A (Short) Guest Essay on the Current Immigration Crises

I asked my friend, Lawrence Orta, to do an interview, but he answered my last question about the current immigration crises so well that I decided to make the title about that instead. You’ll find that at the bottom of this post.  I met Lawrence in law school through Law Review, but really got to know him when we took Immigration Law together.

Biography

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Lawrence Orta was born in San Antonio, Texas. He attended Deerfield Academy, in Massachusetts and then Pomona College, in California. He graduated with a Bachelors in Neuroscience. Lawrence worked for several years as an Environmental Chemist. He then attended the Bowen Law School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After graduation, he worked as a law clerk for Judge Imber at the Arkansas Supreme Court. He then worked for a law firm where he learned immigration and criminal defense. In October 2012, he left the law firm to open his own practice in Texarkana, Arkansas where he now practices primarily in the areas of Immigration Removal Defense and Criminal Defense and is licensed both in Arkansas and Texas.

What made you decide to start your own practice?

It made sense to go off on my own and start my own practice. As an associate at Monterrey & Tellez, I handled the criminal defense cases in De Queen and Texarkana. The 4 hour drives became more and more frequent. It became obvious that there was a demand in this area of the state. Also, the fact that there were no Spanish-speaking attorneys in this area made it an easy business decision.

As an immigration attorney, do you get a lot of experience in the courtroom?

Surprisingly, as an Immigration attorney who practices Removal Defense and who also handles criminal cases, I do get a lot of experience in the court room, The reason is that Immigration and Criminal law are so interrelated in a majority of my cases. When someone who is undocumented (illegal) is arrested and charged with a crime, they are booked into a jail, which then notifies Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that there is an undocumented inmate. ICE will usually place an Immigration hold. Because I do both Immigration and Criminal Law, I usually have to represent the client in his underlying criminal charge before we can address his immigration hold. Once the defendant is released on bond or his criminal case is completed, ICE will then be able to pick him up. If he is picked up, he will go before an Immigration Judge to determine if he will receive a bond and whether he has a defense to being removed. I will usually represent him in the bond hearing to request a bond reduction (which is necessary in most cases because of the high cash bonds), and then prepare a defense case for him in Removal Proceedings, if he has a defense. With a majority of my clients, I am in the courtroom for their criminal case, and in Immigration Court for their Removal proceedings. So I am in court quite often. Keep in mind that Immigration attorneys also do family-based and employment-based petitions such as applying for Legal Permanent Residence for a spouse or family member. In this type of practice, an Immigration attorney is rarely, if ever, in the courtroom. 

What made you decide to practice immigration law? If a young attorney or law student were interested in practicing immigration law, what would recommend that they do in order to prepare for that career?

I honestly had no interest in immigration law when I started law school. I went into law school to learn Employment law. Also, being a 2nd generation US Citizen, I was far removed from these immigration issues. It was through my extracurricular involvement with the Hispanic Law Students Association and Catholic Charities of Little Rock, that I became interested in Immigration. But the idea of sitting at a desk and filling out an Immigration application for a client did not appeal to me. However, when I started practicing at Monterrey & Tellez, most of the Immigration cases I handled were removal defense cases. They were more interesting to me because they seemed to parallel my work in criminal defense cases, such as preparing for trial and preparing arguments for hearings. I found out that I liked litigating cases and so Immigration Removal Defense seemed a natural addition to my practice. Since opening my own practice, I have had law students contact me asking to come work for me to gain some experience and for some career advice. I usually ask them about their area of interest. If the law student is primarily interested in Immigration law, I recommend that they take the Immigration Law course at Bowen (or that other law school) to get a very general idea of immigration law, but I tell them that they will only be able to grasp how it works by working in an Immigration law office. Also, I ask the law student what community they intend to serve when they begin their practice. Most immigrant communities have a language barrier that keeps them from accessing legal services, so it is important for that law student to speak that language or learn to become proficient in that language. One complaint that I have heard from Immigration clients is that the attorney they previously had did not speak their language, and even with a family member interpreting, the questions and answers got lost in translation. So even having an intermediate level of fluency in that language can help break down those barriers between the client and the attorney. Finally, I recommend that they become a student member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) to become knowledgeable on current immigration issues and trends.

You are a young attorney, but by no means a brand new one. I think that makes you the perfect age to offer advice to prospective law students. What are some of the things you wish you either hadn’t done or had done sooner?

As an attorney with a couple of years under my belt, I am happy with where I am at this point, and I feel that what helped me was getting some life experience before hand. Before going to law school, I worked as an Environmental Chemist for several years. This gave me perspective because I was able to see working life from the inside, versus going from college to law school. This has helped me in tempering my expectations as I grow my practice. So I am glad I took a detour in life before starting law school. All the experience has made me a better attorney so there is nothing that I wish I hadn’t done.

As for things I wished I had done sooner?

I wished I had made the decision to open my own practice sooner. I was hesitant to do it because I was concerned about lack of experience, but the reality is that Arkansas has a great network of attorneys who are always willing to offer help or advice, and if you are worried about making the jump until it feels right, it will never happen. Just jump in and start swimming hard, you will stay afloat.

What is your favorite way to keep up with immigration law developments?

The best way I have found to keep up with immigration law developments is through the AILA8. It is a daily newsbrief of the top 8 topics or newsbits for the day. It proves very useful with keeping up with current Immigration Court decisions. You have to be a member of AILA but law student members only pay $50 a year for membership. That is an excellent price considering the wealth of information available to members.

How do you (if you do) manage a work/life balance?

I found that the only way to manage my work/life balance was to become my own boss. As an associate it is hard to control your case load and billable hours. As a boss, I decide which cases I will take. At first, I took all cases, but now I am more selective in what cases I take. This helps control my caseload and allows me the flexibility to pursue volunteer opportunities as well, as there is a great need for pro bono services in this area of the country.

What are your thoughts on the current immigration crises?

Let me find my can opener and open this can of worms. The two crises I focus on these days are: the Humanitarian crisis at the border with thousands of unaccompanied children (UAC) arriving at the border every month from El Salvador and other parts of Central America; and the broken Immigration system that gets it wrong more times than it gets it right. With respect to the humanitarian crisis on the border, I believe that at least one third of these unaccompanied children have parents that are here in the United States. Upon hearing of the policy for unaccompanied children, they paid smugglers (coyotes) to help bring these kids to the border.

As sad as it is seeing all these children coming to the border, I feel that the worst thing we can do for them is reunite them with the same parents who put these kids in such a dangerous situation by paying a smuggler to bring the child to the border. For every 10 kids that made it to the border, there is at least one who did not. That child was either sold into prostitution or abused and murdered. These children should not be reunited with these same parents. If these parents were truly concerned about their child, they would have taken it upon themselves to bring the child to the border despite any risk of immigration consequences for the parent. I understand that El Salvador is dealing with civil unrest and it may be that these kids have a right to apply for asylum once they have made it here because of real dangers they face, but traveling a thousand miles with strangers is not the better alternative.

Right now, the US government recognizes that refugees from El Salvador and Honduras are eligible for Temporary Protected Status because of the civil unrest, which allows them to legally stay in the United States temporarily. There are families from these countries who have a genuine fear of torture or abuse if they stay in their home country, but these families make the trek to the US border with their children to protect them, usually accompanied by the mother, only because they believe that the US government will be more lenient towards mothers and children. I understand their actions and motives. It is the motives of the parents of unaccompanied children that I question, because I believe that they are trying to take advantage of the situation to gain some type of immigration status for themselves. These parents pay smugglers to bring their child, rather than place themselves in the same danger in which they place their children, based on a mistaken belief that their child will be granted some type of legal status, which the parents can then use to apply for legal status for themselves. I do not believe they should benefit from this crisis, much less be allowed to maintain custody of these children. If people are not happy about the fact that these unaccompanied children are allowed to stay here, then they should call up their congressperson and tell them to pass Immigration

Reform and help solve our second immigration issue, the broken immigration system. Like it or not, immigrants will keep coming to our country and building more detention centers or bigger fences will not solve the problem. People forget that the weakest link in these barriers is the people hired to protect our border. They can be bribed by cartels and coyotes to assist in getting people into the country. And the bribes are not thousands of dollars, but rather hundreds of dollars as in the case of a train engineer who assisted coyotes in smuggling in immigrants for a couple of hundred dollars a group. No one suspects someone who makes an extra $300 a week.

These people will always stay under the radar of federal agents. In addition to comprehensive immigration reform, we also need real foreign policies that help with economic reforms in these Latin American countries. Until we help to improve the economic conditions of these countries, gangs and cartels will control these countries and people will keep fleeing to the United States.

Ultimately, it is a lot cheaper to help people in these developing countries achieve economic prosperity than to wait until they reach our border and spend many times more money to house and feed them in our country.

 

Interview with Immigration Attorney George Ernst

Biography

Today’s interview features George Ernst of the Mitchell Williams firm. I met George through a linkedin group when I was working on a case with immigration issues.

George has a B.A. from the University of Kansas, a J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law,  and an LL.M. from Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. He is admitted to practice in Pennsylvania and in Arkansas. He is fluent in German.

Before joining Mitchell Williams, George Ernst was the managing partner at Ernst & Riley Law Group, LLC in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During this time he represented foreign-nationals from both Asia and Europe.

Over the past few years, George Ernst has counseled foreign-nationals and U.S. based businesses on various aspects of U.S. immigration law. Mr. Ernst primarily focuses on business based immigration, including H-1B Temporary Work Visas, E-2 Treaty Investor Visas, National Interest Waivers, Employment Green Cards and EB-5 Investment Green Cards.

Interview

I understand that as a brand new attorney, you started a law practice with your friend because you didn’t want to wait around for the right opportunity to come to you. What important lessons did that experience teach you?

The most important lesson I learned was how important it is to reach out to the community and meet the needs of individuals in the community. Law school doesn’t really prepare you when it comes to finding and retaining clients. We had to figure that out as we went along. However, I really feel that it made us really appreciate who your client is, and ensure that you are meeting their needs. We really made every effort we could to ensure that our clients were satisfied with our work. The other lesson we learned was how to be resourceful and come up with effective strategies for cases that many other attorneys would turn down. A few of our first successful cases came from clients with issues that other more established firms thought were too difficult. We dove into these cases head first and found ways to make them successful. It really taught us how to be creative and make the law work for the client.

 As an immigration attorney, you don’t usually get a lot of experience in the courtroom, but you’ve been teaming up with some attorneys at your firm to make sure you get that experience. What has been the best part of that? Do you recommend that other transactional lawyers do the same thing? If so, why is it important? 

I firmly believe that it is important for young attorneys to take advantage of every opportunity you can to learn other aspects of practicing law. I believe that this allows one to become a well-rounded attorney. Often working in another area of law will give you greater insight into your primary practice.

What made you decide to practice immigration law? If a young attorney or law student were interested in practicing immigration law, what would recommend that they do in order to prepare for that career?

As I had spent a significant amount of time living abroad, and as I had earned an international LL.M. degree in Berlin after law school, I knew that I wanted to use my legal skills in an area that had an international component. After going through the German immigration process myself (to receive my German student visa), I realized just how difficult it can be to go through the immigration process. I guess that was where some of my interest really started. I knew that I wanted to work with foreign nationals, so immigration law seemed like a perfect fit. I would recommend that any young attorney, or law student interested in practicing immigration law, join AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association). This has been the greatest resource when learning the intricacies of U.S. immigration law.

I understand that you focus on business immigration work. What is it about working with businesses that appeals to you?

I really enjoy helping businesses hire and retain their workers. There is often a very strong employer-employee bond, and after a business has worked with an individual for several years, they really want to do everything they can to keep that worker. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction when we receive our approvals from USCIS after all the effort that goes into each and every petition.

I also really believe that it is important for the United States to foster an entrepreneurial spirit. One of my favorite visa categories is the E-2 Treaty Investor Visa. This visa allows many foreign nationals to come to the United States to start new businesses. I really enjoy working with foreign nationals, learning about their passions and areas of expertise, and working with them to receive proper immigration status so that they may continue building their business.  Countless studies have demonstrated that foreign nationals are a net benefit for the community, and it is clear that when you allow foreign nationals to start new businesses, the economy and community in general reaps the reward.

What are the up-and-coming areas of immigration law that will affect Arkansas?

Currently, Congress is working a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will, hopefully, make many positive changes to immigration law. Providing status to current undocumented workers, expanding the number of available employment based green cards, strengthening the EB-5 investment program, creating a new class of entrepreneurial visas and expanding temporary worker programs will all have a positive impact on Arkansas.

As a transplant to Arkansas, what is your impression of being an attorney here versus “the North.” Good things? Things Arkansas attorneys can work on?

I really enjoy being an Attorney in Little Rock. I have found all of the attorney’s really friendly and helpful.

You are a young attorney, but by no means a brand new one. I think that makes you the perfect age to offer advice to new attorneys and law students. What are some of the things you wish you either hadn’t done or had done sooner?

This is a tough question. I really think everyone’s experience starting out is unique  and different. The only thing I would really recommend is that young attorneys need to become comfortable dealing directly with the client as soon as possible.

I understand your wife is a philosophy professor at UCA and she focuses on gender issues.  Do you have any thoughts on how we work as a profession to increase awareness of our hidden gender biases?

I think the profession has done a pretty good job of increasing awareness of gender issues. And I think that overtime, as more women rise to higher positions in Arkansas firms, gender equality will improve.

What is your favorite way to keep up with immigration law developments?

Because of the current pending legislation it is really easy to keep up immigration law developments. Every morning I go to aila.org to read about the latest developments

How do you (if you do) manage a work/life balance?

I try to make sure that I make time in the evenings to relax and not worry about clients and cases. I think it’s important to let your mind relax and focus on other things.

What do you do for fun?

My wife and I recently bought a house, so we spend most of our time working on improving our yard. My main hobbies include photography, and playing the guitar.