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Navigating the Administrative Maze for Immigrant Clients and Their Families

Feb 16, 2015
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Manuel Escobar discusses his experience representing people as an immigration lawyer. In this episode, Manuel addresses some key questions pertinent to immigration law. What options are available to those seeking relief from deportation? How does an immigration lawyer prepare for hearings? What challenges do immigration lawyers face, and which strategies can help mitigate stress from work? Manuel is a graduate of St. Mary’s University School of Law.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Debby Merritt interviews an immigration lawyer who discusses the pressure that comes along with the high stakes in this field.

Debby Merritt:

Our guest today is Manuel Escobar. He's an immigration attorney at the law office of Gerald M. Gonzales, a small firm in San Antonio, Texas, that deals primarily in immigration, family and criminal law. Manuel graduated in 2012 from St. Mary's School of Law in San Antonio. Prior to law school, he was a teacher, as well as a multimedia designer for a large firm. After law school, Manuel worked at a consumer law firm, workman's compensation law firm, a specialty immigration nonprofit, and now at an immigration law firm. Manuel, your goal was immigration. Why?

Manuel Escobar:

I always had kind of an affinity towards immigration law because I'm Latino, I speak Spanish. I figured it was a niche for me.

Debby Merritt:

Tell us then about the firm where you work now.

Manuel Escobar:

Well, at Gerald Gonzales's it's a pretty big firm. We have about six or seven attorneys, maybe eight. We have a fleet of assistants, and we do everything under the sun regarding immigration. That's a very loaded statement. I mean, we do petitions, family petitions, and we do deportation defense. Now we're moving into investor visas. So that pretty much covers all areas of immigration.

Debby Merritt:

That was what you wanted with this firm, being able to focus on the full whole field.

Manuel Escobar:

Absolutely. It's one of those scary things. Careful what you wish for because it's very intense.

Debby Merritt:

How has the firm helped you learn all of these areas? Did you start in one area, then move to another, or are you working in all of them at the same time?

Manuel Escobar:

I was hired on as removal defense, which basically is defending clients that are facing deportation. But because this is such a high volume law firm, we have clients flooding just coming in every day, and so we all do intakes. All the attorneys do intakes on a daily basis. So we're required to learn the family end of immigration as well as deferred action, which is the new form of relief for people who arrived to the US when they're minors and then of course deportation. As a deportation attorney, I've gotten a taste of everything.

Debby Merritt:

When you say required to learn, how did you go about learning that? Is that book learning or watching videos, watching other lawyers?

Manuel Escobar:

I received a good two-week training. They were easing me in by allowing me a few weeks of just straight research and reading before they started trickling cases my way. That was really good. But you can only read these books for so long before your eyes start crossing. Once you're faced with these issues is when you can actually quit your research and your kind of legal maneuvering to work.

Debby Merritt:

That makes sense. Do you have a chance as you work to talk to other attorneys when you don't understand something?

Manuel Escobar:

Absolutely. That was one of the reasons I went to this firm or I chose this firm because the workers' comp firm I was at had a great, great open door policy. I could talk to the head, the owner of the firm. She was always available to answer any questions. She would sit you down and really talk it through. Then some of the more seasoned attorneys, they were always very amenable to helping me in whatever I needed, answering questions or pointing me in the right direction. That's been the case with every job I've had. I feel fortunate. I've heard that it's not always the case.

Debby Merritt:

I'm fascinated by this in fact, because you've described your current firm as a high-volume practice, which many people consider inconsistent with training new lawyers. But it sounds like just the opposite was true.

Manuel Escobar:

Well, they throw you to the wolves. When you have a client sitting in front of you, you have to really just think quick on your feet. There's an issue that you can research right then and there, that's not too difficult. You can do it. Otherwise, I just ask them to hold on a second, and I'll go and talk to other attorneys about issues that we're facing with that particular client. I feel lucky that I'm getting paid to learn.

Debby Merritt:

Now, will the pay be enough to offset the financial investment in law school?

Manuel Escobar:

Eventually. That's the idea. Initially, no. Absolutely not. I think that the market, it makes sense to me. Why would you pay someone a huge salary when they don't know up from down? You're going to have these trainees that are making mistakes, they're nervous, they're just doggy-paddling essentially. What I've been seeing is that a lot of small to mid-size firms know this and they'll hire people right out of law school at low wages and then those people will eventually progress and move on and hopefully go onto higher paying jobs. I also think it depends on the area of the law that you choose to go into. I know that with family law, criminal law and immigration law, it's a lot of upfront pay, it's a lot of monthly fees as opposed to maybe civil litigation or personal injury where there's big money at the end of the tunnel.

Debby Merritt:

Or nothing.

Manuel Escobar:

Or nothing. It's feast or famine. Exactly. So depends on what kind of personality you have and whether you're a gambler or not.

Debby Merritt:

I agree that many firms are now hiring people at low wages to try them out for a few years. That seems to be a new pattern. There also are some firms that are taking an entrepreneurial approach where the new lawyers might be paid a base amount, but then get a cut of what they earn through client work. Were either of your firms structured that way?

Manuel Escobar:

At this firm it's higher pay, but some of the benefits aren't there. So the high pay almost kind of evens out to what I was making before.

Debby Merritt:

Let's walk through a typical day. What sorts of work would you do? Talk to clients, do research, appear in court?

Manuel Escobar:

It varies, but typically the morning time for me is when I can actually get work done. I'll go in and I have a big stack of cases. I'll start sifting through the ones that have deadlines pending or hearings coming up and try to kind of gain a sense of what it is that needs to be done, what we have as far as evidence is concerned, what we still need to get our hands on. So I'll just start creating an inventory of what we need, and then I'll mobilize my assistants to get working on it. In our firm in particular, we do consults Monday through Thursday from 2:00-4:30, so after lunch you just do intakes.

Debby Merritt:

Do you talk to the potential clients on your own or is it a team intake?

Manuel Escobar:

Oh no, it's individual. We have them come in, they sit in a waiting room, then we call them in. We have a list of questions that we ask that are pertinent to identifying any form of relief, and it gets very complex and convoluted.

Debby Merritt:

What kind of questions do you ask potential clients?

Manuel Escobar:

I first ask the client what it is that they're coming in for. What is it that they want? What is it that they're trying to accomplish or what sort of situation is kind of befallen them? Once I get an idea of what they're looking for, then I ask a series of questions to try to hone in on potential forms of relief and also to see if they even qualify for any relief.

Debby Merritt:

Can you describe how the conversation might flow?

Manuel Escobar:

Let's say for instance, if someone comes in to petition for their husband, what I do first is find out whether the person that's in the office is either a US citizen or a legal permanent resident. If they have no legal status in the US, they can't petition.

Debby Merritt:

So what would you ask her?

Manuel Escobar:

I'd try to get as much information about their husband as possible. We try to find out when they first entered the United States, whether they came in legally, whether they came in illegally, and then it's important to find out if they've left the country since entering the US.

Debby Merritt:

So during intake, do you have to make the decision whether or not this is somebody who you can help or their case is just not plausible?

Manuel Escobar:

Yes, absolutely. What we do is we try to gather as much information as we can, and throughout that process we'll identify whether they qualify, whether they don't. We kind of go through the gamut of every type of relief available. Some qualify for certain relief, others qualify for nothing. It really depends. It depends on the facts that they present us. A lot of times what a client tells you isn't necessarily the truth.

Debby Merritt:

I supervise a criminal defense clinic. I know that phenomenon well.

Debby Merritt:

What do you do once you've determined that you will accept the client?

Manuel Escobar:

Once we make our determination right then and there, we'll assign a case or we'll assign an investigation and we'll move from there.

Debby Merritt:

What about ability to pay? Do you assess that during the intake?

Manuel Escobar:

Yes, we do. Our firm does a flat rate system, so we have a pricing for various forms of relief. Let's say for deportation defense, it's a certain amount, and what we do is we'll ask them for a down payment and then we put them on a monthly payment plan.

Debby Merritt:

Is there any type of sliding scale depending on ability to pay?

Manuel Escobar:

We assess that, but it's always a red flag if you have to bring your down payment down too much because if you're battling for the down payment in the intake, you're probably going to be battling for the rest of it throughout the case.

Debby Merritt:

These are fairly discrete services that you're already charging a flat fee for.

Manuel Escobar:

Yes. It really depends on what it is. We have two types of clients. We have those that come to us because they want to be there; the ones that are petitioning from family members, the ones that are seeking the deferred action form of relief. Then we have clients whose backs are against the wall, and they're forced to be there for us.

Debby Merritt:

It must be difficult when you have to tell a client like that that there's no relief possible.

Manuel Escobar:

It is. It's rough. It's tough. Also, the situation arises where you have to tell some of the H.A.P.I. Clients that they don't qualify for anything. People break down and cry. There's a lot at stake with immigration. It's something that I never really realized before I actually got into it.

Debby Merritt:

So what are the things that you like most about the practice?

Manuel Escobar:

I like the clients. So far I do. I like working with Latino clients. I mean, I'm fluent in Spanish, and they tend to really gravitate towards that. Also, I'm a little older than a lot of new attorneys, so I think that they tend to respect that initially, even in situations if I don't know what I'm talking about. I think maybe my delivery makes them feel at ease. One thing I've learned is how to say no and how to deliver bad news without really flinching. I think that a lot of clients really respect that to be told straight that either it's a yea or nay.

Debby Merritt:

That's very important for attorneys, I think.

Manuel Escobar:

I agree. I agree. It's something that I used to dread before I actually started doing it, but after a while, it's in their best interest to know. I always tell them that they're free to get a second opinion if they don't like what they've heard.

Debby Merritt:

One of the things my defense students have learned is that many criminal defendants simply appreciate the fact that another person will listen to them and sympathizes with their position.

Manuel Escobar:

Absolutely. We don't judge. What I'm learning is that the job isn't only going to court and fighting a case. You're a counselor to them. So if I get a client who had a great shot, their case was clean, and then they go out and get a DWI. So that's when you can actually kind of admonish them, and they're always pretty open to hearing it. So far.

Debby Merritt:

Let's talk more about removal defense. As I understand it, if an immigrant obtains US citizenship, then he or she cannot be deported, but a legal permanent resident can be. Can you give three examples of available if facing deportation.

Manuel Escobar:

If you're a legal permanent resident and for some reason you ended up in deportation, there are several forms of relief for you if you qualify. We have one called a 42A cancellation of removal. There's readjustment and there are several waivers that can waive a variety of crimes. What that process entails is several preliminary hearings where you plead and you identify your relief, you submit applications, and then it all culminates with the final individual hearings where you put on witnesses in front of a judge and you try to prove up your case.

Debby Merritt:

Do you participate in many hearings?

Manuel Escobar:

We have tons of them. Every client goes through that series of hearings. The initial ones are called Master Calendars. Those are the ones where you go through and identify relief. That's where a lot of the battle occurs because that's where the trial attorneys who are your opposition, they're the attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security, that's where they try to set up their roadblocks.

Debby Merritt:

How do you prepare for one of these Master Calendar hearings?

Manuel Escobar:

We conduct a lot of legal research and then when we head into a Master, if we have a legal argument, we present it. If the judge wants to know more, the judge might order that you write a brief on the matter, and then we have pretrial hearings to determine if legal argument's correct.

Debby Merritt:

Are you ever thrown off by the judge's questions?

Manuel Escobar:

That's kind of a loaded question because it happens in all sorts of ways. You can find yourself in a hearing not knowing at all what it is that you're doing.

Debby Merritt:

How do the judges react to that?

Manuel Escobar:

There are times where judges will get impatient with you, but I think it's just kind of a rite of passage. Eventually, once you do enough of them, you start knowing when you can interject, when you can object. Yeah, that's just one of those things that unfortunately you're just going to have to fall on your face, and it's going to happen to everybody.

Debby Merritt:

You mentioned early on in our talk that the firm has a fleet of assistants. Are those investigators, paralegals? What type of other workers are there?

Manuel Escobar:

It's mainly legal assistants and legal secretaries. With immigration law, there's a lot of paper pushing. There's a lot of forms that you have to fill out because I mean, it is federal technically, but immigration is its own ... I don't even know what to call it ... Its own institution. There's a lot of deadlines and there's a lot of evidence gathering involved, and it's impossible for one man and an assistant to really do it on their own. If I were to ever consider going solo, I would need several assistants. Maybe if business was good enough, hire another attorney because it's just the nature of immigration law.

Debby Merritt:

It sounds like part of what you've been learning is how to organize and work with a team of other non-lawyers.

Manuel Escobar:

True. True. It was the same with worker's comp. She had some excellent assistants, and I've been blessed to work with really good assistants and they're extremely knowledgeable. You learn how to coexist harmoniously as long as everyone's doing what they need to do.

Debby Merritt:

Which may be one of the most important lessons in the workplace.

Manuel Escobar:

Absolutely. That's another reality of immigration in particular is that when you have a fleet of assistants, you get some bad apples in the bunch.

Debby Merritt:

And then you have to learn how to deal with those apples.

Manuel Escobar:

With so many variables at work, if someone's not pulling their weight, there could be really disastrous consequences.

Debby Merritt:

Absolutely, getting back to that life impact on the client.

Manuel Escobar:

Right.

Debby Merritt:

What about negatives in the job?

Manuel Escobar:

Well, I stepped into a full caseload. A lot of times it feels like bombs are dropping out of the sky from nowhere as far as cases that you've never heard of. So you really have to scramble to get a read as to where the case is at, what's been done, if the person who was handling before you was competent, and whether they explored every form of relief possible.

There is huge liability with immigration law. It's something that I really didn't compute before, but now I'm starting to see that ... I mean, you have peoples' lives on the lines. Their families are being ripped apart with deportation, and it's like a pressure cooker. Let's say you take on a case that someone else was working on and you rely on their notes, on their research, and it turns out that it ends up blowing up in your face. You're ultimately responsible for that. From what I've heard, there's a fleet of immigration attorneys just chomping at the bit to come after you.

Debby Merritt:

Now, a lot of lawyers face stress of different types. Do you have advice as to good ways to handle those stresses?

Manuel Escobar:

Not really. I'm pretty stoic. I don't let it really get to me. It's hard. It's hard to do that all the time because sometimes you come home and your brain is swimming with, "What could I have done? Is there something else I could do?" But there are only a certain number of hours in the day, so what you have to do is just kind of [inaudible 00:22:37] it off and tackle it the next day and try not to let the worry get to you.

Debby Merritt:

What would you say is the biggest myth about immigration law?

Manuel Escobar:

One thing was I always heard that immigration law is statutory and somehow that implied that it might be easy. I never thought that because it traverses other areas of law because criminal law is married at the hip to immigration law. The majority of my clients are caught on some charge, a DWI or possession of marijuana or an assault, and so what we have to do is we have to take those criminal judgements and analyze them and apply them to the INA, the Immigration Nationality Act.

Debby Merritt:

Do you have a chance to work with the criminal defense lawyers to advise on the best deal for a client?

Manuel Escobar:

We steer clear from that. There was a Supreme Court case, Padilla. So right now, criminal defense attorneys are a little leery because they can be held liable for not advising their immigrant clients properly. If you have a misdemeanor in state court, it can translate into an aggravated felony in immigration court, which renders you no relief forever. I mean, it literally comes down to the sentencing, comes down to ranges of punishment, and it comes down to whether you got 179 days as opposed to 180. Literally, it comes down to days, which could ultimately get you kicked out of the country forever.

Debby Merritt:

So if you're not inclined to advise due to liability concerns, what do clients do?

Manuel Escobar:

There's a service out now. Some immigration attorneys are doing it, but it's a Padilla Consult and it's an analysis of their criminal case and the immigration ramifications of a plea deal.

Debby Merritt:

Manuel, your practice really is about client stories. Can you share with us a common situation to think about that shows just how complex your job is?

Manuel Escobar:

This lady came into my office and her legal permanent resident husband had petitioned for her and his stepchild. This stepchild had been caught burglarizing a vehicle, and in the interim, her and her husband are breaking up. So what to do? What was presented to me was essentially a family law issue with divorce. We had a criminal issue with the child. We had a family immigration issue with the petitions that were in place, and we also had the kid in deportation because of his crime.

Debby Merritt:

So that shows how your practice really brings all these areas together along with high stakes emotions for the client.

Manuel Escobar:

Absolutely. Because nobody's happy in that situation.

Host:

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