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Immigration and Refugee Law

PSJD Career Guide

This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Immigration and Refugee Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.

This content is courtesy of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at the Harvard Law School. It was written by Andrea Gomes, Aaron Spolin – Summer Fellows, 2006, Joanna Huey – Summer Fellow, 2005, and Matt Muller – Teaching and Advocacy Fellow, Howard Immigration & Refugee Clinic. The guide was edited by Alexa Shabecoff, Esq. – Assistant Dean of Public Service.

What is Immigration and Refugee Law?

Immigration relates to the attainment of citizenship as well as to the temporary or permanent relocation of individuals from one country to another. Spanning a wide range of legal issues, practice settings, and geographic locations, the field of U.S. immigration features enough challenges, complexities and rewards to rival even the immigrant experience itself.

Since 9/11, immigration issues have been at the forefront of the national consciousness as the government has enacted sweeping policy changes in reaction to the terrorist attacks. The reorganization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and its incorporation into the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the expanded detention of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, and the increasingly stringent regulation of immigrants all reflect the heightened tensions and emphasis on security. Even more recently, immigration reform has risen to the top of Congress’s agenda as the public expresses discontent with the current system. Reforms enacted or being considered relate to national security, criminal law, administrative and judicial process, labor law, civil rights, state and local government law, and several other areas. As such it is a particularly interesting time to be involved in the field of immigration policy and legislative advocacy.

The current debates and shifting laws also create a vibrant practice environment for those providing direct services to immigrants. Such services are in high demand across the country and particularly in border states and major metropolitan areas (though many small and midsize communities are also seeing an influx of immigrants). Immigration lawyers work anywhere from nonprofit legal services to private firms and serve populations ranging from impoverished migrant workers to multinational investors. Regardless of the specific placement, providing legal service to immigrants and refugees rewards its practitioners with the chance to directly and significantly affect clients’ lives.

National Security

Lawyers in the national security area of immigration law often work with individuals accused of terrorist activity or of having affiliations with terror organizations. Lawyers also represent foreign nationals who need security clearance for a temporary visit to the country. This type of immigration advocacy occurs throughout the United States and in a variety of practice settings.

With immigrants accused and detained in the United States under national security statutes, the lawyer usually will focus on (1) defending against the charges and (2) attempting to secure the person’s release from custody. Immigration lawyers cite this second, lesser-known aspect of their work (securing temporary release) as often crucial; detainees with “strong” cases sometimes prefer deportation over remaining in detention for months while fighting charges.

Immigration lawyers might also advocate for the admission of a foreign citizen who wishes to enter the country temporarily, such as a noted scholar or student who wants to present his or her work at a scientific conference. However, national security statutes, with their focus on eliminating even highly prospective or incremental risks of terrorist activity, make it difficult for many legitimate visitors to secure entry to the United States. “Terrorist-related activity” has come to encompass a broader array of actions and associations, the result of which may be the wide-scale exclusion of individuals who pose no real risk to national security. For example, a donation to a hospital run by a humanitarian component of a terrorist organization could constitute terrorist-related activity even if the donor was unaware of the affiliation. Immigration lawyers frequently defend visa- and asylum seekers, as well as permanent residents, who face exclusion or deportation for these often-unknowing offenses.

Especially since 9/11, there has been an increased demand for immigration lawyers in the field of national security. Worried that any given respondent could be “the next 9/11 terrorist,” many judges have construed anti-terror provisions very broadly, thus increasing the need for appeals. Furthermore, respondents in civil deportation hearings have no right to a lawyer at government expense and can be held in detention centers located far from organizations providing free legal assistance. This helps explain why fewer than one third of individuals facing deportation have representation and why the need for immigration lawyers in this field is so great.

Asylum and Refugees

Lawyers who specialize in asylum and refugee law assist individuals who are fleeing persecution in their home countries in applying for protection in the United States. According to U.S. and international law, refugees are individuals outside their countries of origin who are unwilling or unable to return to their country due to past or a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group (e.g. a sexual minority). Refugees outside the United States may apply for admission through the U.S. overseas refugee program, while refugees already in the country or arriving at its borders may apply for asylum status domestically. Each year the U.S. government determines how many refugees it will admit from particular regions of the world through its overseas refugee program. In addition, non-U.S. agencies (such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) often set up processing centers to receive refugees, evaluate their eligibility for protection, and facilitate their resettlement in third countries. Non-lawyers (including public officials and nongovernmental workers) process much of this overseas work for refugees.

There is no cap on the number of refugees applying inside the United States who may be granted asylum status. To receive asylum protection, the client - with his or her lawyer if the client can afford one or is appointed one - must prove that he or she satisfies the criteria set forth for refugees: they must have suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution. The party seeking asylum has to put in a great deal of work showing past persecution or proving a well-founded fear of persecution if forced to return to the country of origin. Due to the many difficulties asylum seekers must face in navigating complex legal standards and overcoming lingual and cultural barriers, the involvement of an attorney in a case is often pivotal. Valid applications for protection are denied for lack of adequate assistance and preparation, and there is a tremendous need for lawyers to represent asylum seekers. This allows the lawyer to have a tremendous impact on his or her client, representing the client before the asylum office and the immigration courts.

In the process of representing clients, immigration lawyers will have to interview asylum-seekers, investigate their claims, document their fear of persecution, and even provide background information on the applicant’s home country to non-lawyer immigration officials who evaluate requests. Additionally, post-9/11 legislation (such as the strengthened requirements in the REAL ID Act and the expanded definition of terrorist connections in the PATRIOT Act) has made asylum status more difficult to obtain. Nonetheless, lawyers working in this area of immigration law find their jobs both exciting and fulfilling. Unlike other prospective immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees often have few, if any, alternative options. This increases the pressure on any given lawyer while also magnifying the emotional reward for a successful case.


The U.S. Department of State estimates that nearly 20,000 noncitizens are trafficked to the U.S. every year to work in forced labor situations, often in the garment, agricultural, or sex trades. Immigration lawyers in this field represent trafficking survivors—victims of the modern slave trade— and help them satisfy the conditions necessary to apply for special trafficking or violent-crimes visas.

Trafficking victims often come from countries in which they face bleak economic prospects and are desperate for jobs. Traffickers exploit this hardship and offer an opportunity to enter and work in the U.S. in exchange for a percentage of the victim’s wages or some similar fee arrangement. However, once the victim is in the U.S. the trafficker typically confiscates the victim’s papers, confines the victim, forces the victim to work as a domestic servant, sex slave, or manual laborer (often in the agricultural or manufacturing sector), and withholds most or all of their wages. The employer/trafficker may use physical violence or legal intimidation to maintain control over the trafficked victim.

Lawyers representing individuals applying for specific trafficking visas (T-visas) will first conduct interviews to determine if the individual is a victim of trafficking. The basic eligibility criteria require the T-visa applicant to establish that he or she (1) was in the U.S. on account of the trafficking (2) is cooperating with law enforcement in the prosecution of the trafficker and (3) is in danger of suffering extreme hardship if returned to the country of origin. Documenting these criteria requires lawyers to work closely with the victim to prepare the T-visa application. Often after the 3-year duration of the T-visa, the same lawyer will help the former victim apply for permanent residency and get on the path to becoming a full U.S. citizen.

Unfortunately, fear of deportation, detention or other negative immigration consequences may discourage trafficking victims from coming forward—especially in the current era of heightened enforcement. This requires advocates and policymakers to focus on community education and cooperation with law enforcement to find victims who might otherwise be unable or unwilling to come forward. One difficulty advocates face is working hand in hand with enforcement-oriented officials to provide immigration relief to trafficking victims. Also, lawyers who represent trafficking victims sometimes find it emotionally difficult to repeatedly hear stories of violence and severe trauma. However, when clients secure a T-visa and win a civil or criminal case against a trafficker, seeing the positive impact on clients’ lives is highly rewarding.

Permanent Residency, Naturalization, and Citizenship

Attorneys regularly assist immigrants in various stages along the path to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status and U.S. citizenship. After securing a visa or temporary immigration status, a lawyer may help his or her client become a lawful permanent resident (i.e. obtain a “green card”) by preparing the client’s application and establishing that the client is eligible to enter or remain in the country as a permanent resident. After several years as a legal permanent resident, the immigrant may become a full U.S. citizen through the naturalization process.

Permanent residency and naturalization work arises in a broad array of immigration matters. Some immigration lawyers are contracted by businesses that employ foreign citizens wishing to permanently settle in the United States. Public interest immigration lawyers typically work for a legal aid clinic or a non-profit organization. In this setting they may handle a LPR or citizenship application as a distinct matter or as part of an ongoing case for immigration relief, such as asylum. Many immigrants are not able to afford a private immigration lawyer, and immigrants representing themselves are generally less successful seeking permanent residence or citizenship than those with legal counsel. Individuals unfamiliar with the law can make legal mistakes that could eliminate their chance of obtaining permanent residency and even lead to their deportation. For example, under current law most immigrants who are out of status (i.e. “undocumented”) for over one year must leave the country and remain abroad for 10 years before they are eligible to re-enter and apply for a green card. Therefore, even though clients are not necessarily facing deportation, there remains a strong need for representation.

The primary means of obtaining permanent residency is through petitions filed by family members (see “Family Reunification” section) and employers. After waiting five years as a permanent resident (or four years if the green card came through asylum/refugee status and three years if through marriage) a permanent resident may apply for citizenship. This process is often straightforward and involves proving past residency, taking an oath of allegiance, and passing a government civics test. However, past criminal acts, security-related procedural delays and other complicated circumstances frequently make a lawyer’s assistance crucial.

The common national origins of immigrants seeking permanent residency—and eventually citizenship—varies based on the location of the immigration lawyer in the U.S. For example, lawyers in southern California and Texas may work predominately for Mexican immigrants, while lawyers in Washington and New York might have a higher concentration of immigrants from Asia. Attorneys with language abilities matching the client base in the region are particularly valued. Overall, lawyers in this field emphasize that the attainment of permanent residency and citizenship is a major achievement in the lives of their clients, and helping immigrants achieve this goal is an enriching experience.

Family Reunification

Some immigration lawyers help reunite families by assisting both immigrants and U.S.-born citizens to petition for their relatives’ immigration to the United States. Immigration law provides that U.S. citizens and permanent residents may apply for certain family members to come to the United States. Many such family reunification petitions come from individuals who have recently immigrated to the U.S. For this reason there is a greater need for family reunification lawyers in areas with vibrant immigrant communities, although family reunification cases arise throughout the country.

Family-based immigration cases arise in a variety of practice settings. This is because the goal of family reunification factors into nearly all areas of immigration law. For example, a lawyer might work to bring a trafficking victim’s child or an asylum-seeker’s wife into the country as part of the work on a trafficking or asylum case. Citizens may petition for their spouses, children of all ages, siblings, and parents. Permanent residents may petition for a more limited group of family relations. Lawyers working on family-based cases typically interview clients in person or over the phone, prepare petitions, and represent their clients before the immigration court or immigration service.

Unaccompanied Children

Unaccompanied children are undocumented immigrant or refugee minors who are not under the guardianship of an adult. Many of these children are fleeing abuse and persecution, and many have no access to legal counsel. Such children fall into the custody of federal authorities and most likely will appear in immigration court before the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR). Advocates may work to reunite such children with relatives in the United States and have them released into their family members’ custody.

Unaccompanied children who are released from government custody or were never apprehended may be under the care of an adult who is not their legal guardian. In these cases attorneys may help secure a guardianship, and obtain permission for children to remain in the U.S. with their guardians. Under federal law, a juvenile undocumented immigrant may obtain lawful permanent resident status under certain circumstances. Lawyers working with unaccompanied children can help them obtain such “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status” (SIJS). An attorney must show that the child is "eligible for long-term foster care," meaning reunification with the child’s parents is not a possibility. The court must also determine it is not in the best interest of the child to be returned to their country of origin, and considers evidence of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. If the application is successful, the child is allowed to remain in the U.S., may work upon reaching the appropriate age, and in 5 years can apply for citizenship. However, if denied SIJS the minor could be deported.

This area of work includes many of the same considerations of working with foreign clients and trauma survivors, and poses the additional challenge of working successfully and constructively with children. Lawyers working with unaccompanied children must be sensitive to the child’s level of mental and emotional development and craft their representation accordingly. Many children are traumatized from abuse or from witnessing violence. Children also may also have developed distrust of adults, particularly figures of authority. Cultural differences can also impact a child’s perspective; it is important for a lawyer working with unaccompanied children to familiarize themselves with each child’s background and personal history.

Employment and Labor Rights

Immigrant workers, particularly those in low-paying positions, are at a heightened risk of abuse and discrimination by their employers. Those new to the U.S. may not understand the rights they have as workers in this country, and are thus more vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. Language and cultural barriers, lack of education, and undocumented immigration status are all contributing factors to the high incidence of employment abuse suffered by immigrant laborers.

Documented and undocumented immigrants are protected by the same set of labor laws as workers who are U.S. citizens (though their remedies for employer misconduct will vary). However, exploitative employers may promote the belief that noncitizens possess fewer labor rights than U.S. citizen workers. In particular some employers promote the belief that undocumented workers are unprotected by labor laws. Even when undocumented workers are aware of their rights, threats by the employer to turn such workers over to immigration authorities often prevents them from exercising their rights. As such, unscrupulous employers often succeed in denying immigrant workers basic labor rights and may also systematically underpay employees or even withhold pay altogether. Many legal advocacy groups focus on community outreach and educating immigrant populations to counteract and prosecute unscrupulous employers.

Most legal problems facing working immigrants relate to illegal wages and substandard or hazardous working conditions. Illegally low wages prevent immigrant workers from obtaining adequate housing, health care, and other necessities. Lawyers involved with immigrant employment issues frequently work to ensure labor laws are upheld for immigrant workers. To reach new immigrant workers and target exploitative employers, lawyers and labor rights advocates often visit immigrant communities and job sites in order to detect and address unfair treatment. Attorneys must then work closely with clients to negotiate and possibly bring an action against the employer. This sort of direct service presents a great opportunity to work closely with clients. Cases rarely involve only one client; to be successful and have the greatest impact cases often have multiple clients against the same business or corporation. A victory against an abusive employer may lead not only to the award of wages earned and unfairly withheld from the clients, but also serve to deter that and other employers from exploiting workers in the future.

Migrant Farm Workers

Work in agriculture is the poorest paying work in the country. Farm work has an extremely high concentration of immigrants, particularly undocumented or illegal immigrants. According to attorneys in the field, 90% of farm workers are undocumented immigrants. Jobs in agricultural labor are plentiful and do not have stringent qualifications, hence foreign citizens trying to escape poverty take up jobs as farm laborers in the U.S. While migrant farm workers can be found wherever the agriculture industry is present, California, Texas, and Florida have particularly high populations.

Due to the seasonal nature of agriculture, those who obtain their primary income through farm work must travel year-round in order to remain employed. Because of the strenuous nature of the work and low wages, worker turnover is high and many leave farm labor for factory work after a year or two. This diminishes the incentive for an employer to maintain good work conditions or to establish a positive relationship with the employees. The temporary nature of the work is also a disincentive for workers to speak out and prosecute against an employer’s maltreatment. Because most workers will likely leave an employer or the entire industry in a short period of time, there is less of a commitment to bring a wrongful employer to justice, perpetuating exploitation.

Although the benefits are sparse, farm workers are still protected by labor laws. As with other immigrant workers, because of employers who encourage the belief that no papers means no rights, legal intervention is often required to ensure immigrant farm workers receive what they are entitled to under the law.

Related Fields

Housing Law

Housing available to low-wage immigrants is often substandard. Many unskilled and low-skilled immigrant workers live in metropolitan areas where all low-income individuals face a serious shortage of affordable housing. Given the tight market and barriers many low-income individuals face in vindicating their rights under housing codes and other laws, immigrants may fall victim to abusive and neglectful housing practices by landlords. Due to language, cultural, and sometimes racial differences they may be subjected to discrimination by landlords. Undocumented immigrants particularly at risk for abuse because they are fearful of revealing their undocumented status and are less likely to confront or take legal action against unscrupulous landlords, some of whom threaten to get their tenants deported should they complain. Undocumented immigrants are generally guaranteed the same tenant rights as documented immigrants and U.S. citizens. However, with their undocumented status reinforcing the common landlord-tenant power asymmetry, they are frequently unable to vindicate their rights.

A lack of time, resources, and access to legal assistance frequently prevent immigrants from ensuring their landlords uphold housing standards. Parents often work two to three jobs to support their families, and because of low wages they cannot afford a private attorney.

Lawyers involved in assisting immigrant communities in housing issues typically focus on outreach and organizing in addition to representing individual clients. A major challenge of this work lies in organizing diverse groups of people. Frequently landlords are corporate entities that own multiple buildings, and to manage caseloads and maximize impact lawyers may aggregate clients in order to target landlords and buildings with chronic problems. Lawyers have many opportunities for one-on-one client contact in the course of both community organizing and individual representation. Although attorneys in this field will primarily interface with housing law, they may work with a community organization that also provides immigration services. In addition to helping housing lawyers understand the issues faced by the immigrant community they serve, knowledge of immigration law can be useful in certain circumstances where immigration status is relevant to eligibility for housing subsidies and related benefits.

Domestic Violence

Although the problem of domestic violence touches citizens and noncitizens alike, immigrants are at a heightened risk of being held in abusive relationships by family members who threaten to have them deported if they seek help or report their abuse. To counteract this method of entrapment, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which provides domestic violence survivors an opportunity to secure immigration status without the cooperation of their abusers. Lawyers represent victims of domestic violence before a court or the immigration service—sometimes both. Qualifying immigrants may “self-petition” for lawful permanent residence without the consent of the family member (typically a spouse) whose relationship would allow for family-based immigration. Domestic violence survivors may also be eligible for a U visa if they cooperate with authorities in the prosecution of their abusers.

Human Rights

Most immigration-related human rights work involves refugees and asylum-seekers. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists the right "to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." This principle recognizes that victims of human rights abuse must be able to leave their country freely and seek protection in another country. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees further obliges states to recognize refugees and not return them to a country where they face persecution. Other international and regional instruments provide additional rights to refugees and individuals fearing torture. Lawyers interested in human rights and immigration may work with organizations or individual asylum-seekers to investigate and document asylum claims. (For more information on asylum and refugees, please see the issue area with the corresponding title above.) They may also work to ensure that treatment of refugees and asylum applicants by host countries comports with international law and human rights norms. Human rights principles may also be brought to bear on the treatment of all noncitizens in a society, particularly irregular/undocumented migrants.

Criminal Law

Immigrants charged and convicted of crimes require criminal defense in addition to defense of their immigration status. Under federal law, immigrants who are convicted of “aggravated felonies” are subject to mandatory deportation. Under the federal scheme a crime so classified may be neither “aggravated” nor a “felony” as those terms are typically understood in criminal law. Congress has also retroactively classified certain crimes as “aggravated felonies” even though at the time of conviction (often in the form of a plea bargain) the crime in question was not a deportable offense. In some cases lawful permanent residents may be deported for shoplifting or possession of small quantities of illegal drugs. Thus, large numbers of immigrants—including long-time permanent residents with few or no roots in their countries of birth and who do not even speak their “native” language— face deportation for relatively minor criminal offenses. Of course, even those accused or convicted of more serious crimes are entitled to a defense and face dire consequences should they be convicted and deported. Under increasingly stringent immigration laws, various forms of relief allowing judges to take account of individual circumstances have given way to categorical, mandatory deportation of noncitizens convicted of crimes. However, attorneys can often succeed in securing for clients what limited relief is available, or in mounting collateral challenges to the criminal offenses that are the basis for deportation. Attorneys may also engage in national policy work that aims to lessen the severity of current immigration laws and redefine what qualifies as an aggravated felony.

Rights of Sexual Minorities and HIV-positive Individuals

Legal entry into the U.S. can no longer be denied on the basis of sexual orientation. However, sexual minorities have not yet achieved equal treatment under U.S. immigration laws. Although several foreign countries and U.S. states recognize same-sex marriages (or some equivalent), these relationships are still not recognized under federal immigration law, with severe consequences for family unity. HIV-positive individuals are prohibited from entering the country altogether (although a waiver is available under limited circumstances)—a form of discrimination that advocates for the rights of sexual minorities have often taken the lead in confronting. Immigration attorneys in this field typically focus on policy work and advocacy aimed at achieving full equality under the immigration law without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.

In addition, immigration attorneys may assist asylum seekers whose claims relate to their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and HIV-positive individuals may seek asylum because they face persecution on account of one of these statuses.

Where can I practice Immigration and Refugee Law?

National vs. Local Organizations

The type and focus of immigration work can vary with the scope of the organization. Local, regional, or statewide groups tend to dedicate their services to the low-income immigrant population. Usually there are ample opportunities for one-on-one client contact and there is a good chance a decent portion of work is spent “out in the field”; lawyers may go out into the community to conduct outreach and find cases new cases, perform interviews, or educate the local populace. Depending on the size of the organization, locally based public service groups may be involved in changing state policy and lobbying in the state legislature. Occasionally local groups also participate in national litigation and policy change, but far less frequently than national organizations.

National organizations tend to be larger and have better funding than local or grassroots groups. Large national organizations (e.g. the ACLU) also tend to have more clout and are most concerned with macro-level involvement, changing or influencing national immigration policy through impact litigation. This can mean limited interactions with clients and few or no opportunities for community outreach or direct service work. Generally speaking, national work is less hands-on. Most national groups have an overarching agenda and are involved with national litigation, lobbying, and policy work. A job with a large nationally based group often involves giving advice to and networking with local groups or local chapters of that organization. For those interested in the influence of a large national group but prefer more client-based work, a position at a local or regional chapter could involve work similar to that of an independent local association.

Legal Services/Legal Aid

Many legal services offices have an immigration subdivision specializing in the legal concerns of immigrants and refugees. Attorneys at these agencies generally focus on individual case representation; legal service organizations primarily offer help with various court proceedings and obtaining and preserving permanent legal status. Clients tend to be limited to those whose income is below a level fixed by the federal government and who live within a designated service area. Legal services agencies usually provide emergency assistance for those who need immediate assistance obtaining citizenship and for victims of domestic violence.

Legal services or legal aid organizations rely on government funding; federally funded legal services organizations are prohibited from serving undocumented aliens. It is likely financial resources will be limited, which can translate to a low level of income, lack of job security, limited resources, and an overwhelming workload. However, legal services agencies have the advantage of offering a great deal of responsibility and many opportunities for direct client contact. Other benefits are flexible working conditions and a supportive environment of colleagues who share similar interests.

Faith-Based Organizations

Many faith-based organizations have immigration divisions or are entirely devoted to aiding immigrants and refugees. When working with immigrants, being associated with a religion shared by a large number of the local population can establish an instant trust with new or potential clients. A religious affiliation can also help those doing community education and outreach to “get their foot in the door”; members of a faith-based organization can utilize churches, synagogues and other places of worship to house meetings and find those in need. Faith-based organizations have the benefit of being connected to national and international networks through their affiliation with a larger religious body. Most do not discriminate or restrict services to people of the organization’s own faith; many faith-based groups are focused on doing charity work to benefit humanity at large. A religious affiliation may also give an organization more clout and influence in lobbying for a policy change, as well as providing a steady stream of funding.

While it may not be essential that an attorney identify with the religion of the organization they work for, it is important for a lawyer’s personal beliefs in the area of interest to correspond with the religious group’s position. Immigration policies tend to be less controversial than other issues (e.g. reproductive rights) so working for an immigration division of a religious organization is a viable employment option for attorneys seeking immigration or refugee work. Still, it is critical to know the beliefs of a faith-based organization before pursuing a job.


Non-profit organizations rely on a combination of private grants, government funding, and in some cases charging small fees for service to provide legal assistance to those in need. Because of this attorneys may need to find grants to maintain funding and negotiate fees with clients. Nonprofits are involved in both national policy work and individual case representation, and may use impact litigation or legislative initiatives.

Non-profit work is often collaborative; attorneys in a nonprofit generally work in teams to select new cases, brainstorm case and advocacy strategies, and to litigate cases. These organizations often offer training and legal clinics, and provide excellent opportunities for direct client contact. Although non-profits offer a lower salary than most private firms, they often offer the flexibility for an attorney to represent individuals, become involved with impact cases, and to be a part of legislative initiatives.

Private Public Interest Firms

Private public interest firms are private, for-profit firms that dedicate the majority of their practice to a social justice mission. Private public interest firms do not receive government or grant funding. Because the firm’s emphasis is on service rather than making a profit, clients are often chosen by need rather than ability to pay. Attorneys in these firms often scale fees or do pro bono work. In the case of serving immigrants and refugees, private public interest firms can offer affordable services to individuals facing the immigration court or Board of Immigration Appeals, or to immigrants facing criminal charges or civil disputes.

Not all private public interest firms are solely dedicated to public service, and an attorney working for such a firm may have to do legal work unrelated to serving the public or assisting immigrants and refugees. These firms can offer a potentially better salary than a non-profit or legal services group. The work involves direct client contact and representation, and firms offer a variety of support services, training, good supervision, and mentoring.


In recent years, the government’s focus on undocumented immigration has been compounded by concerns about terrorism. A week after September 11th, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the establishment of antiterrorism task forces in every U.S. Attorney’s office as well as the institution of indefinite periods of detention for aliens. Another outcome of September 11th was the massive restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), part of the most drastic reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense. Through the passage of the Homeland Security Bill, the government created the new, Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Currently, the three divisions of the DHS oversee immigration: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Adjudication occurs through the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in the Department of Justice (DOJ). Within EOIR is the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), sometimes referred to as the “Board”. The BIA is the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws. All DHS officers and Immigration Judges are bound by the decisions of the BIA unless altered or overruled by a Federal court or the Attorney General. All decisions made by the BIA are subject to judicial review in the Federal courts. The majority of appeals involve orders of removal and applications for relief from removal. Other cases include the exclusion of aliens applying for admission to the United States, petitions to classify the status of alien relatives for the issuance of preference immigrant visas, fines imposed upon carriers for the violation of immigration laws, and motions for reopening and reconsideration of decisions previously rendered.

EOIR has 53 immigration courts across the nation and headquarters in Washington, D.C. In addition to employing adjudicators, attorneys and law clerks, EOIR offers clerkships and internships for law students. Those interested doing government work with refugees and unaccompanied children should investigate job opportunities within the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Department of Unaccompanied Children Services (DUCS) is a subdivision of the ORR, which handles issues regarding unaccompanied minors.

The Immigration and Nationality Act dictates that persons in removal proceedings before an Immigration judge do not have the right to free counsel; they are allowed to have counsel but at no expense to the government. When considering the cost of a private attorney, it is troubling but not surprising that a large number of immigration proceedings are conducted pro se (65% in 2005) due to the absence of government provisions for counsel for indigent aliens. The need for affordable or free counsel is apparent.

International Settings: IGOs, NGOs, and INGOs

For obvious reasons, immigration issues have international significance. Human migration and the related issues of refugee crises, internally displaced persons, immigration, labor migration, human trafficking and sexual slavery are the focus of many international organizations. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) do the majority of mission-based advocacy and service work on the global level.

NGOs are nonprofit organizations independent of any government. They are typically service oriented and do mission-based advocacy work. There are large and small NGOs operating around the world and organized for just about every purpose imaginable. NGOs are not necessarily international, but many locally based NGO’s exist outside of the U.S. in countries around the world. INGOs are large NGOs (usually based in the U.S., Geneva, or London) that have offices in various nations. NGOs and INGOs offer a wide variety of legal work; advocacy is the focus of most and attorneys employed by an NGO may work drafting legislation to change immigration and refugee policies or writing amicus curiae briefs. Attorneys may also assist an NGO in attaining nonprofit or tax-exempt status. NGOs also have opportunities for direct service work; the extent to which an NGO is advocacy or client focused varies with each organization.

IGOs are entities involving two or more nations created by a treaty. These nations have agreed to work together in good faith on common-interest issues. Unlike NGOs who are independent of governments and rely on private sources of funding, IGOs have the financial and political support of their members. IGOs offer a wide variety of international legal work, but are said to be less “hands-on” than NGOs or other nonprofit groups. Lawyers do work representing the IGO in an international court, serving as a policy advisor, conducting legal research, and legally assisting in dispute resolution. An IGO dealing with international migration issues, in addition to providing direct assistance to migrants or refugees, may work with cooperating governments in reforming migration policies to serve the best interest of both member nations and migrants and refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a leading IGO working to preserve and defend the rights and well-being of refugees. Aiding people in over 100 countries, the UNHCR offers many opportunities to defend and serve refugees. Lawyers interested in international human migration and refugee work should not overlook opportunities for international work available in the thousands of IGOs, NGOs and INGOs worldwide.

What traits make you well-suited for this?

Finding a legal career serving immigrants and refugees can pose a challenge. Due to a lack of funding getting a job at most public service organizations is highly competitive. For most service organizations, it is more important to demonstrate a genuine interest for the work than it is to have flawless grades. However, it is important to have a strong academic record and be involved in activities that are related to immigration issues. It is also highly advantageous to work for an organization that handles legal immigration concerns while a student in law school; connections made and experience gained during a summer internship can facilitate landing a job after graduation.

Language Skills

Language skills, while a great help, are not essential to a successful legal career in immigration affairs. Organizations usually employ translators that assist attorneys in interviewing and communicating with their clients. However, because jobs are so competitive, being fluent in a language spoken by clients could give you a significant advantage in both the hiring process and the work itself. Having a strong knowledge of a second language is most important for those who wish to do direct service work or community outreach; those focused on policy change and national litigation will spend less time interacting with clients and thus have less of a need to speak their language.

Because of the large number of people immigrating to the U.S. from Latin America, Central America, and Mexico, Spanish is a predominant language. The most useful language spoken corresponds to the immigrant nationality with the most representation, which varies with shifting immigration trends and between different locations in the U.S. It is important to know which region you wish to work in before deciding which language to learn; if you already have knowledge of a second or third language, you may want to choose to work in an area of the country where that language is prevalent.

What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Immigration and Refugee Law?

Students can prepare themselves for careers in immigration by choosing electives whose subject matter involves immigration and refugee, or topics related to work with refugees. Having these courses on your record can demonstrate interest in and commitment to the field, which is critical to landing a career. Such courses may also provide knowledge that is useful on the job. Courses listed under “Related Topics” may not focus directly on immigration but cover other areas that are related to working with immigrants and refugees, such as housing law and human rights work.

Clinical programs offer law students invaluable opportunities to gain practical experience while they are still earning their J.D. Taking part in clinical programs allows students to do actual legal work in the field; clinics allow students to gain first-hand experience while investigating and enriching their career interests.

Cases also may involve family reunification and avoidance of forced removal in immigration proceedings. Students engage in extensive client interviews, perform investigations and gather evidence, compile and analyze human rights and country-condition information, and prepare legal briefs, factual affidavits, expert witness affidavits and testimony. Many students work intensively on one or two cases. Students may have experiences involving administrative hearings, federal court and administrative appellate brief writing, and regulatory reform.


The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:

Category: Explore Your Career Options

Tags: Immigration, Practice Areas