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Practicing Immigration Law in the Trump Era

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Immigration has been central to Donald Trump's agenda since he announced his candidacy almost a year and a half ago. Now, Trump's electoral success has signaled a massive shift in U.S. immigration policy and enforcement: a likely end to the Obama administration's immigration reform efforts, a promised increase in detentions and deportation, and potentially greater limits to worker visas. That's less "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" and much more "Build the wall!"

How are immigration lawyers preparing for the change?

The Atlantic's Adam Chandler recently spoke to immigration lawyers to see how the coming Trump administration is already impacting their practice. Following the election, many immigrants are turning to lawyers for advice, but the lack of specificity in Trump's proposals can make that advice difficult to provide:

"It's hard to know where to start," says Claudia Slovinsky, an immigration and nationality attorney in New York who founded her firm in 1980. "There's a lot of anxiety out there. We're all human beings, you sort of stretch out to all of these very incredibly awful possibilities, which produces even more anxiety. Everything changed overnight."

Many immigration lawyers know that some of Trump's rhetoric, such as the idea that he'd deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, is unlikely to come true. "We all knew -- at the immigration bar -- that it's not a possibility," Slovinsky says. But clients don't, leading to increased inquiries (Slovinsky has seen a 10-fold jump) and requiring a lot more reassuring on the behalf of attorneys.

That can be a difficult thing to do, according to Larry Sandigo, a public interest immigration lawyer. "We're not wanting to give a lot of false hope to our clients. I think it's not the time to tell people it's going to be okay. It's not true, we don't know that."

Sometimes, helping clients address the unknowns means sending them to other resources. Andrea Shuford, an immigration lawyer in Virginia, tells Chandler:

"A lot of immigration centers do 'know your rights' presentations and they're happening in the communities, but even us, as immigration attorneys, we get calls from concerned parents asking us, 'How can I go about setting up power of attorney? Is there a way for me to pre-grant custody to somebody who can take care of my children in case I get deported'?" she says. " I have to either refer them to another nonprofit organization or to a family law attorney who can help them make these plans or arrangements."

Worries for Businesses as Well

Some businesses, too, are fretful. Joshua Rolf is an immigration attorney at Green and Spiegel in Philadelphia. Following the election, "I would receive the only calls I've ever received about Spanish-speaking Latin Americans trying to go to Canada," he says, but he's also seen concern from businesses who rely on high-skilled foreign workers. As Chandler writes:

"We work with companies that are trying to set up shop in the United States, that are trying to create jobs," Rolf explains. "There are certain visa classifications that are specifically directed towards creating jobs." The idea that the United States may start willfully alienating many foreign workers seems not only counterintuitive to the country's principles, but also contrary to its economic interest of attracting the best and the brightest workers, he told me. In other words, concerns about immigration and deportations may have already done some damage, at the cost of future jobs.

If there's a common thread here, it's uncertainty. Uncertainty over just what policies Trump will pursue, uncertainty about how these will impact clients, and uncertainty over how best to prepare for these changes beforehand. Some of this uncertainty may be cleared up in the coming months, however. President-elect Trump is scheduled to become President Trump in a month and a half. At that point, we may start seeing how his immigration agenda actually plays out.

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