How to Become a Lawyer Specializing in Immigration Law

The traffic across the southern border of the United States has gone on since before the border was even there. Sometimes it seems like the lines inked on the map haven’t slowed it down much; the Guinness Book of World Records even ranked it the most frequently crossed border in the world at one point. Of course, the vast majority of those crossings, some 350 million per year, are perfectly normal and legal.

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But the undocumented and uncertain number of illicit crossings has become a political hot-button in the United States. And in 2018, it flashed into horrific prominence worldwide as the Trump administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy for anyone caught crossing into the United States from Mexico.

Unfortunately, and illegally, this included immigrants seeking asylum. This resulted in widespread separations of children from their parents… a surge of unaccompanied and untracked minors that the Border Patrol wasn’t prepared to handle.

The results were horrific. Journalists struggled to gain access to the detention facilities, then recoiled at what they found… children in cages, sleeping on concrete floors, observed only from watchtowers. Echoes of concentration camps were found elsewhere, as well, as siblings were prevented from even hugging one another and told their parents were “lost.” And, as COVID-19 swept through starting in early 2020, unhygienic conditions in these facilities only added to the risk that the people being housed there would contract the disease.

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) found nearly 13,000 children in custody, kept in tent cities and warehouses, locked up in juvenile detention centers despite having committed no crime themselves. Worse, the Department of Health and Human Services entirely lost track of some 1,500 of those kids between 2016 and 2017, before the surge in detentions even hit its peak.

Even as kids were being separated, some permanently, from their families, the administration denied the intent, and even the existence of the policy.

But attorneys working with the American Civil Liberties Union, LAJC, and other immigration-focused groups quickly filed lawsuits to both expose and halt the horrific actions, and in doing so have managed to achieve some measure of success.

So when news leaked of Sessions being quoted in the New York Times affirming the policy by saying “We need to take away children,” it was no surprise to the lawyers who had been fighting the policy for more than two years in the field.

The lies and duplicity only underscore the vulnerability of immigrants in America at the dawn of the 21st Century, and highlight the importance of dedicated, capable, caring immigration attorneys to fight for them.

In a Nation of Immigrants, Immigration Attorneys Carry On the Tradition of Freedom and Acceptance

Immigration technically refers to the process of foreign-born individuals seeking to enter the country with the intention of becoming permanent residents, but the scope of immigration law has long since expanded to handle all categories of legal work dealing with any person entering the country who does not have citizenship. That includes students, tourists, businesspersons, and asylum-seekers, along with the traditional group of foreign-born individuals simply seeking better lives in the land of opportunity.

That group amounts to almost 14 percent of the population as of 2018, nearly 45 million of them according to the Migration Policy Institute. Almost all of them will need legal assistance at some point, dealing with the famously complex Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) set down in Title 8 of the United States Code.

That makes all immigration law federal law, which means all immigration lawyers spend the majority of their time dealing with those provisions along with the vast scope of regulations set down by agencies such as:

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Immigration Lawyers Work With Both Legal and Illegal Immigrants

Immigration law is a type of law career that has always been a contentious field, subject to the political winds fanned by the administration currently in power. But although some immigration lawyers specialize in working with undocumented immigrants and those who have run afoul of official channels, many more specialize in the routine processing of visa, residency, and citizenship applications. They advise would-be immigrants on the official requirements, and assist them in filing the paperwork required. And they help smooth over small, bureaucratic snags in the process, using their familiarity with the system and the codes.

Although most immigration lawyers work in small practices or with non-profit social justice organizations, such as the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) or LAJC, large corporations sometimes employ lawyers specializing in immigration law to help handle business visa and other professional immigration considerations for talented foreign-born employees. Universities may also have immigration lawyers on staff to deal with the complex system of educational visas and to create policy to handle the influx of foreign students—a number that hit an all-time high of more than 1 million in 2019 according to the Institute of International Education.

This means that some immigration attorneys find that their work overlaps into areas such as labor or family law. Specialized practices in those areas are becoming more common as legal conflicts over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and zero-tolerance border policies have increased.

Pro bono practice in immigration law is quite common, as many of the immigrants most in need of representation have the least resources to pay for it.

Immigration Lawyers Pave the Path to Citizenship and Opportunity

While the INA is the law of the land when it comes to immigration matters, most of the mechanics of pursuing visas or the coveted Green Card (better known to immigration lawyers as the I-551) for permanent residency and a path to citizenship are set out in regulations and processes set down by the agencies that manage the process.

That makes administrative law a significant component of most immigration practice. That includes appearing in front of immigration judges and appellate panels such as the Board of Immigration Appeals as well as filing and pursuing cases in the federal court system. Immigration lawyers have to become familiar with the procedures and rules for each system they will be working within.

They also have to advise clients in their actions and behavior to avoid running afoul of sometimes un-intuitive procedures… keeping your card on you at all times, avoiding certain types of foreign transactions, and ensuring that applications are made in the appropriate slot among the fourteen different categories of permanent resident that are allowed. And they have to keep a close eye on the various quotas and trends in the agencies that govern the process, looking for the subtle, unregulated, but absolutely real tendencies that can make acceptance or rejection a lock.

How to Prepare For a Position as an Immigration Lawyer

There is always a demand for immigration lawyers, so it’s easy to get experience in the field either before or after you graduate from law school. Many successful, practicing immigration attorneys cut their teeth volunteering for organization like the ACLU, LAJC, or ILRC, or with smaller local non-profits that work toward the same ends.

Many law schools offer concentrations in immigration law to bolster graduate’s expertise in the specialization.

Language skills can be important for many immigration lawyers, who will often have clients that do not speak English as their native language. Explaining advanced legal concepts through a translator always risks something being missed in translation, so multi-lingual lawyers have a real edge in immigration practice.

In a similar vein, compassion and strong interpersonal skills are a must for most immigration attorneys. Attorneys are often encountering people during some of the worst parts of their lives, and this can be particularly true for some of the heartbreaking histories that lead people to immigrate to the United States. Understanding the stories, listening with compassion, and helping these people achieve their dreams are undeniable strengths for successful immigration attorneys.

Becoming Certified as an Immigration Lawyer

Certification does not play as big a role in the legal field as in some other professional practices, but some states (particularly those along the southern border) are now offering pathways to specialization in immigration law as a way to deepen the expertise in the field and assure clients of your capabilities. These include:

Each of them includes requirements that you take and pass a test covering the field of knowledge required in immigration practice, as well as accumulating a certain number of hours of actual practice in the field in recent years. You’ll also typically have to take a certain number of hours of dedicated continuing legal education in the field before being considered. And, naturally, you’ll have to hold your position with the state bar in good standing, and sometimes have fellow attorneys or judges vouch for you.

Exact requirements vary by state; consult your local bar for more information.

After the United States experienced the tragedies brought on by 9/11, immigration has become more of a controversial area of concern. Despite this event, the United States still permits 1 million aliens to become Legal Permanent Residents every year and grants more visas to visitors than any other country in the world. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security oversees immigration law and grants benefits to aliens.

Being an immigration lawyer is a highly specialized field.  A thorough understanding of the law in general as well as a grasp and fluency in the areas of immigration, citizenship and employment set immigration lawyers apart in their field of expertise. The job of an immigration lawyer can be very fulfilling as it assists others to achieve their dream of obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Educational Requirements

In order to practice law as an immigration lawyer, one must have a bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctor Law degree.  During law school, in order to specialize in immigration law, the course load includes classes in citizenship, advising, interviewing and statutory analysis. Internships and other applicable work experience are vital for job applicants who want to stand a head above the rest. Once the law degree has been obtained, the BAR exam must be passed in order to legally practice law in the state of residency.

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Job Description & Skills Required

Immigration lawyers may represent their clients, either individuals or businesses, in court or serve them outside the courtroom by offering legal counsel. However, most rarely frequent the courtroom. They deal with issues such as:

  • employment-based immigrant visas
  • deportation
  • acquiring U.S. citizenship
  • assisting foreign companies to establish themselves legally on American soil
  • obtaining a resident permit also known as a green card
  • filing for political asylum or refugee status

For immigrant clients applying for a green card, the immigrant lawyer walks with his client through the process, which can take years. He ensures the employer satisfies the Department of Labor recruiting stipulations, completes the necessary due diligence, and files all immigration paperwork. When companies hire immigration lawyers to assist them in obtaining work visas for foreign nationals, they finalize the paperwork, file the petition and advise the company in compliance with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services laws.

Because an immigration lawyer frequently assists clients for who English is not their first language, the ability to speak another language is an asset for immigration lawyers. Furthermore, personable people skills and clear communication is important because of the close contact with clients from other cultures, making dialogue especially challenging. Due to the various documented and undocumented data accompanying each case, immigration lawyers must have strong research and analytical abilities as well.

Salary & Career Outlook

Immigration lawyers may be employed by the government, in partnership or solo practice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for lawyers in 2022 was around $163,770. As with other lawyer professions, the salary varies depending on location, experience and education. For example, an entry level solo practitioner typically begins his practice earning $66,470 while immigration lawyers employed in Washington D.C. earn the top of the pay scale at $226,510.

Practicing immigration law is a well-paid profession. Some immigration lawyers offer their services pro bono or at a reduced rate. Interestingly, immigration courts do not provide defendants with an attorney. They are obligated to obtain representation on their own.

Career prospects in the law profession in general are expected to increase. However, competition for law school placement and job opportunities is intensifying as well. Job prospects may be better in rural communities than in metropolitan cities.

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Lawyers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.

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