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Why Good People Get Bad Immigration Law Advice

by Carl Shusterman

One of the most frustrating aspects of being an immigration attorney is being consulted by an employer or an intending immigrant who has followed someone else's bad advice and whose case is now beyond repair.

Why do a lot of good companies and individuals get sucked in so badly by consultants and lawyers that by the time they see a reputable immigration attorney, it is too late to solve their problem?

After practicing immigration law for almost 30 years for both the INS (1976-82) and in private practice (1982-present), here are a few observations:

You Get What You Pay For

For a lot of employers and individuals, it's all about money. For example, many employers use recruiters to help them hire foreign-born computer professionals, teachers, and health care professionals, you name it. Some employers simply choose the recruiter with the lowest bid, and of course, those recruiters choose the lowest priced immigration firm that they can find. Hardly a recipe for success! I am constantly besieged by employers with horror stories about recruiting dozens of foreign-born employees, paying a recruiter, and then a year or more later, none of the employees have actually arrived in the U.S. or, worse yet, they have started to receive a steady stream of denied petitions from the Immigration Service.

It's Only Paperwork

Like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield said, immigration attorneys get "no respect." Clients and even other attorneys think that we are just people who fill out forms and submit them to the government.

A good immigration attorney takes the time to explore all aspects of his client's situation in order to help him achieve his goals and avoid costly errors.

Consider the case of the university professor. An attorney "helped" him obtain permanent residence through his adult son who is a citizen of the United States. Then, the professor came to me and asked me to immigrate his second son. Unfortunately, by that time, his second son was 19 year old, and the waiting time was enormous. If his first immigration attorney had questioned him more closely, and learned that he wanted to immigrate his second son, he could have obtained permanent residence for the father as an outstanding professor. The second son would have immediately immigrated as a derivate beneficiary of his father.

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True...

Then there is the employer/individual who is recommended to an attorney who works in a fancy part of town, claims to have "inside connections" at the Immigration Service, and that he can do what no other attorney can do, or that he can get approvals in a matter of months while other attorneys must wait years for results. Last week, an attorney at a large law firm phoned me and told me about an immigration service (not even a law firm!) which promised a large corporate client of his that they could do labor certifications for their illegal employees, and that they could remain on the job in the meantime. "Sounds like a sure prescription for an I-9 investigation to me," I advised him.

They're So Big, They Must Be Good!

Then, there was the HR Director who told me about the employee with a pending adjustment of status application where the company's "large, prestigious" law firm advised the company to do a labor certification for the employee. "Why would we need to apply for a labor certification when there is a pending application for adjustment of status?," she asked upper management. "Don't question the lawyers," she was ordered. "They're so big and well-known, they must know what they are doing."

He Speaks My Language

Why do Indian clients hire Indian attorneys, Chinese clients hire Chinese attorneys, etc., etc? Having someone who speaks your native language and shares your cultural heritage can be a big comfort factor.

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee quality. Yet, too many individuals and corporations let the ethnicity of their attorneys unduly influence their hiring choices.


So how do you select an immigration attorney who is responsive to your needs? It's not as difficult as you may think to select an immigration attorney who is both competent and ethical.

Step #1 - Read Their Biographies

Almost every immigration attorney worth considering has a web site. Go to their web sites, and read their biographies.

Are these biographies self-serving and perhaps a little puffed up? Of course! Take statements like, "Attorney Smith has been listed in Best Lawyers in the U.S." with a grain of salt. However, use these bios to see how long the lawyer has been practicing immigration law, how active he has been in the American Immigration Lawyers Association (Caveat: Mere membership in AILA means only that he pays his dues, not that he is a good attorney.), whether he ever worked for the INS, what his particular areas of specialization are, etc., etc.

Step #2 - Where Is The Law Firm Located?

"Location, location, location" may be the three most important words in purchasing a home, but in selecting an immigration law firm to represent your company or yourself, location is increasingly becoming irrelevant unless the attorney's personal appearance is required at a hearing or interview. Most immigration applications and petitions are submitted by mail to Immigration Service Centers in California, Texas, Nebraska and Vermont, and interviews are no longer the norm.

Immigration law is federal. This means that an attorney who is admitted to the Bar in ANY state can practice immigration law in EVERY state.

For example, although our law firm is located in Los Angeles, our largest corporate client is headquartered in New Jersey. We submit petitions on behalf of their employees to the Vermont Service Center. We represent clients in all 50 states and in a number of foreign countries. Believe it or not, we have never personally met most of our clients.

It is a well-known fact that a huge percentage of the best immigration attorneys in the U.S. are located in a few big cities. Selecting a professional whose office is located in the same little town as you maybe an excellent idea if you are choosing a dentist or a physician, but not if you want the best immigration attorney to represent you.

Step #3 - Select A Certified Specialist

Four states (California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas) make it easy for you to select an immigration attorney. These states allow attorneys to qualify as Certified Specialists in immigration law.

In order to achieve this designation, attorneys must pass a rigorous examination, have the requisite amount of experience and be favorably rated by their colleagues.

How do you determine whether a particular attorney is a Certified Specialist in immigration law? Read their business cards, their letterhead, and/or their biographies. Certified specialists have no interest in hiding this designation. If they are Certified Specialist, they will let you know. The bar associations of each of these four states have web pages listing all Certified Specialists.

Step #4 - Shop Around

Oh, did we mention that you should compare attorney fees? No, we did not. Not because this is unimportant, but because we believe that it is best to narrow your search to two or three attorneys based strictly on quality, and only then to compare fees.

It most cases, the amount that a law firm charges for H and L visas or for permanent residence through employment does not vary more than 10-20%. If your company needs to process a large volume of such cases, most law firms are willing to grant a volume discount. However, unless you are on the verge of bankruptcy, it is important not to let price alone dictate which law firm you choose to represent you in immigration matters.

For those who need more advice on selecting an excellent immigration attorney or law firm, see:

About The Author

Carl Shusterman is a certified Specialist in Immigration Law, State Bar of California
Former U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service Attorney (1976-82)
Board of Governors, American Immigration Lawyers Association (1988-97)
Phone: (213) 623-4592 Fax: (213) 623-3720
Law Offices of Carl Shusterman, 624 So. Grand Ave., Suite 1608
Los Angeles, California 90017

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.