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Writing And The REAL ID

by R. Blake Chisam

I'd like to chat a bit about the REAL ID Act and some of its likely effects on the practice of immigration law.

Specifically, I'd like to discuss how the REAL ID Act will require us in our merry, wee band of immigration lawyers to write well -- very, very well -- indeed far, far better than we should have been writing all along. Once upon a time, the lawyerly, the practical, the lazy in our midst could slide by writing dry chronologies taken almost verbatim from interviews with clients that began and ended almost entirely with droll questions like "What happened next?"

No more... for the REAL ID Act of 2005 compels us to attend to the details our clients' stories, particularly when preparing applications for relief, including asylum applications, withholding applications and cancellation of removal applications. And we can best introduce those details by writing them down, by telling stories that move readers, that are fresh and easily remembered -- because they have been lifted from our clients' memories and lovingly drafted into service on the screens of our laptops and desktops.

In a way, we're lucky. Compared to most of our law school mates' practices, our cases have stories at their cores. Whether they're asylum cases, VAWA cases, hardship waivers, J waivers, extraordinary ability petitions or NIW requests, we get to tell tales.

We must start thinking of ourselves as lawyer-writers, as those who have to help our clients tell their compelling stories not by rote but through the techniques used by those who write in the creative nonfiction genre. Our clients, many of whom are unable to tell a story, particularly one in English, will need much help to be the memoirists the statute will make them become. Our job, the task of the professional immigration lawyer, is to be our clients' biographers, their story renderers.

Being a biographer -- a story renderer -- involves a great deal more than reciting facts in chronological order. Helping someone to write a memoir requires more than helping them put their life on paper. Aiding a client's drafting of a personal essay on the merits and benefits of her life's work means delving deep into her story rather than simply inquiring into the who, what, how, when, where and why of it. We must do much more than merely answer questions on government forms. We must attend to the details, to the things that often get ignored by people's conscious minds.

Our interviews with clients will need to draw them out more. Their personal statements will need to include details that many used to think irrelevant, or too artsy. This takes hard work ... and skill ... and patience.

Under the REAL ID act, knowing the color of the sky when the sun rose over the shaggy hills obscuring the horizon just to the east of our client's village will be an important thing to know and to tell. (And there damn well ought to be a map, neatly annotated, much like the one Richard Adams made in Watership Down, of the place where our client's story takes place.) Also, we'll need to fret over things like story arcs and character development. We'll have to worry about tone, voice, point of view, narration, setting, landscape and so on.

And there must be dialogue. Lots of dialogue. Nothing sells a story or tells us more about people better than the words they say.

Under the REAL ID Act, our clients' tales must be plausible and internally consistent to an adjudicator who may now safely ignore the fact that even the most literate, best educated, most talented memoirists can't tell their stories perfectly and objectively. Further, the law requires our clients to stay true to their stories, to be consistent throughout and in each telling and retelling. We can help them best by writing good stories -- their stories -- based on their lives, their memories, their words. They provide the content, we craft it into something readable, concise and readily understandable.

Now, I have to tell you, I've heard some folks say we ought not put any details in writing when we prepare cases. "We don't want to set the stage for an adverse credibility finding because our client didn't say 'X' exactly the way he said it in his affidavit," they say.

I get the point, I just don't agree. Tell a story, a really good story, and tell it well, and it's a great deal more likely that the adjudicator will go your way. Besides, the stories you tell will come from the words, remembrances, impressions, and the like of your clients. If you do it right, they should have little trouble recalling what you wrote. After all, the story will be what they told you. And the addition of all the details that make a good story (setting, dialogue, character development, and so on) will make the story sound and feel far more believable.

"Write well," I say. And if you can't -- because it's hard, it takes more time, it costs more -- find someone who can.

Come to think of it, I'd be happy to just interview clients and write their stories. Sounds like fun. Good, hard, clean fun.

About The Author

R. Blake Chisam practices exclusively in the area of Immigration and Nationality Law as a partner in the firm of Chisam & Majid. He advises organizations with respect to immigration-related policy, employment, civil rights, and health care law matters, including related white-collar criminal and regulatory compliance issues. Mr. Chisam is an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association ("AILA"), for which he currently serves on its Business Litigation committee, and the American Bar Association ("ABA"). In October 2000, Mr. Chisam and his partner Jasmine A. Majid were, awarded the prestigious Meritorious Public Service Award from the Director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which was presented by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, in recognition of their "tireless and distinguished pro bono efforts on behalf of unrepresented aliens detained by the … Immigration and Naturalization Service." Mr. Chisam has lectured on immigration law to law students at universities across the U.S., and he is a frequent author and lecturer to professional associations, academic symposia and community groups. He is admitted to practice in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and a host of federal courts.

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