And immigration lawyers are one group that deserves more appreciation than it gets, in a world where lawyers consistently rank at the bottom of the public opinion scales.
Here are some reasons to give a little love to this country’s immigration lawyers (the good ones, anyway — there are some bad ones out there, too):
- They’re not getting rich off their work. Immigration lawyers usually work as solo practitioners, which means paying a lot of office overhead in return for payments of flat fees or low hourly rates, at amounts that reflect their clients’ typical lack of ability to pay big bucks. (And forget chasing down payment if the judge orders the client deported!) Noodling around online, all the surveys I found put immigration lawyers’ salaries in the $70,000 range — which would be considered peanuts by most attorneys. It’s less if the attorneys work at a nonprofit organization.
- They do a lot of volunteer work. Huge numbers of immigrants cannot afford even an hour of a lawyer’s fees, yet are desperately in need of representation, for example with cases for asylum (because they’ve fled persecution in another country) or deportation defense. The U.S. government provides no funding at all to help with this. (There is no immigration equivalent to the “public defender” program for U.S. criminal cases.) So immigration lawyers, often with the coordination and help of perpetually underfunded immigration-service nonprofits, attempt to pick up the slack.
- They’re grappling with the most complex body of law on the books. For real. As is often repeated, it’s more complicated than the tax code. And it’s treated as a political football, with clauses added and subtracted with every new Congress or President.
- They can do everything right and still have the case go wrong. I don’t want to point fingers, but . . . well, yes I do want to point fingers. The entire immigration bureaucracy, including the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is a morass of paperwork, process, and inconsistency. Ask any immigration lawyer, and you’ll get tales of frustration — delays and lost files or checks, demands for documents that are legally irrelevant, denials that made no sense or were based on bias or lack of cultural awareness, and so on. These can be difficult to explain to clients, who’ve paid their fees and expect to see some results — or who even believe that the attorneys are somehow in league with the U.S. government.
- They occasionally pull off miracles. Every time I attend an immigration lawyer’s conference, I hear some story of a lawyer who went to bat on a case I would have thought was a sure loser — and won. That kind of spirit and optimism is hard to maintain, and makes a big difference for other immigrants down the line.
Need I say more? Actually, I have said more, about the important process of choosing, hiring, or firing an immigration attorney.