March 2009

Doorman for America: the Immigration Lawyer

Author: Craig Dobson

In New York City, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of immigration lawyers. I practiced immigration law from my Manhattan office for nearly three years, and I would dare say that the average New Yorker knows quite a lot about what an immigration lawyer does. Since returning to my home state of South Carolina and opening an office on Hilton Head Island, I have been asked many times “What does an immigration lawyer do?” or “Do you work for the government or the immigrants?” Even many local attorneys know little about this esoteric field of practice. This article should be helpful to locals who would like to know what the handful of immigration lawyers in South Carolina actually do.

With only a few exceptions, immigration law is a federal practice area. Some immigration lawyers, like me, practice federal immigration law exclusively. Others also advise on newly emerging state immigration laws for those states in which they are licensed. Immigration lawyers typically have more national or even international practices than many other kinds of attorneys. For example, a prospective client may contact me from Japan seeking assistance to obtain the appropriate visa to use to work in the United States. If the prospective client were to hire me to handle her case, we would use telephone, fax, e-mail, and my online database in order to communicate. I would then FedEx any documents to the client for her review and signature.

Immigration lawyers serve a wide range of individuals, from those who are seeking to avoid deportation to those who are preeminent in their respective fields and wish to use their talents to work in the United States. For example, someone on a student visa who transfers from one school to another may be accused of violating the terms of her visa. She might then be accused of being deportable in an immigration court and require the assistance of an immigration attorney. There are currently no immigration courts in South Carolina. The closest courts are in Charlotte, NC and Atlanta, GA.

Others who are at the very top of their field of practice might wish to enter the United States to live and work here. For example, John Lennon had to have an immigration attorney for assistance so that he could perform in the United States. Foreign actors, fashion models, physicians, and researchers are among the individuals who might ask an immigration lawyer for assistance so that they can enter the United States to share their knowledge and talents.

Another common situation that immigration lawyers encounter is a company that needs to legally hire foreign workers. For example, a local manufacturer requires the services of a five computer programmers, but is having difficulty finding qualified employees. A few qualified individuals who live in the United Kingdom have responded to their job postings, but require a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa in order to legally live and work in the United States. An immigration lawyer could then represent the company and the foreign workers, providing assistance on obtaining the proper visa, possibly an H-1B, which would allow the foreigners to work in the United States for a period of three years.

Probably the most common type of case in my office is a family immigration matter. For instance, a U.S. Citizen gets married to a foreign national and wishes to assist the foreign national with obtaining Lawful Permanent Residence (a green card). Contrary to popular belief, this process is not automatic. One must go through a series of steps and prove that the foreign national is admissible to the United States. The foreign national may hire an immigration lawyer for assistance with: (1) Making sure that he or she qualifies prior to applying, (2) If he or she qualifies, preparing the paperwork, and (3) Attending the immigration interview (often in Charleston, SC for those who live in the Hilton Head area). On an initial consultation the immigration lawyer would make sure that the intending immigrant meets the government’s strict admissibility standards. If the common beliefs that both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have used cocaine are true, then neither of them would be admissible under current immigration law! If the lawyer determines that the intending immigrant qualifies for permanent residence, then the lawyer would assist with preparing the application. The intending immigrant also has to undergo a medical examination (by a government-approved physician) and submit filing fees (currently $1,365 for most individuals). This extremely brief outline of the process is not exhaustive, but rather intended to give you an idea of how complicated and expensive this process can be.

If you think you might need the assistance of an immigration lawyer, I have a few recommendations to make sure that you find the right one. First, make sure that your lawyer is a licensed attorney. Generally, only lawyers who are licensed in at least one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia may practice federal immigration law. There are exceptions, including certain non-profit organizations approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The BIA is an appellate body with nationwide jurisdiction to regulate the conduct of attorneys, representatives, etc. who represent clients before the BIA itself, the Immigration Service, or any Immigration Judge.

Next, I recommend that you use a lawyer who is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). If you already have a lawyer in mind and want to make sure he or she is a member, contact AILA at their main office number. And of course, ask the lawyer if he or she has experience with cases like yours. Keep in mind that some immigration lawyers focus on a particular area of immigration law (for example, business immigration law, immigration law for healthcare professionals, or deportation defense). Additionally, I recommend using a lawyer who spends most or all of his or her time practicing immigration law. This is a complex and evolving field of law, and it’s difficult to keep current if your focus is divided among many practice areas. To find a qualified immigration lawyer in your area, visit

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