Immigration lawyers

Definition: Attorneys who specialize in representing immigrants

Significance: As the complexities and restrictions of U.S. immigration law have increased, the legal profession’s subspecialty of immigration lawyers has flourished, extending in some cases to social-cause lawyering.

During the era of relatively open immigration that existed in the United States until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was little need for specialized immigration lawyers. However, as the federal government began enacting immigration restrictions during the 1870’s, a new field arose in the legal profession: lawyers who specialized in helping immigrants navigate the increasing stream of regulations and restrictions emanating from the federal government.

Immigration Lawyers on Ellis Island

During the 1890’s, the U.S. Congress established exclusive oversight over immigration to the United States. It established official immigration reception stations on Ellis Island in New York Harbor in 1892 and on Angel Island in California’s San Francisco Bay in 1910. These immigration facilities were staffed by federal officials enforcing the restrictions enacted by Congress in a series of immigration acts. Immigrants responded by beginning to turn, in large numbers, to lawyers to assist them in the immigration process.

Given the almost plenary power vested in immigration officials at that time, early immigration lawyers played a mostly advisory role. Becoming expert in the administrative processes required for immigration, lawyers coached their clients on what to say to customs officials and tried, usually in vain, to appear as counsel for their clients in immigration proceedings. However, in cases that went before the immigration Boards of Special Inquiry that were authorized in 1893 to make determinations as to the entry of aliens, lawyers played more active roles.

Records have survived from about 424 appeals of decisions made by Boards of Special Inquiry in New York during the 1890’s. In 277 cases—about two-thirds of the total—the immigrants involved were represented by attorneys. Of the 277 cases involving attorneys, five of the attorneys appeared in five or more appeals each, thus demonstrating a nascent immigration bar. The most notable of the five attorneys was Henry Gottlieb of the firm of MacKinley & Gottlieb, who handled eighty-five of the appeals. A lawyer named John Palmieri handled the second-greatest number of appeals, thirtyseven. Given that the 1890’s represented the first great wave of Jewish and Italian immigration to New York, it is safe to conclude that Gottlieb specialized in helping Jewish immigrants and that Palmieri helped Italian immigrants.

Immigration lawyer
Immigration lawyer, Jessica Salsbury, hugs a domestic worker to celebrate the passage of legislation protecting the rights of domestics at a Montgomery County Council meeting in Rockville, Maryland in 2008. (AP/Wide World Images)

Social Cause Immigration Lawyering

Both immigration and federal immigration legislation steadily increased during the first decades of the twentieth century. With these increases came growth in the numbers of immigration lawyers. What had been part-time legal work for general practitioners was increasingly becoming fulltime work for lawyers specializing in immigration cases. With this increased specialization came two developments.

The first development was the immigration bar’s looking to promote its own professionalization and expertise. The American Immigration Lawyers’ Association (AILA) was founded in 1946 as a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to the practice and teaching of immigration law. In 1975, it had about 600 members. By 1985, its membership had grown to about 1,800 lawyers. In 2009, the association claimed more than 11,000 lawyers and law professors as its members, with thirty-six chapters and more than fifty national committees.

In the second development, some immigration lawyers began to look upon their specialty as an opportunity for social-cause lawyering. The AILA itself established in 1987 the American Immigration Law Foundation (later renamed the American Immigration Council) as a charitable organization to advocate on behalf of immigrants and to promote public awareness of immigration issues. One of the most successful examples of social-cause lawyering was that of immigration lawyers securing the right to asylum of refugees from the violence engulfing Central America during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Work Performed by Immigration Lawyers

  • Analyze the facts in the case of someone desiring to immigrate 
  • Explain all benefits for which immigrants may be eligible 
  • Recommend the best way to obtain legal immigrant status 
  • Complete and file appropriate applications 
  • Keep up with new laws affecting their clients 
  • Speak for clients in discussions with federal immigration officials 
  • Represent clients in court 
  • File necessary appeals and waivers 

Adapted from: American Immigration and Lawyers Association, “A Guide to Consumer Protection and Authorized Representation,” Washington, D.C.: AILA, 1998.

In alliance with members of the Sanctuary movement, immigration lawyers filed politically oriented lawsuits such as Orantes-Hernandez v. Meese (1988), American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh (1991), and Mendez v. Reno (1993). After years of litigation, these lawyers helped secure the right of Salvadorans and Guatemalans to obtain asylum status in the United States, even though the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala were nominally allies of the United States, receiving extensive American support. Other groups that advocated on behalf of immigration rights and accessible borders included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Immigration Forum, and the National Immigration Law Foundation.

Practicing Immigration Law for Profit

Obtaining residency in the modern United States can be an arduous process, and most aliens seeking residency require legal services. Many lawyers have generously devoted their time to assisting immigrants for reduced fees or even no fees at all. However, as the size of the legal profession in the United States has boomed, and as more avenues have been opened for solicitation and profit-making by lawyers, the immigration bar has become plagued by allegations of corruption, scandal, and exploitation. In 1985, several high-profile immigration lawyers were convicted and disbarred. In 2003, for example, immigration lawyer Samuel Kooritzky was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for engaging in immigration fraud through his Capital Law Centers. In 2005, the federal Executive Office for Immigration Review disciplined fifty-four immigration lawyers.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • Anthes, Louis. Lawyers and Immigrants, 1870-1940: A Cultural History. Levittown, N.Y.: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2003. This volume in the publisher’s Law and Society series traces the connections among law, lawyers, immigrants, and cultural issues. Anthes researched the practice of immigration lawyers on Ellis Island. 
  • Salyer, Lucy. Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. History of Chinese immigration that Salyer shows to be central to the shaping of immigration law, with a detailed account of the administration of immigration law on Ellis Island. 
  • Sarat, Austin, and Stuart Scheingold, eds. Cause Lawyers and Social Movements. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006. Collection of essays on lawyering activists. The essay by Susan Coutin recounts efforts of lawyers working to obtain asylum rights for Central Americans. 
  • Serrill, Michael. “A Booming butTainted Specialty.” Time, July 8, 1985. Account of growth of immigration law practice, with both respected human rights advocates and fraudulent and corrupt lawyers. 
  • Warner, Judith, ed. Battleground Immigration. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2009. Compendium of immigration-related topics, with material on the role of lawyers in forming political perspectives on immigration. 

See also: Angel Island Immigration Station; Asian American Legal Defense Fund; Deportation; Ellis Island; Immigration law; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; New York City; Sanctuary movement.

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