A Paralegal Career Specializing in Immigration Law

The image is branded into the social zeitgeist: a tall man wearing a helmet, body armor, and a serious expression, pointing a submachine gun at a distraught, crying six-year-old and the young fisherman clutching him tightly in the closet of a Miami house. Five months earlier, the fisherman had plucked the boy from the turbulent waters of the Straits of Florida, where the child’s mother and ten other occupants of a small boat fleeing Cuba had drowned on Thanksgiving Day, 1999.

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That night, the federal government raided the house of Elián González’s Miami relatives to collect the young boy and return him to his father in Cuba.

The five months leading up to that iconic moment had been full of political posturing, public appeals, and legal maneuvering. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had quickly and compassionately delivered the boy into the custody of American relatives after the fishermen rescued him. But the boy’s father, divorced from his mother and stil in Cuba, quickly petitioned to have him returned.

The appeal was coming from a Cuban national, a citizen of a country with no diplomatic relationship with the U.S. at the time. This made for a very complicated and protracted legal case, with firms representing both the father and the American relatives sparring in both Federal and state courts.

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At one point, a group of U.S. legislators considered passing a special law aimed solely at allowing Elián to stay in the country.

But a judge with the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida ultimately determined that INS retained the exclusive power to determine the boy’s status and had acted appropriately under its own governing codes and regulations.

The raid followed shortly after, sparking both public outcry and further legal appeals, all of which were decided for the father. Elián was reunited with his father in Washington D.C. and flew home with him to be raised in Cuba, where he remains today.

The González case was far more widely publicized -and politicized – than most immigration cases. Still, the emotional nature of the case and the complexity of dealing with the clashing legal systems of two different (and antagonistic) countries was something that every paralegal in immigration law is familiar with.

Immigration Law Affects Millions of Residents and Visitors in the United States

Immigration law deals with the codes and regulations surrounding the status of foreign-born individuals entering or residing in the United States. As a perennial hot-button political issue, both immigration laws and the interpretation of the scope of federal agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are subject to swings based on the climate in Washington D.C. And because economic matters are largely responsible for driving immigration, national and international monetary and labor markets also play a part.

Taken literally, immigration deals only with persons who come into the United States with the intention of residing in the country permanently. But immigration law has expanded to deal with just about every class of person who enters the country without already having U.S. citizenship, whether permanently or temporarily. This includes tourists, who may need to obtain tourist visas, visitors for academic purposes like studying or teaching, or those who enter for the express purpose of doing business or working for an American company.

There are plenty of potential clients at every level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the total number of resident immigrants in the U.S. in 2015 was just over 43 million, or about 13.5 percent of the population. Both the number and the proportion have been rising rapidly since 1970.

In 2015, just over 181 million temporary visitors arrived in the U.S., more than 90 percent of which were tourists or businesspeople. The total number of visas issued that year was ten percent higher than in 2014.

For the most part, those visitors and immigrants were able to obtain their visas and enter the country without significant legal difficulties. But for some portion of them, snags or hassles in the process had to be resolved with expert legal assistance. For them, experienced immigration paralegals can make all the difference between a successful step to a new life or endless legal limbo between two countries.

Paralegals Shepherd Immigrants Along the Path to Legal Residency

Applying for a coveted green card (the informal name for U.S. Customs and Immigration Service Form I-551, a Permanent Resident Card) is the first step to U.S. citizenship for millions of hopeful foreign nationals. But it is also a process that is complex and fraught with dream-destroying pitfalls.

Federal agencies have enormous latitude in how they handles immigration cases, latitude that can work for or against the particular client a paralegal is working with at any given time. There are fourteen different categories of permanent resident, each with their own definitions, rules, and quotas for entry. Certain practical regulations have to be followed (like keeping the green card on your person at all times) during the application process and during the five-year mandatory residency period that follows before an authorized temporary resident can apply for citizenship.

Failure to meet a deadline or fulfill a requirement can not only result in the application being denied, but might also mean that a future application won’t even be considered—steep consequences for people trying to join their families or build their careers.

Assisting people through this process is the natural role of detail-oriented, deadline-driven, highly-organized immigration paralegals. Paralegals conduct research, interview clients, assemble documentation, and draft briefs dealing with every aspect of the process.

Immigration is one area of law where paralegals may, under particular circumstances, represent clients in immigration court and act in certain other roles that are usually restricted to attorneys.

With a full certification from the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, paralegals working for certain recognized organizations are allowed to represent clients before Department of Homeland Security hearings and in Executive Office for Immigration Review courts.

Immigration attorneys and the paralegals who work alongside them deal with aliens who have committed immigration or criminal violations or those threatened with deportation for violations that include visa overstays. They also represent family reunification, deportation, business visa, citizenship, and naturalization proceedings.

Immigration Law Intersects with Other Areas of Law

Immigration law is a great place to be for paralegals who enjoy the challenges of keeping up with the various legal, economic, and social aspects of immigration.

There is room in the field for practices that specialize in international human rights, or in corporate employment. Immigration paralegals can be found working for tiny non-profit legal assistance clinics, or big international law firms, and at every type of practice and agency in between.

Immigration law also reaches, sometimes unexpectedly, into other legal fields such as family law (as in the González case) and labor law. Some law firms that handle immigration cases specialize in filing H1B visas for tech industry professionals coming from overseas to work at giants like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.

Those corporations also frequently have in-house legal teams that include paralegals who help navigate the legal complexities involved in hiring foreign nationals.

Because the stakes are high for the clients, immigration law is a field where paralegals can experience some highs and lows. Bringing a separated family back together can result in a shower of tears of joy … watching families whipsawed by ambiguous and changing immigration policy can be heartbreaking, as has been the case with amnesty rules and proposals during the Obama and Trump administrations.

Becoming an Immigration Law Paralegal

Like most paralegal positions, becoming a paralegal in immigration law absolutely requires an extreme degree of organization and attention to detail. Lawyers want paralegals who can both assist with routine matters of scheduling and paperwork, and also provide input on legal strategy and information about case law.

A number of different schools offer an immigration specialization as either a focus area within their paralegal program or as a post-degree specialist certificate.

NALS, the association for legal professionals, also offers a specialty certification in immigration law. The certification is available to practicing paralegals who devote at least 50 hours of continuing education to the subject within a 5-year period.

The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) certification is an important one for paralegals who intend to represent clients directly. Certification is in part dependent on the accredited agency; it is not a credential that you can earn independently and separately from your job as a paralegal advocate with that organization. But there are various programs that seek to prepare you for the role of a BIA-certified advocate.

One of these is offered by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and Basic Immigration Law Course which focuses on both immigration law and paralegal procedures and office management.

Students of this program gain a theoretical and practical understanding of the basic elements of immigration law. Some of the topics covered in this course include:

  • Immigration policies
  • Categories of immigrants and non-immigrants
  • Basic immigration statutes and visa categories
  • Visa application processes
  • Procedures required for admission to the U.S.
  • Procedures for deportation

Language skills provide an obvious plus for immigration paralegals. Client communications are paramount and it’s always easier when this can be done in their native language.

Since client contact and communication are paramount, regardless of language abilities, paralegals hoping to go into immigration law should also enjoy face-to-face interaction and have good customer relations skills.

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