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  • Inside Track
    February 20, 2013

    Wisconsin Immigration Lawyers Prepare for Immigration Reform

    Grant S. Sovern

    As of 2010, it was estimated that approximately 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the U.S.; approximately 10,000 in Wisconsin. So how will potential immigration reforms impact the U.S. and Wisconsin? In the following article, Madison immigration lawyer Grant Sovern pinpoints potential changes, and how they will impact U.S. businesses, as well as the lawyers who advise them. In addition, the Inside Track caught up with other local immigration lawyers to explore immigration issues and how they are planning for change.

    America Dives into Immigration Reform: How it Could Affect Businesses

    Feb. 20, 2013 – While stories concerning proposed comprehensive immigration reform, and related political announcements from a bipartisan group of senators and President Obama, have flooded the news, specific proposals have remained limited.

    Grant SovernGrant Sovern (Michigan 1996) is a partner in the Madison office of Quarles & Brady LLP. Sovern is chair of the firm’s national immigration practice, concentrating on employment immigration for employers and employees. Sovern is also an Adjunct Professor at UW Law School, teaching immigration law. He can be reached at (608) 283-2668 or by email at

    Nevertheless, clients are understandably interested in knowing how these broad proposals might play out in a potential law that could be enacted this year. Here are some of the practical ways in which these proposals apparently will affect employers and employees in the U.S., should they become law:

    Path to Citizenship for 11 million Undocumented People Currently in the U.S.

    There will be increased border security, to a point deemed acceptable to a newly formed commission of governors, attorneys general and community leaders along the Southwest U.S. border, which will authorize the launch of a legalization program for undocumented immigrants.

    Stronger prohibitions on racial profiling and excessive use of force in immigration enforcement will be included. Immigration authorities will employ an enhanced, existing screening system to track all noncitizens who leave the country, to aid in apprehending visa overstays.

    Undocumented people will register, then pay any back taxes and a fine to earn a probationary legal status that will allow them to live and work temporarily in the U.S. People with a serious criminal history will be ineligible.

    Once enforcement measures have been completed, those with probationary legal status must pass background checks, pay taxes, learn English and Civics, demonstrate a history of work in the U.S. and have current employment to earn lawful permanent resident status (green card), after all others in the legal pipeline have already earned their green cards.

    Young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents, and those undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. agriculture industry, will be eligible for green cards without fulfilling all of the above criteria.

    Improvement of the Legal Immigration System to Attract the World’s Best and Brightest

    Authorities will reduce the current, long backlogs for people who are legally eligible to immigrate to the U.S. in both the family and employment categories. The government will develop a program to grant permanent resident status (green card) to people who graduate from U.S. universities with a master’s or doctoral degree in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM degrees).

    Enhancement of Employment Verification

    The government will create an enhanced mandatory E-Verify system that reduces the ability of unauthorized workers to use false documents and increases penalties against employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants. The new system must be fast and reliable for employers, and must prevent identity theft.

    Admitting New Workers and Protecting Workers’ Rights

    The law will allow employers to hire immigrants if employers can demonstrate they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position, without displacing American workers.

    The Immigration Service will create a program to meet the needs of America’s agriculture industry, including dairy, to find workers when Americans are not available to fill open positions. Immigration laws will admit more lower-skilled immigrants when the economy is creating jobs and fewer when it is not.

    Final Thoughts

    Some of these provisions are based on programs that already exist, such as E-Verify or PERM Labor Certification, so it is not clear how these would change under the broad proposals. Other provisions would create new programs such as an earned legalization program for the 11 million undocumented people and for future agricultural workers and low-skilled workers. The provisions also provide for the long-awaited increase in the number of immigrant visas (green cards) available, in order to reduce the extremely long waits that qualified legal immigrants currently face, especially those from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines.

    Reportedly, the President has a more specific set of proposals that he will hold back as the Senators attempt to draft legislation to pass and propose to the House of Representatives, some of whose members reportedly oppose the earned legalization program. There was no mention of an increase in H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to hire foreign workers, or changes to other employment-based nonimmigrant visa programs by these Senators or the President; however, a separate bill to increase the numbers of H-1Bs, based on current market conditions, is being drafted by other members of the Senate.

    This article is reprinted with permission from Quarles & Brady LLP.  It is written as an overview of key reform provisions primarily for businesses.

    Local Immigration Attorneys Gearing Up for Reform

    How did you get into immigration law, and what do you like about it?

    Erich Straub: I transitioned into immigration from criminal defense shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. My practice is now very diverse and includes family and employment-based immigration. I love helping immigrants and their families come to the U.S. and build their lives here. 

    Maria Ryan: I have always had a love for different languages, travel and learning about other cultures. I feel like I get to travel to a different part of the world each day when I go to work. I enjoy being able to speak in various languages throughout the day. But, what I love most is to be able to help clients resolve an issue that is going to have a major impact on the rest of their life, namely where they can live and work and what kind of opportunities they will have. There is nothing more fulfilling than that, and I am humbled to be afforded this opportunity for service.

    Stephen Berman: I did quite a bit of traveling during my undergraduate studies as well as law school. I majored in history, so foreign lands were always a great interest to me. I started working for a small firm writing appeals in asylum cases. I soon began appeals, as well as filing mandamus and habeas corpus petitions and I represented clients in immigration court. I got into family and employment immigration, and many areas after that. I really like being able to help people in such a concrete and immediate way. This is about keeping families from being permanently separated, and helping employers who truly cannot locate qualified workers. It is about helping crime victims, and people whose lives are in danger in their country of origin. The need is very great and very immediate. I feel it is possible to do a lot of good for people who could never do it on their own, without legal help.

    Huma Ahsan: In the 1960s, my family immigrated to the United States because of the lack of economic opportunities in their country for professors and scientists. My dad came to the United States from India in order to complete his post-doctorate degree in Satellite mapping. He came as a foreign graduate student and worked at NASA and then as a college professor. At that time, America was actively recruiting these types of professionals. It was only because I married a foreign medical graduate who came to this country on a J-1 visa that I fully understood the choices that professionals and families face, and the impacts of immigration law. The ability to help a family, professional, or individual, overcome the barriers that immigration laws place on them and their families is what I like best about being an immigration attorney.  

    What types of issues do your immigration law clients in Wisconsin face? 

    Huma Ahsan: In Wisconsin, issues that many of my immigration law clients encounter are the hardship with family separation and the frustration and uncertainty held by employers and their employees. Many barriers exist in using the legal processes that are in place, either because it is too complex, difficult and/or expensive, or because there is no legal means for entry. The current immigration legal mechanisms to admit skilled and unskilled workers are not effective, and make it difficult for U.S. employers to have access to top international talent.

    Stephen Berman: The biggest issue, probably for most immigrants in Wisconsin, is the three and 10 year bars to admission. Starting in March 2013, we will be able to file waivers for such individuals, who are qualified to immigrate, and do not want to risk being stuck out of the United States for 10 years. I would expect a very significant number of people could benefit from this simple modification of administrative procedure. 

    Erich Straub: One of the uniquely Wisconsin challenges that our client’s face is getting a driver’s license if they are undocumented. Changes in Wisconsin law in 2006 made it almost impossible to get a license unless you have lawful immigration status. 

    Maria Ryan: Driving is a huge issue, especially outside of the city of Milwaukee, where police seem to focus on crimes such as driving without a license. Additionally, clients have expressed concern that they are stopped while driving simply because they look like they might be from a different country. I have heard countless stories that they are stopped without having committed a driving infraction. 

    If federal immigration laws change, how will that impact Wisconsin’s immigration laws, if at all? 

    Maria Ryan: More people will qualify for driver’s licenses, which will reduce the strain on our court and police services. Moreover, more students will qualify for student financial aid for post-secondary education, allowing more young people access to higher education, which will allow them to make greater contributions to their families and to society.

    Erich Straub: Most Wisconsin laws regarding immigration prevent access to state benefits for the undocumented. Federal reform will likely reduce the undocumented population and makes these laws less necessary.

    Huma Ahsan: Changes to federal immigration laws and procedure could affect Wisconsin businesses and families in many different ways. One proposal would eliminate the diversity lottery green card program and reallocate up to 55,000 green cards to foreign nationals who graduate from a U.S. university with an advanced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degree.

    Stephen Berman: Wisconsin really does not have any immigration law, that is purely federal.  Wisconsin needs to comply with certain federal laws like REAL ID Act, and that affects people’s ability to get a driver’s license. Licensing and school tuition are the main items in Wisconsin that will be affected by a change in the law. Several states have recently passed laws to try to enforce immigration law by controlling unauthorized employment, rental and sale of property, prohibiting the use of foreign identification, and other creative means. So far Wisconsin has not joined this movement. 

    Do you think it’s important for lawyers in other practice areas to stay informed on immigration issues? Why? 

    Huma Ahsan: Attorneys should have some idea of what is going on with immigration reform. But if they don’t practice immigration law, I don’t think it is necessary for the general practice attorney to know the ins and outs of immigration law. What I would recommend is that they find an immigration attorney who they could call if they had a question or refer a client. Immigration attorneys should also be in contact with other attorneys who practice in other areas such as criminal law, taxation, business and employment law.  

    Maria Ryan: Yes, of course. For clients who are undocumented, protecting the ability to legalize their immigration status is likely their primary legal issue. Accordingly, attorneys who practice in areas outside of immigration law should be sure that their noncitizen clients find out any potential immigration consequences of any particular legal decision. If the attorney is not sure, the attorney should advise the client to consult with a qualified immigration attorney regarding any possible collateral immigration consequences. Attorneys who practice criminal, tax, bankruptcy or family law, often, encounter noncitizen clients who could face immigration consequences resulting from the legal matter. 

    How is your firm preparing for potential changes to immigration law?

    Stephen Berman: We are reviewing proposed legislation. Most changes in the law in the last four years have been purely administrative. We are continuing to attend regular liaison meetings, telephone conferences, and updates on current procedures.

    Erich Straub: One of the great challenges practicing immigration law is that there are so many sources of law and they are constantly changing. Our firm is using the Internet and new technology to keep pace. For example, we redesigned our website in 2012 to feature videos on changes in the law. The firm has a You-Tube Channel and it had over 10,000 views in 2012. With our videos, we are now able to reach a wider audience regarding changes in the law.

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