Many people come up to me and say, “Joseph, how did you get your start in immigration law? I know that now you edit the law firm blog and work in human resources, but what was it like to be an immigration paralegal? And how does your hair get such great volume and bounce?”
It was the summer of 2003. I had graduated college in California and was figuring out what to do with my life. At the time, I was working at my alma mater in the maintenance department, which involved the incredibly glamorous and fulfilling work of mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and throwing away trash. I also was the part-time courier, a highly coveted position since if you were making a delivery or pickup over a meal hour, you were allowed to stop at a restaurant for food and would be reimbursed. My trips were carefully planned to ensure that the lunch or dinner hour would be spent in the close proximity to an In-N-Out, the famed California burger joint, or Steak and Hoagies, a local favorite near the college.
One afternoon when I was mopping one of the dorms, I thought to myself, "Maybe for a college graduate with a liberal arts degree there’s a slightly better job for me somewhere. I mean, In-N-Out burgers are great but maybe there's something more challenging for me." That’s when I decided to move to New York. My brother lived there and it seemed like an interesting place. A few days after my 22nd birthday, I bought a one-way Jet Blue ticket, packed my two suitcases, and flew to JFK.
In New York I immediately set about finding a job. I had moved in with my brother and was sleeping on an air mattress in the “dining” room in a railroad apartment in Brooklyn, which would be my home for the next year. The career advisor at my college, Dr. Clark, a basketball-playing-opera performer with a Ph.D. in classics, had advised that law firms might hire graduates with liberal arts degrees. I found an ad for a paralegal position in The New York Times—the paper version, yes—and faxed in my resume and cover letter. I bought a new suit and shoes. I was ready.
I went into interview with one of the firm’s partners, Mr. Kleiner, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Wolfratshausen, Germany shortly after World War II. An accomplished linguist, he studied romance philology at Columbia University, and speaks seven languages, including French, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian, and German. It was one of those interviews that don’t feel like an interview, just a conversation. We talked mostly about an obscure book called The Loom of Language, which is about the history of language and a guide to foreign tongues. He offered me the job. Two weeks later I started.
My first case was an L-1 for an intracompany transfer. As he would do for the coming months, Mr. Kleiner explained the general idea behind this visa classification type, requirements to qualify, and gave me a sample case. L-1s are for multinational companies to transfer executives, managers, and specialized knowledge workers, and I went on to do many L-1s, including many “Blanket” L-1s, which bypasses the petition that needs to be submitted to US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) in the US and allows the beneficiary to apply directly at a US Embassy/Consulate abroad. As a paralegal who’s just starting out, it’s essential to learn the basic terminology—often misused by those outside the immigration field—including: a “visa,” the stamp in the passport that allows an applicant to apply for admission to the US in a certain category; the “I-94,” which tracks the foreign national's travel to the US and is evidence of immigration status in the US; the “I-797 approval notice,” the form from USCIS that grants the applicant or beneficiary classification in a specific category; and many others. I spent my initial months learning these basic but crucial terms and how they fit in the overall immigration process.
Immigration, of course, is a highly complex and specialized field. It can take years for attorneys let alone paralegals to become familiar with all the visa types, application procedures, and strategies for filing cases with the sometimes fickle USCIS. I was introduced to many visa types: H-1Bs, the specialized knowledge visa that typically has a cap (though when I first started the cap was not being met, oh happy days), J-1 training visas, O-1s for artists of extraordinary ability, and TNs for Canadian and Mexican NAFTA professional workers.
My favorite aspect of the job was meeting new people from countries all over the world. I helped managers, manufacturing workers, analysts, programmers, technology workers, CEOs, CFOs, comedians, and models from such diverse places as Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Israel, China, India, and Japan. Coming from my somewhat sheltered upbringing in Pennsylvania, this was a tremendous experience. And not only did I work for clients from all over the world, I worked with people from diverse places, including Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, India, England, Germany, Guyana, and (a far off and exotic place) south Brooklyn. I found that often the best workers were those who understand exactly what immigrants were going through when applying for a work visa or Green Card.
After seven years of working with Mr. Kleiner, I knew it was time to move on. Soon I was working at the Daryanani Law Group (then known as Daryanani & Bland) with Protima, who herself has a fascinating immigration story and background, and, similar to Mr. Kleiner, speaks many languages. And, also similar to Mr. Kleiner, she has a gift for explaining the often complicated immigration process. With DLG, I began working on many O-1s and Green Cards for directors, photographers, graphic artists, architects, makeup artists, painters, producers, and models. I met more people from around the world. I learned more about the immigration process.
While working with people from all over the world is one of the many advantages, there are many challenges in the world of immigration law. For most paralegals (and many attorneys), your professional working life is consumed by tiny details. An incorrect birth date or tiny misspelling in a name can often seriously delay a case. It can be stressful, especially knowing these tiny mistakes can have a huge affect on people’s lives and their ability to work in the US. How many birth dates I’ve double-checked, tripled-checked, and quadruple-checked before submitting the petition!
It’s a tremendous responsibility to prepare an immigration case for clients. The case is oftentimes the culmination of years of professional work for the client who hopes to achieve evenmore career success in the US, or it can be the start of their professional working life in the states. Either way, the client’s future can be dramatically affected depending on the case's outcome.
After almost ten years of working in immigration law, I myself became an immigrant of sorts when I embarked on a year's long travel through various countries. While by no means did I experience the same kinds of difficulties that many face in immigrating to the US, in my dealings with immigration officials, visa stamps, visa waivers, entrance requirements, not to mention language barriers and cultural differences, I came to appreciate some of the anxiety and issues immigrants deal with when coming to live and work in the US. And as I continue my career in the field of immigration law, I'm putting to good use all that experience and, I hope, helping in some small way to make the transition to life in the US easier and more successful for immigrants.