2002 National AILA Wrap-Up
Hi Folks! It's been a week since Lorenzo, Maddy, and I returned from San Francisco with the national American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) convention still fresh on our minds, and I wanted to start my week-long series by bringing you up to speed on the many events which unfolded during our visit. My attendance to the state and national conventions has not been 100% consistent in the last few years for a variety of reasons:
I'm happy to report to you that this year was different, both for the attorneys at Latour and Lleras and for the attorneys who represent you (if we are not your firm and if your attorneys attended the national convention). Atlanta AILA member Charles Kuck was Conference Chair this year, and I'll tell you what, folks: he put on a heckuva show! Mr. Kuck is not only one of AILA's rising stars as far as national leadership but also an excellent immigration attorney who is highly respected for his legal skills. Maddy has known him for a while and tells me that he has been a continuously positive influence to AILA and that we should continue to look forward to his contributions to our national organization.
If there was one particularly exciting aspect of the 2002 AILA convention for me, it had to be hearing incoming President John L. Pinnix at his installation. Since I have been a member of AILA - 12 years now - I have been highly critical of the officer election process associated with the organization, particularly for national leadership positions. I'll spare you the details, but it boils down to this: every year at election time, AILA members throughout the country receive ballots with essentially one candidate for each position. That is correct: one candidate for each position... no choice. Technically there are a variety of write-in procedures and a host of other "democratic" provisions which theoretically permit competition within the organization, but it's a well-known fact that the only way for a person to become a national officer of the American Immigration Lawyers Association is to diligently work your way up through the ranks, spend years cultivating the "powers that be," and, if you behave, you will make your way on to the coveted ballot position, assuming that you don't do anything to anger anyone within the top ranks of authority.
As absurd and ridiculous as this sounds - particularly for an organization made up of officers of the law - it has worked remarkably well over the years. Why? Simply because the truth is that the best officers to lead an organization such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association are those who have contributed the most consistent time and effort to the organization. Think about it: those who have put in the long, tedious hours in committees and in less glamorous positions are those most poised, generally, to lead the membership and, accordingly, reap the very tangible rewards of national leadership. What rewards? Ah, that would be what goes unsaid about the position of President of AILA national: once an individual has been President of AILA national, he or she is essentially "set for life" as far as rainmaking and business development for their immigration practice. (Or, in fact, that could be a myth: the truth could simply be that anyone smart and perseverant enough to make it to national President of AILA probably has cultivated a national stream of business along the way, right? (-:)
Why am I excited about John L. Pinnix? I'll tell you.
I have known Mr. Pinnix, not at a personal level, but professionally, since I first started my private practice in 1990. I remember meeting him at a variety of national and regional conventions, and my impression has been consistent: steady, rational, cool-headed, and very, very credible. Exactly the type of leadership that the American Immigration Lawyers Association needs these days. Mr. Pinnix is a founding member and the former Chair of the AILA Carolina's Chapter. He has been involved with AILA for over 20 years and has been a strong immigration advocate since the late 1980s. It's not often that I use the pages of our law firm's web site to tell you how great a guy another immigration attorney is, so savor the moment...(-:
So you are dying to know, aren't you? How did my presentation go?
I'll be honest: I think I did a pretty lame job. First of all, despite my smart-ass comments Friday about the absence of the State Department and INS webmasters, their presence was definitely missed, and a number of AILA members who attended my presentation sure seemed to want them there. I did, I'll tell you that much. The first 15 minutes of our hour were spent with Krista (AILA's wonderful Web person) and me trying to figure out what the problem was with the laptop. As usual, I droned on for too long, although I must confess that the 2 P.M. Saturday time-slot didn't help. The session had maybe 40 people in it in a room that sat perhaps 100, so it wasn't exactly a "confidence builder." )-: No one appeared to snooze, btw. The lowlight: the lady who decided to press Krista during Q&A on how to cut and paste in Windows...nice lady but man was that a bummer.
Maddy, Lorenzo, and I all had fairly different responses to the sessions overall. Obviously, Maddy attended the sessions relating to asylum, deportation, etc. She learned a lot, but, at the same time, found many of the sessions a bit slow-moving. Lorenzo had the same opinion on many of the substantive sessions he attended regarding labor certification, adjustment, and service center operations, though he did pick up a number of useful tidbits. I took more than my usual amount of notes, but, upon reviewing them, don't think that I learned nearly as much as I seemed to be learning during the sessions. There were a lot of little nuances and "factoids" that I brought home which will definitely be of use. But, overall, I don't know that there was all that much to learn: we are still in such a state of change as a result of September 11th...things are still very much in the making.
A caveat for the young attorneys who read www.usvisanews.com: in at least two sessions that I attended at the national convention, experienced immigration attorneys on panels spoke very confidently (and liberally) on suggested procedures and tactics involving things such as investor visas and labor certifications with a degree of simplification that would make a new attorney think that the particular tactics they were suggesting were a proverbial "walk in the park." Nothing could be farther from the truth, as far as the several sessions I attended. I became increasingly alarmed that these attorneys were leading younger attorneys to believe that some of the tactics to which they were referring would result in routine approvals, when this was simply not the case. It was only out of respect for the particular speakers that I didn't stand up and say "wait a minute, that sounds great in theory, but you know very well that INS is not routinely approving cases under that type of fact pattern...", now I kind of wish I had. If you were one of those attorneys in those sessions and you heard something that sounded a little too good to be true, feel free to drop me an e-mail before telling your client that, yes, it can be done. We are in a climate of intense malpractice scrutiny and I don't want the loose words of some well-meaning but careless experts to steer you down the wrong path.
As you can imagine, the single hottest topic for this year's AILA convention had to do with September 11th and the anticipated impact on immigration legislation. For immigration attorneys focusing on deportation relief and on the representation of clients from the Middle East, September 11th has had a profound impact on their practices. For the rest of us, the impact of September 11th remains largely unclear.
The San Francisco convention raised more questions than it answered, but it is clear that government officials are mindful of the potential impact of regulatory action on the processing of immigrant cases. Most Americans - unlike immigrants and the attorneys that represent them - think that only the passage of laws by Congress will have an impact on immigration. Those of us who do this on a daily basis realize that, while the implementation of new laws would certainly have a profound impact, it is the more subtle, day-to-day implementation of regulatory action at the airports, borders, and by consular officers which will have the most noticeable and immediate impact on both immigrants and non-immigrants entering this country on a daily basis. My impression from speaking to most government officials is that awareness on their part means cautious action, and the knee-jerk reflexes we saw in the months that followed September 2001 are largely over.
Another "hot topic," at least for those of us on the attorney end of things, is the implementation of changes to AILA's "InfoNet," the website available to AILA members. Krista Lessig, with whom I presented my panel in San Francisco, spent a good portion of her convention time training AILA members on the new changes in InfoNet, and I am happy to report that they all seem to be positive. For AILA members who read U.S. Visa News, I encourage you to add InfoNet as a part of your daily routine. Among the many improved features, the number one improvement seems to be the search engine which, in the past, has not been particularly useful. Under the new system, tremendous resources available within InfoNet are subdivided according to a variety of categories and classifications, making the information within AILA's site far more searchable and useable to attorneys needing information for case research, investigation, or just plain curiosity.
While I did not attend due to prior engagement plans, this year's American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF) ethnic salute was to Indian Americans and featured guest speaker Deepak Chopra. In prior years AILF has also honored Chinese Americans. At this year's event, honorees from a wide variety of fields including arts, sciences, business, and education were selected, and the evening featured an exhibit of original artwork from both new and well-established Indian artists as well as performances of traditional Indian music and dance.
As far as substantive law topics, the "hot" items which packed the attorneys in to the hilt - and I do mean "Hilt", as in standing room only - included things such as adjustment of status updates, service center updates, employment-based immigrant visas, "responding to the INS," service sector employees...all of the stuff that Kim, Lorenzo, and I deal with on a daily basis. "Advanced Issues in Adjustment of Status Consular Processing," which Lorenzo attended, was equally mobbed by throngs of attorneys trying to figure out why things continue to go wrong despite the fact that we are all pretty much doing exactly what we are being told to do.
The session on adjustment of status versus consular-post processing was also very packed, as was the session on ethical practice, as many attorneys struggle to understand the complex roles that they are being asked to play in H 1-B and labor certification processing, struggling to maintain a balanced role between representing an employer and doing their very best for the alien employee at the same time. Other sessions which drew considerable attention included:
Thirty-five hundred lawyers attending a number of very interesting sessions made it very difficult for the AILA staff to determine just who would be interested in what: some sessions were predicted to draw small crowds and instead had overflow masses spilling out into the hallways; other sessions were expected to have big turn-outs and instead had huge rooms barely one-quarter full. Still, AILA did a remarkable job of predicting attendance for the most part, and the convention went off without a hitch.
Part III: Government Jewels Shine in San Francisco
One of the best parts of attending National AILA conventions is the opportunity to meet the government folks with whom we work on a long-distance basis. Today I will tell you about some of my favorites whom I had an opportunity to listen to again this year.
Jacqueline Bednarz is Special Assistant to the Executive Associate Commissioner for the Office of Policy and Planning of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C. Those of you who are long-term U.S. Visa News readers may recognize Ms. Bednarz' name as I have referred to her in the past on a number of occasions. Ms. Bednarz has been a friend and resource to the immigrant community for many years and someone whose assistance has been absolutely invaluable in the course of my learning immigration law. In the 90s when the INS was continuously struggling to interpret the muck of a variety of convoluted regulations, interpretations, and laws, it was Ms. Bednarz whose clear and responsive letters seemed to consistently provide the answers that immigration attorneys needed to wade our way through the nebulous swamps on behalf of our clients. Time and again, via reproduced letters from Ms. Bednarz in Interpreter Releases (the weekly bible for immigration practitioners), I would find an answer, a clarification, or a useful suggestion at a time when no one else at INS seemed to be willing to go on record or provide any form of response. It is great to see that Ms. Bednarz is still there providing answers, and it is my hope that she continues to rise to the very top of INS leadership.
Mr. Harry Sheinfeld is Litigation Counsel in the Employment and Training Legal Services Division, Office of the Solicitor, at the U.S. Department of Labor. Mr. Sheinfeld is one of those who has been faithfully available for AILA conventions and events for as long as I can remember, and one whose ability to provide clear answers with both good humor and clarity has truly distinguished him from many of his government colleagues. An attorney who graduated from NYU Law School, he is a career Department of Labor attorney who has been involved with DOL's immigration work for the past two decades. His job is to handle all of the non-informant immigration litigation for the U.S. Department of Labor, making him the top officer associated with decisions involving labor certifications, LCA issues, etc. He is the man when it comes to clarification on these issues, and, over the years, has truly distinguished himself through his remarkable availability to AILA members as a valuable resource. Moreover, he is funny, sharp, and perhaps the most pragmatic mind at DOL, always able to recognize bureaucracy when he sees it, but never hesitating to call AILA on self-serving agenda issues designed to circumvent the interest of the American public, whom DOL is designed to serve. Good man, Harry.
Ms. Charlene Giles is the Chief of Agricultural Labor Certification at the main office of the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. This was the first time that I had seen Ms. Giles speak at a conference, but her presentation was powerful and it was wonderful to finally see her in person. I saw Ms. Giles speak when she was on the panel for H-2Bs and was extremely impressed with the clarity of her answers and her willingness to go on-the-line as far as directly responding to attorney questions...no government "mincing of words" as we often see on these type of panels. We peppered her with very specific questions regarding what would and would not work, and she answered them clearly. In fact, one of the most impressive things about Ms. Giles' presentation was her ongoing concern about inconsistencies with H-2B adjudications throughout the nation, something that she really wants to address in the future: she asked attorneys to give her feedback regarding inconsistencies in an adjudication involving the "temporariness" factor necessary for the approval of visas involving temporary unskilled workers. Ms. Giles seems to be at the top of her game and her leadership had Lorenzo and me rethinking our aversion to H-2B processing very carefully. Very, VERY sharp lady.
Stephen Fischel has been an important friend of AILA since my State Department days, though we never met until I was in private practice. If AILA has any friend at the U.S. Department of State, it is definitely Mr. Fischel. Fischel is the Director of Legislation, Regulations and Advisory Assistance in the visa office of the Department of State, affectionately known to us State Department types as "legs and regs." (-: Fischel is an AILA convention stalwart with whom I've had the pleasure of serving on prior AILA panels; in San Francisco this year, he graced us with his presence in no less than six panels! I could spend a considerable amount of time telling you about Mr. Fischel's brilliance and staggering comprehension of "things visa," but I'll sum it up by telling you this: as director of "legs and regs," Mr. Fischel heads up the State Department office which oversees all Advisory Opinion (AO) requests coming in from U.S. visa sections abroad. That means that every visa application abroad which is going to be denied and which requests reconsideration under basis of legal interpretation ultimately goes through his office and his team of attorneys. In my 12 years of private practice, I can honestly tell you that every legitimate misapplication of law by a consular officer which has come under review from this office has received a fair reconsideration. The perpetual problem: a consular officer who wants to deny a case because he or she simply wants to deny the case can generally present it as a matter of fact as opposed to a matter of law. Mr. Fischel's office cannot overturn a consular officer on a matter of fact, but instead only when the officer is erring on a matter of law. Still, he is great friend to AILA and, again this year, one of the brightest "stars" at our national convention.
Part IV: Vendors Galore: Providing Support to Immigration Attorneys
In addition to a ton of immigration attorneys - 3500 of them - there were a ton of vendors at the San Francisco AILA conference. It seems like everybody is getting in on the business of immigration, including vendors interested in seeking out business from those of us who practice immigration law. Since so many of our readers are such well, entrepreneurial types, I thought you guys might enjoy reading about some of the businesses that are popping up around the practice of immigration law...let's take a look, shall we?
Among the different businesses in the large exhibitors hall in the convention were: (I'm only including some of the more notable and interesting ones)
My favorite booth? Easy! Sam Udani and his crew at www.ilw.com ...easy answer! By the way, stay tuned: Sam and I have something very special coming for you guys in the next few weeks. We will be preparing the first ever joint U.S. Visa News/ilw.com live teleconference hosted by yours truly!
So, anyone out there inspired with any great ideas? I think there is room next year for:
If so, maybe we will catch you next year in New Orleans at the 2003 National AILA Convention! (-:
Part V: Thirty-Five Hundred Immigration Attorneys and Nothing's On... Reflections of An Old Timer
It had been nine days in California, and nine days was a bit too long for me. I missed the dogs...I really, really missed the dogs. Danny and I were standing in a really long line at the Memphis airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Florida, trying to get him some Kentucky Fried Chicken strips, when Mr. Smooth appeared.
Mr. Smooth slithered up alongside the long, snaking line of hungry, tense people, hoping not to be noticed. I noticed. I waited to see if anyone would do anything, but no one did. Just as he was about to make his move and cut the line, I intervened. "Excuse me, but the line is back there. We all have flights, too."
You know that old expression about "if looks could kill?" Well, I do too, now. I thought the entire line was going to break out in applause, and the grin on Danny's face made the whole uncomfortable experience completely worthwhile. What a weasel. His mouth dropped open as he glared at me but nothing came out. What, after all, COULD he say?
What is this world coming to? Seems like every corner I turn, everyone is taking shortcuts at the expense of others. Resumés full of exaggerations and bold-faced lies (when was the last time YOU checked out the "facts" on the c.v.'s YOU get?...Brace yourself friends, you will be astonished), people dropping bags of garbage out of car windows, parents who don't bother to pick up the 10 boxes of cereal their out-of-control brat just toppled at the supermarket...because they just don't give a damn.
But, thankfully, many of us still do give a damn, and I'm trying my damndest to make sure my kids do. At the AILA conference, I was surrounded by immigration attorneys who do, indeed, give a damn and who, because they do, are worried. The San Francisco convention was both reassuring and alarming, and I thought I'd spend a little time today telling you about my concerns.
I vividly remember the first time I attended an immigration seminar: it was in the spring of 1990, and I was attending the event at a downtown Miami hotel. It wasn't even an AILA event but some private seminar, and I was Mr. Eager Beaver. I was probably the youngest guy in the room, and I knew absolutely nothing although I had the mistaken impression that my consular background somehow prepared me for the private practice I had just launched. Twelve years later, sitting in a conference room and looking around me, while I am certainly far from being the oldest person in the room, I sit squarely in the middle, between old veterans and newbies, contemplating where I've been, where I'm going, but, mostly, where this business of immigration is going....
It seemed that as the questions were asked regarding who practiced full-time immigration law and who practiced in other areas of law, the percentage of arms going up as far as exclusively practicing immigration law has gone down as the years have gone by. I looked at the attendance roster in the program book and, naturally, a disproportionately high number of the attorneys attending hailed from California. Still, it was disconcerting to see that the majority of the attorneys in most rooms practice in other areas of law. I asked myself: it takes the attorneys in our firm an extraordinary amount of time just to keep up on the subject of immigration law...
How can other attorneys accurately keep up with immigration law and other areas of law and really, competently represent their clients to the BEST of their ability?
The answer is, in my personal opinion, that they cannot. They are dabblers, and attorneys who are dabblers are dangerous in this day and age. Way too many of the attorneys attending the AILA convention are immigration dabblers, and that makes me nervous. They may care as much or more as the most committed immigration-only practitioner, but assimilation of the never-ending bombardment of legislative, regulatory, and policy changes by the myriad of agencies and individuals involved cannot be accomplished via osmosis. You don't wake up, take the headphones off, wipe the drool off your pillow, and say:
"OH, NOW I understand all the nuances about the proposed modifications to the way the Department of Labor intends to handle employment based labor processing in light of the post September-11th economy!"
Nope, it "don't" work that way. It is all I can do to keep up with this area of practice (after living and breathing no other area of practice EXCEPT immigration law) and I hardly know everything I need to know.
Another thing that makes me nervous is the fact that many of the attorneys practicing immigration law in the United States are not members of the U.S. Bar, but members of bars in other jurisdictions. I continue to be troubled by the fact that AILA permits Canadian attorneys who are not licensed in the United States to not only be AILA members, but also to practice U.S. immigration law and compete with U.S. attorneys while simultaneously expounding on the problem of the unlicensed practice of law. I believe that Canada-only-licensed immigration attorneys should be welcome in AILA, provided they expressly limit their practice to Canadian immigration law. AILA should distinguish such folks from Canadian firms who employ U.S. licensed attorneys, attorneys who are licensed in both U.S. and Canada, Canadian AILA members who ONLY practice Canadian immigration law, and Canadian firms which provide specific paralegal services which do not constitute the delivery of legal advice: I have NO quarrel with any of these legitimate activities. My problem is with attorneys who are licensed only in Canada but are filing G-28s and delivering legal advice to U.S. companies while filing INS forms in the U.S...with no U.S. bar supervision and as much impunity as a notario on Miami's Calle Ocho selling fake IDs. Canadian and U.S. attorneys have the same name for someone purporting to deliver legal advice in a jurisdiction in which they are not licensed:
Unlicensed Practice of Law.
AILA should conduct a comprehensive review of all foreign members to confirm that members who are holding themselves out as U.S. practitioners are indeed licensed SOMEWHERE in the United States. The organization owes that to its membership.
Another topic of concern, at least to this old timer, is the astonishing lack of preparedness that I am seeing in some young attorneys. At the end of each panel, presenters would read questions submitted to them in written form. These questions are typically characteristic of problems being seen by the attorneys sitting in the room, seeking clarification from the experts speaking to the group. In years past, the questions submitted reflected careful thought by the writers, whether novice or seasoned practitioners. Anonymity has not in the past served as a cloak for stupidity. This year, more than ever, the questions read aloud were representative of questions submitted by individuals who were completely unfamiliar with even the most basic concepts involving INS processing procedures and normal routines that even U.S. Visa News readers can explain to other non-lawyers. I was floored time and again by questions coming from attorneys who had been entrusted with things like EB-1 filings and labor certifications but who didn't even have a basic grasp of what they were doing. Scary.
What does all of this mean? Is the profession of immigration law going to hell in a handbasket?
Not necessarily. For every alarming episode such as the ones I have described above, there was a fresh, young, eager immigration attorney cornering me or someone like me for advice and questions and exhibiting a genuine zeal to do the very best he can for his clients. I talked about this with Lorenzo as well as a number of old friends I ran into from all over the country. The enthusiasm for the practice of immigration law and the thirst for excellence in the day-to-day exercise of our profession remains, but you, as consumers looking for quality immigration representation, need to be more careful than ever in selecting attorneys. My suggestion to you if you are looking for immigration counsel: look into their eyes and ask them the difficult questions. Make sure they have time for you. Make sure they care. Make sure they have done their homework and ask them about their experience.
Inexperience does not necessarily mean that they are not qualified to represent you. But there must be a formula under such circumstances:
A caring, committed, talented, responsive but yet inexperienced immigration attorney with a glint in her eye will invariably do a better job with your case than the most highly respected but jaded legend in a $2000 suit who could care less about your little life.
You guys have a magnificent weekend, and I'll talk to you Monday.
About The Author
Jose Latour is the founding partner of Latour & Lleras, P.A., a Gainesville, Florida based business immigration practice working primarily with the IT industry and foreign investors. JELPA is an A/V rated firm whose web site, www.usvisanews.com, is one of the Internet’s most visited immigration sites. The firm was named “ONE OF AMERICA’S TOP TEN INTERNET/VIRTUAL COMPANIES” in the 1999 Inc. Magazine and Cisco Systems “Growing with Technology Awards.” Mr. Latour served as a U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Officer in Mexico and Africa before entering private practice and today divides his time between his law practice, writing, flying, and his music.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.