July 2019

How Can Lawyers Improve the Immigration System?

By Kimberly Keen

In between her second and third year of law school at the University of San Diego.

As a law student, I am constantly informing people I meet of my plans after I graduate. I respond that I will pursue immigration law, to which I receive some variation on the otherwise emotive response consisting of surprise, excitement, and relief that they are not involved in the field themselves. This response is understandable, as we are bombarded every day with tweets and sound-bytes from Democrats and Republicans about how to handle illegal and legal immigrants alike. No matter where you stand on the issue, the news updates generally do not quell our anxiety on the subject.

In law school, we are taught that our reputations are paramount. Therefore, perceptions on what type of law we practice and our rationale for why we practice it affect if we practice it at all. So why should we practice immigration law? After all, there are plenty of other practice areas that are not seen to be nearly as controversial.

I contend that the fairly recent excitement around the subject of immigration should not deter law students nor lawyers from pursuing an important and satisfying practice. Immigration is a highly complex body of law that is constantly evolving and fast. Though immigration proceedings are often compared to administrative procedure, attorneys understand that each decision is wide-reaching and just as consequential as any criminal or civil trial is. Each decision affects the immigrant, their family, and Americans and their families—whether you see the rulings as right or wrong does not change this fact.

In my brief experience interning for the federal government and my current position in private practice, I have observed frustrating hold-ups on both sides of the aisle. Overflowing detention centers and years-long backlogs to obtain visas are just a few of the problems I have experienced.[1] Endless appeals result from tangled policy and limited resources to implement constantly evolving laws and regulations. But this is precisely why lawyers are needed. At a time where immigration is rife with complications, lawyers can provide leveled support that is needed on both ends of the spectrum.

 I have identified three substantive ways that we, as lawyers (and future lawyers), can improve a sluggish immigration system on the ground. First, to implement improvements, we need more legal representation. The overall flow of the immigration process is largely in the hands of the government. However, greater availability of representation can at the very least jump-start the process for those who wish to gain status in this country. At least in part, greater legal representation may tie up some confusion with deadlines and relevant law per case, instead of leaving a complex structure of doctrine up to the immigrant to navigate on their own. An attorney can easier file the proper forms to the respective authority, cutting down on unnecessary review. Pro bono work is welcome in this regard.

Second, attorneys must work with intellectual honesty and integrity greater than before. We must keep a critical eye on opposing counsel and decisions ruled against our favor, but be scrupulous in what we choose to appeal. This is not to say to err on the side of not appealing a decision rendered by an IJ, USCIS, or other authority. However, this is precisely where reasoned decision-making and intellectual honesty play key roles. If cost and wait times outweigh a slim chance on a favorable ruling when considering a client’s request for appeal, it is wise to deny the request instead of cashing in. Point the client toward other representation if need be.

Third, get involved in the political debate on immigration. This does not have to be a partisan matter. No matter what side of the political spectrum you lean toward, your expertise on the subject is crucial to informing lawmakers of what problems you encounter every day and how you work to alleviate them. This does not have to be on a national level either; San Diego is a border town. This city is ripe with perspectives on a subject that is personal to its residents. Go to your local town hall debates, hold discussions with local lawmakers, write about it on your firm’s blog, or just converse with your fellow attorneys who are already involved. Be forthright in your views but do not be afraid to reach across the aisle to gain greater insight into the subject. Who would better know of the crinkles in the law than those who practice it every day?

Ultimately, even if we have differing political views, we are all united in our general desire to do something about the problems in immigration. This is what I believe is our strength, rather than our weakness. Different perspectives offer different solutions. It is simply up to us to work together in our goal to polish the system that makes our country what it is today and what it will be in the future.


[1] The current estimated figure is that wait times for citizenship have doubled in the past two years. See Miriam Jordan, Wait Times for Citizenship Have Doubled in the Last Two Years, Feb. 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/21/us/immigrant-citizenship-naturalization.html.