Immigration attorney happy she took the risk

September 2, 2011
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“Back then, they thought I was crazy. I broke away to start my own solo practice in immigration law, something I was interested in ever since I was in law school. There just wasn’t a market for it. Whatever openings there were for immigration would fill up very quickly through word of mouth,” said Im, whose firm, ImLaw, occupies a suite at 61 Commerce Ave. SW, and whose parents emigrated here from South Korea in the 1960s.

“When I started my own practice, I wasn’t busy for the first year-and-a-half. But I was busy learning and was linked up to a mentor who was a friend of mine in law school and practiced immigration law. Then I landed my first corporate client just after two years from when I broke away to start my solo practice,” she added.

“There was a lot of patience, a lot of being broke for the first year-and-a-half, and a lot of living very simply. … I took a risk and it paid off.”

When Im started her firm, she knew that the demand for legal immigration services in Grand Rapids didn’t equal that of New York or San Francisco. But she did notice that there were only a few lawyers who were practicing that branch of law here, and almost all were at the city’s biggest firms. She also saw that the demographics in West Michigan were starting to change as more people of different nationalities began to call the region home.

Besides, she said, if she had moved to a city that was better known for its immigrant population, she would have also been moving to a market where there would be more competition for those legal services. “I gambled on it, and it turned out I was right. I think this is a great niche,” said Im. “There is more competition here now, though. It’s not at all like it was back then.”

The bread-and-butter of her practice is employment based. In fact, for the first few years of her practice, all she was doing was employment-based immigration. But she said she couldn’t ignore the family-based side of immigration law.

“Once you’ve secured the work-visa status for a professional, maybe he or she wants to sponsor a parent, and that’s family immigration and has nothing to do with an employer-based sponsorship. So, inevitably, I said I needed to diversify myself and continued to learn this other area,” she said.

Im said employers are using her services to mostly bring skilled professionals from Asia, China and India here, but some businesses are bringing talent from Western Europe and Canada. “Because we do share a border with Canada, I do get a fair amount of Canadians, which is always a lot of fun. And they are subject to the same immigration laws as everyone else,” she said.

Im keeps up on changes to immigration law not only on the national scene but also at the state level. In June, she was one of only two individuals who were allowed to testify in opposition to a pair of bills introduced by Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, in January.

Im told the House Commerce Committee that the bills, which would require the use of the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify system for all public contracts and temporary staffing agencies, would be burdensome and costly for business. She also said the data contained in the DHS Internet-based system, which allows employers to check on the eligibility of new hires, is often outdated and inaccurate.

“There are an unacceptable number of errors in the database of DHS. There have been numerous instances of U.S. citizens and U.S.-born citizens coming up with a tentative non-confirmation error when run through E-Verify. I probably would be a proponent of E-Verify if we had a 100 percent foolproof system, but we don’t,” said Im, who was elected in June as chairwoman of the state chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“I also have a problem with the burden it places, particularly on small businesses but even on medium and large-size businesses, on human resources (professionals) who are typically already tapped out in doing more tasks than they normally have to in an economy like this. Adding E-Verify on to that in terms of learning the system, dealing with tentative non confirmations, which is just a fact of life with E-Verify, just doesn’t work foolproof for anyone,” she added. “I can’t say specifically how much it will cost, but it will be significant.”

Im feels legislation passed by the state Senate in June would also have a negative consequence on immigration policy. The bills remove the “legal presence” definition from the 2008 driver’s license law and require that an applicant for a driver’s license or ID card demonstrate that “he or she is authorized under federal law to be present in the U.S.” The legislation also removes beneficiaries of approved immigrant petitions or labor-certification applications from consideration.

“While this might sound fairly innocuous on the surface, if you dig a little bit deeper you’ll find that there are many, many individuals that are here legally in the United States on valid U.S. immigration status, such as our F-1 students at all of our colleges and universities that bring in a ton of revenue for the state’s schools; also those on work-visa status like the highly skilled professionals at, for instance, the Van Andel Institute and our hospitals and at a lot of our colleges and universities.

“This essentially says that they wouldn’t be eligible for Michigan driver’s licenses. Well, it doesn’t take too much to figure out that this is going to create a huge burden for those folks. What are they going to have to do, get bus passes? And how about the other ancillary services, like insurance, which flow from having a Michigan driver’s license?

“It didn’t take long to see that this is going to have major ramifications for our state at a time where we don’t need to be sending that message.”

Practicing immigration law can be an emotional endeavor because, after all, Im is directly dealing with lives and livelihoods, and that means it can be an extremely satisfying or an extremely frustrating way to make a living.

“I have a good degree of each of those elements on a daily basis, which is why I continue to do what I do and I love it. It’s certainly personally rewarding to see when we are able to get an individual’s case approved or save someone from deportation. It’s extremely personally rewarding because we’re directly having an impact on that person’s quality of life,” she said.

“However, I would say I have an equal dose of frustration every day, especially since the economic downturn. We have been fighting the government on cases that normally would have been approved in the past, and that’s because we have an interesting mix at the governmental level. DHS has its job, especially in the employment-based arena, of making sure that employers meet all of the specified criteria for the particular work visa. But some of the officers have also taken on the role of ‘we’re here to also protect the U.S. work force’ and ask if this foreign national is really needed to do the job,” she added.

“What we’re seeing in some of the decisions for our work-visa cases are elements that are not required by law but are being refused basically upon that personal officer’s subjective opinion. And much of that is tied to the current economy and the downturn we’ve experienced for the last couple of years. I’m fighting the government on what I would describe as poorly written decisions not based in the law, and that’s difficult.”

Still, no matter how much frustration Im encounters, she pledges to continue fighting for her clients and for a simple reason. “I love what I do,” she said. “We still get little victories. Sometimes we even get major victories, and that’s wonderful.”

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