Careers in Immigration Law
Adapted from Lisa Stansky, "Hot Practice: Immigration law has applications far broader than you might expect," Student Lawyer (Nov. 2000): 10-11. A publication of the ABA Young Lawyers Division .
If you want a career with high ratings on the soul satisfaction scale, you might consider a career in immigration law.
"One of the main pluses [of immigration law] is that you’re working with individuals, so when you accomplish your goal…you immediately see some personal rewards,”" says Anna Williams Shavers, cochair of the immigration committee of the ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice.
A Hands-on Practice . . .Working as an immigration lawyer is a very hands-on kind of practice where you get a lot of experience very quickly in the field. Better yet, you can work on immigration matters in a variety of settings, ranging from one-lawyer shops to large firms to legal services programs to corporate offices. For example, Carol Wolchok has been practicing law for twenty-five years. During that time, she has focused on immigration law as a legal services lawyer, a lawyer in private practice, director of a national program on asylum law, and a law school clinic instructor. Now with the ABA, she concentrates on policy issues.
“Immigration is a field that in many respects has it all,” Wolchok says, ticking off the avenues open to aspiring lawyers: immigration law, business law, large-firm practice, solo and small-firm practice, commercial work, litigation, civil liberties, and human rights advocacy.
Where you wear many hats . . . If you’re considering a career in immigration law, it also helps to have diverse talents and skills. The job requires strong personal communication skills, a flair for regulatory practice, and a deft touch in court. The law is always changing, which keeps the practice intellectually demanding and exciting. For example, after the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was enacted, tighter constraints were placed on legal and illegal aliens seeking to remain in the United States. Five years later, lawyers are sill wrestling over whether some changes brought by the law may be applied retroactively.
Perhaps the highest-profile aspect of practicing immigration law concerns refugee and asylum issues. However, there are job opportunities for students who want to incorporate an immigration angle into a business-oriented legal practice. Working on employment-related visa work for corporate clients is one fruitful area, as U.S. companies seek to hire talent from abroad to work stateside.
If you are interested in becoming a lawyer, there’s a good chance that even if you don’t set out to practice immigration law, it will work its way into your practice, especially if you delve into employment law. To be a well-rounded labor and employment lawyer, you need some sense of how the immigration laws work. This is because employers have to know and understand the immigration status of their work force.
Also, if you become a lawyer, you may find yourself representing immigrants without actually practicing immigration law. That’s what Miguel Allen Hull has done while working at a law firm with a general practice serving a largely Latin American immigrant client base. Hull says that he spends most of his day with Latino immigrants, speaking more Spanish in the office than English.
Hull’s casework embraces workers’ compensation, criminal defense, person injury suits, and auto accidents. Even so, immigration issues crop all the time. “Certain (criminal) convictions could lead to a person’s deportation if he’s not a U.S. citizen,” Hull explains, noting that he has to be extremely cautious when defending aliens in criminal cases.
Hull’s experience might serve as one blueprint for those who want to pursue a career in immigration law. A former social worker, Hull spent time before law school with an agency on the Texas border, assisting those entering the United States from Mexico. In law school, he took an immigration law class, and defended immigrants as a student practitioner with his school’s criminal law clinic. He also spent a summer counseling immigrants.
And feel really good about your work. As many lawyers say, the rewards of a career in immigration law are personal as well as professional. Being an immigration lawyer is really a feel-good, people-friendly kind of practice.
Information is just a mouse click away! You can learn more about immigration law and careers by visiting the ABA’s Section of Labor and Employment Law: Immigration Law Committee, ABA Section of International Law and Practice: Immigration and Nationality Committee, or the ABA Coordinating Committee on immigration law and Center for Immigration Law and Representation.
For articles and activities regarding immigration, visit our Students in Action site: Debating the Rights of Detainees, Asylum Seekers, and Juvenile Refugees.
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