In this article, the focus is on immigration paralegals. In reality, however, these six attributes apply equally to all paralegals and legal assistants, contract or employee. Second, the presence of all of these skills is imperative, no singular element more important than the rest. And, just as easily, they could apply to attorneys or a host of other professions. Combined they form the word “talent.”
First, it’s important to understand that immigration law encompasses a multitude of different processes, types of visas, methods for gaining admission (whether temporary or permanent) into the United States. Immigration professionals specialize in certain areas. The larger areas, broader types of visas, include: employment (temporary and permanent), family sponsorship, humanitarian visas, business and investment visas, and other more defined areas such as religious, student, and diplomatic visas. As well, there are applications for naturalization, or certifications of citizenship. In all, there are over 50 different types of visas and visa processes. Then, there is the criminal side of immigration law with representation of clients before the Immigration Courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Circuit Courts of Appeal, and even the U.S. Supreme Court.
The knowledge base I work from includes family based sponsorship, business and investment visas, humanitarian visas, religious visas, and citizenship. What makes this knowledge base effective? Study, practice, research, currency. And the good sense not to delve into areas where I have no knowledge along with the better sense of knowing when and where to refer a prospective client who is seeking assistance outside of my skills set.
The most valuable pieces of knowledge, however, are those related to understanding how to work with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS,” “CIS” or “the Service”) and a clear understanding of what can be done and, no less important, what cannot be done.
- How do you increase your knowledge base with regard to immigration law?
- Where do you believe you are most knowledgeable?
- What else would you like to learn to do?
Not everyone is able to gain knowledge and improve practical skills through experience. Not everyone possesses that capacity or those capabilities. Some are good at going through the motions but not much else. The successful practice of immigration law requires the practitioner to constantly internalize new information and apply it. Why? Because it is always changing. The notion of, “We did it this way six months ago so this is good enough today,” will not work. If there is one thing that experience has taught me, it is to never be caught unawares. As an example, when working a file, I will review the instructions for forms and the process on the day documents are prepared or within a day or two before. Why? Because it is constantly changing. Two years ago, three or four passport photos may have been required. Today, it might be six. Six months ago, a form might have been eight pages long. Today, it is 14 pages.
In other words, no matter how much experience a practitioner might have, it is never enough. Not with immigration law.
- What types of files or visa processes do you work on most often?
- How many files have you worked on in the time you’ve been working in the area of immigration law?
- What processes do you find most interesting and most challenging?
The Ability to Think Outside the Box
Prior to 2002 when, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) was created, the practice of immigration law was, to a very great extent, forms work. Much like Bankruptcy Law and Social Security Law. Then it all changed. Where previously the processes were very straight-forward and predictable, after 2002 and continuing to the present day, the petitioner and/or applicant is now on the defensive. In fact, the term “by a preponderance of the evidence” is widely used by DHS and CIS today. However, there is a major challenge with all of this. The guidelines for what must be demonstrated, for what must be proven, are often vague and ambiguous. It is left to the practitioner to determine what it is that USCIS must see.
When preparing a file for submission, I will put myself in the figurative chairs of the reviewing officers. If I were reviewing this file, what would I want to see, need to see to pass the file to the next level of review, and the next, and the next, until it finally moves to the last step of (in most cases) the in-person interview. This is the ability to think outside the box.
A little over a year ago, I met with a high volume family based sponsorship firm with a single attorney and a team of eleven paralegals. They were working petitions and applications using an assembly line model. When I asked about their rate of success, I learned that nearly every file experienced at least one Request for Evidence (“RFE”) meaning that USCIS wanted more documentation and, in some cases, documentation that had already been submitted. In looking over what I assume was a typical submission package, I could see the reason that the firm received so many RFEs. The packages were sloppy, poorly organized, and would be a nightmare to sort for scanning purposes and initial review. I was also told that this firm found it necessary to contact that Ombudsman’s Office on a regular basis. I wasn’t surprised.
Over the last ten years, I have seen perhaps three RFEs, have only called the USCIS Customer Service line twice, and have never had to contact the Ombudsman’s Office. Perhaps “thinking outside the box” includes doing everything right the first time. It might also mean thoroughly vetting a prospective file before accepting it.
- What do you think is your greatest strength in working in the area of immigration law?
- When you stack a file for submission, what order do you use and how do you determine that order?
- In what ways, and when, do you prepare the client(s) for the interview part of the process?
Attention to Detail
If “thinking outside the box” is a success building attribute, then “attention to detail” is even more so. Immigration law is much like tax law. Can you imagine filing an incomplete 1040, 1120, or Schedule K, or to enter data in a section where it doesn’t belong? The same standard is true, maybe even more so, with regard to completing the forms required for submission to USCIS with one major exception. The IRS does not require support documentation merely the returns. USCIS requires support documentation.
Second, the instructions for one set of forms are seldom identical with other sets of forms. Thus, we have to know which applies to which and when. A few years back, there was a rule that no entry area (box) could be empty. In those days, I was very adept at understanding the difference between when to enter “NONE” and when to enter “N/A.” Yes, there is a difference. Thankfully, those days have gone by the wayside for the most part, with the exception of the Form G-325A which still has some of that.
As to the support documentation, USCIS does not require photographs of a couple beyond the passport photos. Nor, does it require Affidavits from the couple and others attesting to the legitimacy of the relationship. I include them anyway. Why? Because they establish the legitimacy of the relationship. That is the entire basis for family based sponsorship petitions. Is it overkill? Probably. But I do it anyway.
The stacking order (the order the documents are stacked in) is based on my answering a question in my head of, “What is my best guess as to the scanning order of the documents?” More overkill. I prefer to put documents in their own individual file folders with clear labels showing the contents, i.e., Form G-28, Form I-130, Identification Documents, Affidavits, etc. Why? Because it makes the job of the initial reviewing officer – the person doing the scanning – easier. Make life easy for the Service and it makes life easy for the practitioner and the clients.
In an online webinar I attended a couple years ago, one of the participants asked, “Would you please tell us in what order you would like documents so that we can make your job easier?” Seems like a great question and yes I was definitely paying attention. Unfortunately, the response was, “I’m sorry but we cannot answer case specific questions.” That’s a USCIS code phrase that means, “we’re not going to answer your question.” If you ever attend an in-person conference, teleconference, webinar, or other presentation, and you hear that response, drop it.
- On a scale of one to ten, how detail oriented are you?
- Would you please provide some examples of ways in which you are detail oriented?
- In your opinion, how important are the details when working in the area of immigration law?
Understanding What USCIS Has to See
This is all about attitude and was alluded to previously. The term I use is, “Getting behind the eyes of the reviewing officer.” Of course, it’s more than that. It’s getting behind the person’s eyes with a pre-determination of denying the petition or application. My approach is always that the answer is “no” (a denial) unless we remove all the opportunities for a “no.” Or, as I say to clients, “I’m not looking for a yes and an approval; I am eliminating all the chances for a no, a denial.” When we consider the current climate and culture with U.S. Immigration, it should be obvious that practitioners have had to step up their game considerably. For those who stay up on the news and gossip, as we’ve seen, a large number of former immigration attorneys have dropped out and the American Immigration Lawyers Association membership is down. Why? Because although it hasn’t been just forms work for the last 15 years or so, now It really isn’t just forms work.
There is consistency throughout this article. What does USCIS have to see? Everything done right. Everything complete. A logical order to the documentation. Clear and professional communications. When there is something inconsistent, a clear explanation of the inconsistency. Another one of my rules of thumb is to never make the Service guess. Make it clear. Make it concise. Eliminate all the no possibilities.
- Tell me about your perceptions with regard to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services?
- What do you think it takes to get an approval on a submission file?
- What things do you believe you should never do if you want to obtain approvals for your clients?
Contract paralegals, whether with immigration law or other areas of law, are not employed full time. They are consultants or contractors only. Attorneys continue to use them for one reason only – the quality of their work. Some attorneys hire based on low pricing – always a mistake. Needless to say, if the work isn’t of the highest and most professional quality, the assignments won’t be there. I have had the pleasure of working with some truly professional and talented attorneys. Yes, references are available upon request.
As a completely unrelated aside, two days before writing this article, the foreign national spouse of the first couple I worked with became a United States citizen. He sent me a note that said, “You’re doing God’s work, thank you so much for what you do.” Yes, some clients will permit me to provide their names and contact information.
A few attorneys who happen to also be friends have labeled me “the lawyer without a license.” This is based on the notion that attorneys are licensed to practice the law, and that lawyers are practitioners of the law. Not all attorneys are lawyers, and not all lawyers are attorneys. There was also a time when I heard people say, “The best immigration lawyer in Lubbock, Texas isn’t even a lawyer.” Yes, they were referring to me.
To be successful, a practitioner must possess all six of the attributes outlined in this article. Take even one out of the equation and the entire picture changes drastically. The story on my website about the son who became an LPR, then a USC, and then sponsored his parents is true. That’s the ability to “think outside the box” and the ability to “think long term.” It’s more than that, however. It’s the ability to determine, from the get go, that there is a dedication to being of service and to assisting clients in the best ways possible. There are times when “the best ways possible” may mean doing nothing at all. There are times when “the best ways possible” may mean sending the clients to another attorney even though we are capable of helping them.
Seldom do I charge for initial consultations. When asked the reason, my answer is always, “Let’s figure out if I can help you first then we’ll worry about the money.” Those initial consultations usually take place on the telephone but sometimes in person or via internet video chat. It’s a simple rule. If I can help and be of assistance, I’ll do everything I can. If I can’t, I’ll say so.
What does it come down to in the end? Attitude. Commitment. A dedication to be of service.