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What Is It Like to Practice Immigration Law in 2019?

I am asked almost daily what it’s like to be an immigration attorney. Before this administration, immigration law lived in the background. Many people didn’t even think about immigration as a specific area of law. Now, “immigration” conjures images of asylum seekers at the border, children in cages, and people immediately assume we are in the thick of it. Louisiana has become more of a player in the immigrant detention business, so the issue is on our doorstep, but Gasparian Spivey deals extensively with employment-based immigration, so the crisis at the southern border has been more like storm clouds on the horizon for us. We haven’t directly felt a lot of the fallout, but we’ve seen the hard times coming. 

Immigration law in the form of legislation passed by Congress hasn’t affected our day-to-day practice in significant ways, but we have felt the changes in law made by policy (how legislation is enacted by the executive and put into practice) and court cases (decisions rendered by judges that interpret legislation). The current administration has chosen to interpret laws in different and sometimes new ways that impact our clients and our everyday practices.

How has this administration affected what we do?

  • - Communication is harder—It has shut down most means of communication with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the benefits granting agency of immigration. Infopass, the system that allowed people and attorneys to inquire in person about specific cases, has been shut down nationally, and the USCIS field offices have been advised not to accept any documents or provide any advice or information about a case unless that person has been screened at two levels by phone, a process that takes about an hour and sometimes a call back several days later. Even then, agents will only communicate about very specific issues. Field offices no longer generate receipts for received files, which makes them difficult to track. That makes the whole process feel very opaque. 

  • For immigration lawyers, access to USCIS is crucial. It is the agency that grants visa and status changes, and regular, stable, dependable communication is essential to not only our practice but any effort to arrive at a just decision. Slowed communication severely hinders our ability to communicate with USCIS and deal with issues that would result something both the agency and the applicants want—the resolution of a case.

  • - Our clients live in fear and anxiety—Immigration law has high stakes under the best of circumstances because where a person lives and how he or she earns a living rides on the outcome. Comedian John Oliver told The Guardian that even when he was on television as a correspondent on The Daily Show, he was worried about his status. Because the process largely takes place on a series of computer screens and not courtrooms, even those with strong claims worry that an uncrossed T, and undated I, or an answer that lacked nuance might trip up an application. The confusion created by executive actions and the current administration’s public pronouncements, mixed with news reports and the way they’re filtered through social media leave many of our clients understandably concerned. As a result, we spend significantly more time than we used to discussing the uncertainties in how the administration will handle issues.

  • - The changes now come fast and frequently, sometimes without advance notice—We need to research changes not only daily but throughout the day as an executive action makes one change, but it is followed within hours or days by court challenges that make another change as they limit or temporarily or permanently stop the executive action’s impact. Then the administration tries to tweak its original plan or propose an alternative, and keeping track of that is time consuming. Time is one of our most precious commodities, and such research cuts into time that could be used five other ways.

  • - Experienced, dedicated, good people are getting out of the game—People who have worked a long time at USCIS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have had a hard time reconciling what the agencies have become with the ideals that motivated them to work for them in the first place. Similarly, immigration attorneys and immigration court judges are leaving the profession due to burnout, or they’re refusing to take detained immigration cases, where the odds are stacked in every against immigrants winning their cases and receiving effective legal assistance. That has led to an erosion of level of professionalism that we deal with, which means many tasks move more slowly and less predictably than they used to, which means cases take longer to get to resolution and we live with larger, looming caseloads as a result.

There’s a pervading sense of helplessness because the need for our services is as non-stop as the administration’s efforts to make our jobs harder. It can be demoralizing when we think of such horrifying images as kids at the border who need help, but we live on the successes for our clients, which are still many. We’re making differences in their lives, and that’s fortifying. If anything, wins feel bigger now, but we’d happily trade some of that elation for a less adversarial process. Wins also remind us that success is possible, and that strengthens our resolve to challenge the overstepping of the administration where we can. 

All of us live to fight the good fight, but we look forward to a day when we can fight a little less.

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