Immigration law in the United States dictates how individuals may obtain U.S. residency or citizenship and also defines the rights and responsibilities of persons who are not U.S. citizens or nationals once they are in the country. Immigration laws have shaped the country's demographics, politics, and culture, generating controversy throughout the ages. It has always been a hot topic in American political and social discourse, but it has become even more so in recent years. As a result, the law surrounding immigration has changed frequently. Lawyers who specialize in this field must guide individuals and businesses through the complexities of a highly technical and very dynamic regulatory scheme.
The federal government has exclusive authority to regulate the criteria for admission to the U.S. and to set the conditions under which non-citizens may remain in the country once admitted. States' authority over immigration law is thus very limited. Within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), there are three different agencies which serve the majority of the functions formerly assigned to INS: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Attorneys in these agencies work with immigration laws on a daily basis, as do some attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws and challenging state laws that infringe on the federal government's authority over immigration matters.
Private attorneys who practice immigration law typically help their clients obtain visas, employment authorizations, permanent residency, and citizenship. They may also help businesses comply with immigration laws and bring in foreign nationals for work, or they may litigate deportation issues in administrative courts. Because immigration law is mostly a "paper practice," many immigration attorneys find that they rarely are called upon to appear in court. Instead, they generally spend their time counseling clients; drafting petitions, applications, and motions; and filling out government forms. Some immigration attorneys represent immigrants in matters outside the realm of immigration law as well, such as in criminal law and family law cases.
Often, attorneys who work with immigration law entered the field because of a personal experience with immigration law or an interest in human rights and international issues. Once in practice, immigration attorneys gain satisfaction from helping clients achieve their goals and from the intellectual challenge that results from working with such a dynamic body of law. As Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Print Maggard '90 observes, "Immigration is a moving area of the law; it's not static at all." Since immigration law encompasses components of constitutional law, administrative law, and advocacy, many attorneys also find that it is a varied and exciting area in which to practice.
Breadth and Depth
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Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.
During the summer, students should study abroad or work for a government agency or law firm that handles immigration matters.
Students should also sit in on immigration hearings, which are open to the public. The closest immigration court to Sacramento is located at 120 Montgomery Street, Suite 800 in San Francisco. A listing of all immigration courts can be found at http://www.justice.gov/eoir/sibpages/ICadr.htm#CA.
As is true for other areas of practice, networking is also key to finding a job in immigration law. Thus, students should begin reaching out to immigration attorneys during law school, including the significant number of McGeorge graduates who practice in this area.
Immigration positions are located everywhere, although immigration-related positions with the federal government are concentrated — but not exclusively located — in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security employ the greatest number of attorneys who work with immigration law.
Small and mid-size firms, as well as solo practitioners, usually handle immigration issues for individuals or families. They may also work with businesses. At times, attorneys at these firms are called upon to help their immigrant clients with legal issues unrelated to immigration status, such as family law, criminal law, or tort law. Some large firms have immigration practices. Attorneys at these firms represent almost exclusively businesses and organizations, and not individual clients. They are most often hired by corporations to handle immigration issues for noncitizen employees. Companies that hire a large number of foreign employees may also hire in-house counsel to handle immigration issues for those employees.
Some nonprofit organizations have as their mission the representation of immigrant clients. Attorneys at these organizations may participate in the provision of direct legal services related to immigration, policy advocacy, immigration law reform efforts, or some combination thereof. Many such organizations provide free or low-cost services to individuals who could not otherwise afford to hire an attorney.
Immigration courts function under the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and employ attorneys to act as judges and clerks. Federal appellate courts hear immigration cases on appeal and they too employ attorneys to act as judges and clerks.
Immigration law attorneys serve individuals, businesses, organizations, and the government. Their clients may include, but are not limited to, the following groups: