Mind Your Business

For immigration law, a perfect storm creates challenges and opportunities for firms

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Three key developments are driving a dramatic increase in U.S. immigration activity in 2021. As a result, immigration law firms are bracing for a huge influx of cases. In this rapidly evolving practice area, technology and process automation are increasingly important for immigration attorneys seeking to meet the challenge.

Is your firm ready for a 50% to 100% increase in immigration work? Consider the drivers of sweeping change in immigration regulations and how you’ll prepare your firm to respond.

Reforming immigration regulations

A 2020 policy brief by the National Foundation for American Policy projected that legal immigration would decline by 49% between fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2021 due to policies restricting immigration of international students, relatives of U.S. citizens and suspensions of visas. In response, the new administration is enacting changes to the immigration system.

After four years of restrictions aimed to induce a slowdown of immigrations, President Joe Biden has already signed several executive orders to roll back restrictive legal immigration policies. Such changes will open the path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people already living in the U.S. The new regulations on H-1B visas have already reduced the complexity of filing an application. A visa ban has also been lifted, resulting in pent-up demand now rolling forward, increasing employment-based immigration opportunities.

Less restrictive regulations will invite new immigration filings on top of a waiting backlog of 1.3 million pending cases in the immigration courts.

The new administration’s policies also offer protections for asylum-seekers and other undocumented immigrants. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status deportations will end as a result of the new administration’s efforts at fortification of DACA and protection of “Dreamers.”

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Improving economy and business climate

The EB-5 investment visa program, established in 1990, allows foreign investors to fund projects in the United States and receive green cards (permanent residence) in return. The purpose is to encourage investment and job creation in the United States. Fewer than 4,000 EB-5 visas were issued in fiscal year 2020, a significant drop from fiscal year 2019’s total of 9,478. This may reflect the impact of the pandemic on processing of investor petitions.

The program expired June 30, 2021, and a reauthorization bill, the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2021, proposes to improve on inefficiencies and reduce minimum investment requirements, a change that will invite an increase in applications and approvals.

The proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 reflects a broader intention to enact comprehensive legislative reform to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The act would eventually allow most undocumented immigrants—about 3.4% of the current U.S. population—to become citizens. Though the EB-5 reauthorization is not directly a part of the U.S. Citizenship Act, the prospect of it passing will benefit from the administration’s positive view toward expanding immigration.

Education visas are on the increase as well, with support from agencies such as the Open Avenues program supporting diverse, traditionally underrepresented college students. Such programs help college students obtain an H-1B visa so they can legally work in the U.S. The sponsoring employer can then petition for an H-1B for full-time employment, allowing the student to move seamlessly into work and potentially citizenship.

The U.S. technology sector is facing an unprecedented talent shortage. At the end of 2020, it was estimated there was a shortfall of 1 million tech professionals.

Facebook, Google and other large tech industry giants with appetites for skilled foreign workers continue to lobby for more relaxed visa regulations to meet their hiring targets. The government visa backlog and limits on green cards lengthen the application process, with the USCIS reporting a backlog for employment-based green card applicants reaching 1.2 million in 2020—nearly 92% of the 1.3 million pending cases in immigration.

Operating in an entirely new remote work model

The pandemic created an entirely new remote work model and also presented technological challenges, as firms were compelled to move online or to support a hybrid workforce, learning to collaborate remotely. The adoption of cloud technology and collaborative applications rose steeply as a result.

Immigration law firms that embraced cloud technology and moved to a remote work model are best prepared now to meet the rising demand. Cloud technology enables attorneys to work effectively in remote locations. Cloud-based practice management provides easy, secure access to forms, filings, client files communications and deadlines. Document automation software supports error-free document creation, using templates that pull client and case information from the practice management system, speeding preparation of documents and forms.

Technology needed more than ever

When caseloads are light, firms can perhaps afford to spend more time on manual filing, completing paper-based forms or working in silos. When the caseload doubles overnight, technology is a must to enable attorneys to effectively manage more cases and electronically file immigration forms. A cloud-based practice management system, tailored for immigration law practitioners, helps firms:

    • Support case activities and events using case status, chronology, deadline and alert reports.
    • Capture each client’s profile, including employment, family and residence history, all organized, updated and consolidated in a single case file.
    • Automatically generate letters to parties and forms to USCIS, DHS, DOS and other agencies without ever retyping the same information.
    • Use firm process automation to reduce the time and errors often associated with collecting travel, personal and family information, while tracking consequential filing deadlines and delivering helpful reminders and alerts.
    • Have remote access to files and documents when meeting with a client.
    • Easily access immigration-related intake, matters and immigration court forms within the practice management system—ready to automatically handle multiple U.S. governmental agency procedures.
    • Accurately capture filing fees, courier charges, application costs and other expenses and be prepared to generate an invoice and accept online payments without missing a beat.

Managing an immigration law practice in a rapidly changing environment

Managing an immigration law practice today is a perfect storm—a combination of rapidly changing regulations, a huge backlog of immigration cases and the ongoing need to collaborate as firms gradually transition back to the office. As a result, growth opportunities for immigration professionals are greater than ever, and the firms that successfully adopt technology tailored to their practice will thrive.

Tomas Suros is an attorney and technology advocate working at the intersection of IT and legal practice management. He consults with immigration law firms in the implementation of AbacusNext Immigration Suite, a complete practice management solution offering integrated intake, workflows, government forms, communications tools and online payments to simplify immigration client and case management. Reach him at [email protected].

Mind Your Business is a series of columns written by lawyers, legal professionals and others within the legal industry. The purpose of these columns is to offer practical guidance for attorneys on how to run their practices, provide information about the latest trends in legal technology and how it can help lawyers work more efficiently, and strategies for building a thriving business.

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This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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