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Lawyers Help Immigrants Make the Big Move

If you want to live or work in another country, there is often a maze of paperwork. The laws can be confusing. The wait times can be nerve wracking.

Immigration lawyers help people navigate all of that. When necessary, they make legal arguments for why a person should be allowed to live and work in a new country.

Immigration law is still a rather small specialty within the legal profession. But it's growing. The American Immigration Lawyers Association currently has more than 10,000 members.

People hire immigration lawyers for various reasons. One common reason is to help them through the refugee application process. People seek refugee status when they fear persecution in their own country.

Immigration lawyers also help non-refugees apply to live and work in North America. There are various categories for such applications. The lawyer helps ensure they apply in the right category and that their documentation is in order.

People wanting to work in immigration law must first attend an accredited law school, complete their articling (a period of apprenticeship required in most places) and be called to the bar to work as a lawyer.

Some law schools offer courses in immigration law. But people working in the area say it isn't necessary to specialize when in school.

"You can actually learn it afterwards," says Steven Riznyk. He is an immigration lawyer in San Diego. "A lot of lawyers have successfully done it."

There are a number of personal qualities that aspiring immigration lawyers should have.

"The first quality that I would look for in a good immigration lawyer is character," says Andy Semotiuk. He's an immigration lawyer.

"Often you hear them saying, when people are engaging lawyers, ‘I want someone who's aggressive, someone who is a shark, someone who will fight for me,'" says Semotiuk. "And the difficulty with that view in relation to hiring someone is, if they're a shark related to how they treat your opponents, they're also a shark in how they treat you.

"Secondly, I believe that a good immigration lawyer needs some contact with immigration, either... by being an immigrant, or indirectly by perhaps being related to parents or grandparents who were immigrants, or at least [have] an interest in the immigrant experience," says Semotiuk. "And someone who travels a lot and therefore is exposed to immigration issues and circumstances, so that the person has firsthand experience with some of the trials and tribulations of people who are immigrating to the country that they're representing."

Audrea Golding is a good example of an immigration lawyer with a personal connection to the immigrant experience. She and her parents immigrated to a number of countries. She says her personal experiences gave her empathy and understanding for those who seek to emigrate for a better life.

"My parents are of Jamaican background and immigrated to the U.K. when they were studying and immigrated to Canada during their studies, and also to the U.S.," says Golding. "I was born in the U.S. but then immigrated to Jamaica and then to Canada when I was growing up, and so I think [I have] sort of a natural affinity with the area of law. I also got more introduced to the practice of it, for immigration law itself, during law school."

Golding focuses on helping people move to the U.S. for employment reasons. Her clients include multinational corporations in the aerospace, engineering and information technology sectors. She also assists entertainers, artists and athletes with securing visas so they can perform and work in North America.

Golding says there's a healthy need for lawyers in employment-based immigration law. "I think there's probably a great demand," she says.

There's demand not only for lawyers helping workers come to North America, says Golding. Lawyers are also needed to help people go to other countries.

"You sometimes think of immigration as people leaving less advanced countries and coming to North America, but there certainly is... the flip side of that equation, which is people going to countries where economies are growing at a much more rapid pace than they are in North America," says Golding. "And so I think in terms of global immigration... there's going to be an increased demand and just as many if not more opportunities in the future for immigration lawyers."

Riznyk also sees a lot of opportunity for immigration lawyers: "The opportunity is always there for somebody who's good," he says.

Semotiuk agrees. "There will always be opportunities in immigration law, and the reason is because it's a government program," he says. "And if you ever deal with government on any level you know it's bureaucratic, it's tedious, difficult, it's hard to get results, it's time consuming, it's frustrating. And for this reason there's always room for someone like an immigration attorney to smooth over the process and get things done."

Riznyk says you probably won't enjoy this career unless you try to be one of the best. It takes a passion for immigration issues to put up with the challenges.

"If you're just going to be one of the pack, then you know what? You're not going to enjoy it," says Riznyk. "Because it's a very high maintenance kind of career to have... The clients are scared, their life's on the line, they're calling you, sometimes they're in tears, sometimes they're impatient with the immigration department, and they take it out on you."

In addition to the stress of the work, Riznyk notes that immigration lawyers tend to earn less than most other kinds of lawyers.

"If someone's thinking of going into immigration law and they're doing it for the money, it's going to be their biggest career mistake," he says. "You have to have a passion for what you're doing. You have to believe in what you're doing."

Therefore, make sure you go into this area for the right reasons, such as a strong interest in immigration issues or personal experience with immigration. If you do it for the right reasons, immigration law can be a very rewarding way to make a huge difference in people's lives.


Ellis Island
Find about the historic first stop for millions of immigrants into the United States

American Immigration Lawyers Association
Read all about immigration issues in the United States

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