provide is often the difference between a family reuniting or an individual receiving status and the protections of the United States. The most important lesson I can pass along to my clients is that it is my job to monitor the overall landscape of US immigration law and policy and how to best navigate that system and it is their job to remain hopeful that their American Dream will come true.
What are the most common issues that individuals or families relocating to the US face during the immigration process?
Consular processing or, in more basic terms, getting a visa abroad, begins when someone submits a family- or employment-based petition or enters a humanitarian category. When they are preliminarily approved, the case is transferred to the National Visa Center (NVC), which coordinates gathering further information and documentation and paying any fees to the Department of State. The final step is the interview at the consulate where the consular officer ultimately makes the decision to approve or deny the case. For most of this process, prospective immigrants are locked into the government’s timeline.
Immigration law is deceptively complex.
Imagine the stress of an international move. Sorting through everything you own. Selling property and possessions you cannot take. Wrapping up work. Saying goodbye. Closing out your life for a new chapter in a new country. Now imagine that this process must take place over a few days – or conversely, it may happen at any point over the span of many months.
Immigrants sometimes need to flee their home country because of war or persecution, and they may have only days or even hours to prepare. They must rapidly make decisions and leave many things undone. It may not be safe to close down businesses or say goodbyes. Access to resources or important documents may be cut off. But you must leave or face unspeakable harm. Then they find themselves in a third country as a refugee and hope that they made the right hasty decisions. Immigrating to the US often turns on those decisions. Did you remember your child’s birth certificate? Do you have proof you are married to your spouse? Did you think to document the threat and did you bring that documentation with you? Did you think ahead? How could you?
On the other hand, many have far too much time. Clients who have family or work opportunities in the United States see long wait times before immigrating, potentially years, and until then they exist in a sort of limbo. Do you take a new job? Start a new business? Date or get married? Even split up? How will your choices impact your future move? Timing is often one of the biggest challenges for my clients.
How do you help your clients to overcome these obstacles or prepare for them?
Understanding the process grants (some) power over it, so the first step is to help my clients understand what is ahead and manage expectations. This is a long and difficult time for families in particular, so knowing what they can expect can save them a lot of heartache.
I help clients using my knowledge and experience of the system and its many quirks to efficiently work through the process and avoid lengthy delays. Anything from identifying the correct document from the start to something as simple as submitting it in the correct format can save clients months of time. If a client needs more time to wrap up back home, I can also slow the process down, adding flexibility to the client’s lives while making sure the case is not terminated. Most importantly, I communicate all of this along the way, demystifying the process.
Timing is often one of the biggest challenges for my clients.
An immigration attorney does not have a magical wand to wave over the process, but they can fluidly meet the client’s goals within the parameters of the system while reducing anxiety and stress. The more a client understands the process, the better their experience will be.
How important is compassion when handling client matters relating to immigration law?
Compassion is essential to the successful practice of immigration law. There is an old saying that someone only contacts an attorney on their worst day. To me, this means that attorneys are problem solvers. We prop up the client while navigating through their issue. This is certainly true of immigration attorneys. Our cases define someone’s identity, their opportunities, and their family’s lives, potentially for generations. Each case is unique because each client has unique challenges and abilities that colour the immigration process. If you do not understand your client, you cannot possibly effectively pilot the US immigration system on their behalf. You may be missing benefits they are eligible for or pursuing benefits they are ineligible for. Sometimes this also means delivering tough news and digging deep to get creative; sometimes it means more work. Compassion is essential to fuel the drive that we need, even on the toughest days, to secure the client’s interests.
Have recent shifts in US immigration policy affected the way you handle client needs?
The US legal immigration system is an arduous, long, thorough and multistep process. It is layered with competing laws and changes in administrations and policy, now compounded by pandemic-related slowdowns. A uniform US immigration policy is difficult to discern. The Biden Administration has focused on streamlining the system to combat these issues and allow the system to work as it should. There is a long road ahead and there is a deep hole to dig out from, but I am cautiously optimistic about the future.
However, ultimately, this does not change the way I handle clients’ needs. I must always be attuned to changing law and policy to avoid roadblocks while proactively educating and communicating with clients about what to expect.
Our cases define someone’s identity, their opportunities, and their family’s lives, potentially for generations.
Do you foresee any significant trends in immigration law in the near future?
I look forward to the continued modernisation of the US immigration system that incorporates technology with humanity. Automation must include a human component, or any efficiency gained will be diminished by the lives ruined. Checking or filling in boxes cannot possibly capture an applicant’s story or accurately demonstrate eligibility; the world is not so black and white. Potential clients must understand this, and that they should, at a minimum, get a consultation from an experienced attorney before they seek any immigration benefit alone or through the use of an online service. It is much more difficult, and expensive, to undo a mistake than it is to just do it right the first time.
The US immigration system quite literally makes life and death decisions every day. Tempered technological growth with the continued training of adjudicating officers is the only way the system can serve its purpose. USCIS recently updated their agency mission statement to state: “USCIS upholds America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve.” This statement reflects the current administration’s focus on empowering the people of USCIS to restore the integrity of our immigration system through their interactions.
In your opinion, how effective is law school in preparing students for the realities of handling immigration law?
Law school is only as effective as the student’s pursuit of the knowledge they offer. I took advantage of different classes and varied opportunities to discover not only the field of law I wanted to pursue, but also my attorney temperament. I worked for an eviction avoidance program, a hotline that connected middle income earners with lower cost legal assistance, a refugee rights organisation, a county judge, an immigrants’ rights non-profit and a private immigration firm. Through all of these experiences I learned more about what kind of an attorney I should be. Of course, entering the practice of law had a steep learning curve, but having a strong foundation in both the field and who I am gave me the scaffolding needed to jump right into serving my clients.
What do you feel are the qualities that make for a good immigration lawyer?
An immigration attorney must know the law to ask the right questions, but they equally must listen. Your client’s story is the most important part of their case. You need to understand who they are, what they have been through, and where they want to go. Sometimes, the client needs to make tough choices about the level of risk they are comfortable with to achieve their goal. The best attorneys will present the client with their options and work with the client to figure out how to achieve what they want to do. I will demonstrate this point using three fictional consultation appointments:
An immigration attorney must know the law to ask the right questions, but they equally must listen.
First, a potential client from Venezuela comes to my office. After digging into their story, I know that they should be eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a humanitarian program, and they can also apply for and receive work authorisation. This option sounds amazing to someone who currently has no status in the US even though TPS is not a path to citizenship. If I stopped listening there, I have a viable option to present, but I would have missed something better. As I continue to ask questions and listen to their story, I hear that several months ago, they were attacked and robbed at knifepoint. They reported the crime to the police and have been cooperating with the investigation. Now their story reveals that they may be eligible for U nonimmigrant status, which can lead to a green card and later naturalisation. Additionally, as an experienced immigration attorney, I know they can actually pursue both benefits. While they are waiting for many years to obtain permanent status derived from U-status, they can legally live and work in the US temporarily under TPS without fear. Multiple layers of status also mitigate risk for the client.
Second, a brilliant scientist has been working in the US in authorised nonimmigrant status for the last two years. Their employer wants to petition for them to remain in the US as a permanent resident. They enjoy their work, but do not want to work for this company in the long term and instead would like to pursue a start-up in a field requiring certain security clarences, so they must have a green card. After inquiring further, I learn that they have earned a master’s degree, are published, and have won several awards. A good immigration attorney knows that they may be eligible to self-petition so they would not be tied to a specific employer. A self-petition may be a riskier choice, but they do not actually have to choose; they can have competing petitions in both categories. If approved without the employer, they can work anywhere they like in their field. If they are denied on the riskier application, they can still fall back on their current employer’s petition, hedging their bets.
Lastly, a US citizen just married her fiancée who is in the U.S. on a student visa. She is about to graduate and the couple have planned to return to her home country, but the US citizen has fallen ill and cannot travel. The student does not want to leave her wife, but she will soon no longer be in status. She comes to my office to talk about starting the green card process through the consulate in her home country. If I did not take the time to hear about her wife, I would not have known to explain the ability to apply for adjustment of status to a legal permanent resident from within the US, allowing her to stay with her wife to support her while the application is pending.
Knowing the law and being smart is not enough. A good attorney must hear the client’s full story and understand their needs and goals. This is the only way to ensure that your efforts are truly a benefit.
Emily L Durbin, Lawyer
105 14th Ave Suite 110, Seattle, WA 98122
Tel: +1 206-745-9241
Emily L Durbin (she/her), or L for short, has been practicing immigration law exclusively since her admission to the Washington State Bar in 2019. L is experienced in various immigration matters including Adjustment of Status and Consular Processing (Green Cards), Naturalisation, Fiancé(e) Visas, Asylum, Derivative Citizenship, U-Visas, waivers, humanitarian parole, Temporary Protected Status, and more. She enjoys helping families to stay together, individuals to pursue work or educational opportunities, and all to find lasting safety.
ERM Immigration Law is a boutique law firm based in Seattle with clients both national and international. The firm’s practice is primarily focused on family-based and employment-based immigration matters, including visas, re-entry permits, consulate processing, asylum, survivors of domestic violence (VAWA) and refugee status.