March 10, 2015 – Regardless of whether the U.S. Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform any time soon, there will be plenty of work for immigration lawyers that can be both lucrative and fulfilling, a panel told University of Houston Law Center students Wednesday.
Professor Michael A. Olivas, the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law & Governance, said UHLC has “a very broad and deep immigration curriculum.” He specifically cited the Immigration Clinic, which a few years ago assisted in a precedent-setting case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As an “exemplar,” Olivas pointed to the successful career trajectory of his former student, Lisa Luis, who is now a federal immigration judge in the Houston Service Processing Center. While a student, Luis served an internship in the Immigration Court and then went to work in the Department of Justice as part of the school’s honors program.
Olivas said Luis told him she didn’t “want to work on this side of the street,” but instead represent immigrants. He advised her to stay with the DOJ and learn as much as she could before moving to the other side. She later worked in what was the Immigration and Naturalization Service and then as an assistant U.S. Attorney before being named to the bench.
“She’s really tough. In fact, she was tough on me when she was a student,” Olivas said. “She’s a wonderful judge.”
Olivas noted that Luis’ career path is not necessarily typical. But he noted that in recent years, especially with immigration law in flux, there are many more opportunities.
He said the state of Texas has recently allowed LL.M. students from abroad (in particular, Mexico) to take the bar exam here, only the second state to do so after New York. Nonprofit groups and other non-governmental organizations that do immigration law are not able to hire enough young lawyers, he said.
“Truthfully, there’s never been a better time to be an immigration lawyer. This is a growth field. If comprehensive immigration reform comes, there is going to be so much work,” he said, for both established firms and NGOS that will seek lawyers trained in immigration and international law.
Wafa Abdin, a 2000 graduate of UHLC who is now an adjunct professor and vice president of immigration and refugee services with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said she became interested in going to law school to pursue immigration law because of her own experience with the immigration process.
A Palestinian who was born and raised in Aman, Jordan, Abdin was a college English teacher in the U.S. considering earning a Ph.D. in English literature. But when she and her husband tried to secure an employment-based application for permanent status, they found the process extremely complicated and exorbitantly expensive.
“That’s when I decided I want to go to law school, I want to do immigration, and I want to help people who can’t afford attorneys or speak the language or understand the process,” she said.
After graduating from UHLC, she took a staff attorney position at Catholic Charities. Within two months, she was named supervising attorney, and within a year, she was named director of immigration services.
“For the most part, nonprofit organizations handle cases for those who are the most vulnerable,” Abdin said, including victims of human trafficking and other forms of abuse and children. “When you are an immigrant and you don’t have status, you become very vulnerable.
“The good thing about working in nonprofits is that you’re part of the community. It’s such a small community, we all work together. There’s a lot of room to learn,” she said, noting that she mostly hires attorneys straight out of law school.
“You get paid money to do something that is good for your soul,” she said. You change people’s lives in very meaningful ways.”
Jacob Monty, a 1993 UHLC graduate and former regent, is now managing partner at Monty & Ramirez LLP, an employment law firm that also does immigration work. He said he got his start in immigration law when he worked for a firm that represented meat-packing plants in the Midwest that depended heavily on immigrant labor.
“There’s a need right now. There’s not enough qualified immigration lawyers. It’s an exciting time to be going into immigration law,” he said.
“You don’t always get an opportunity to make money and help people. And you have that with immigration law. You have that opportunity representing companies. You’re going to find that some of the most compassionate people are employers who are frustrated that there’s not a way to keep their employees here in the country. You get to meet those people and you get to help them,” he said.
Monty said there is now “a great opportunity” in using social media and the Internet in immigration law services.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the full magnitude of what Twitter and video and the web can do to disseminate knowledge to the community that doesn’t have it,” he said.
UHLC Professor Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the school’s Immigration Clinic, said he became interested in immigration law growing up in Miami where he had many Cuban-American friends and his father, an architect, designed homes for immigrant workers.
After he completed law school, a friend recommended him for a brief-writing job with Ira Kurzban, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars and practitioners of immigration law. Kurzban hired him on the spot without even glancing at his resume, Hoffman said.
“The friends you make, the contacts you make, keep those relationships, because you never know when you’re going to get a phone call,” he told the students.
Hoffman said immigration law is a fascinating field because of its variety, intellectual stimulation and humanitarian aspects.
“You can get up in the morning and go home at night, and feel really good about what you’ve done. They’re tough cases,” he said. “But if you know you’ve tried your best, you will sleep well at night and have a fulfilling career.”