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Immigration lawyers across the country got a first taste of what’s sure to be a surge of interest from potential clients Wednesday following President Bush’s call to ease restrictions on undocumented foreign workers. Within hours of Bush’s White House speech on immigration reform, San Francisco solo Carl Falstrom was already receiving e-mails and phone calls from people seeking his services. But the inquiries did not translate into new business. “I end up having to explain to people that it’s just a proposal,” said Falstrom. In between turning away disappointed callers, attorneys like Falstrom were busy analyzing the few details available on Bush’s call for a temporary worker program and trying to gauge its effect on the relatively small immigration bar. The proposal would provide temporary legal status to an estimated 8 million undocumented workers in the United States. “This new program would allow workers who currently hold jobs to come out of hiding and participate legally in America’s economy while not encouraging further illegal behavior,” read a fact sheet released by the White House. The statement noted that workers would pay a one-time fee to register in the program and would have to return home after their period of work expires. But immigration lawyers noted that the proposal is merely a broad outline, lacking key details. “Platitudes are great, but we’ll have to see what the legislation actually looks like,” said Marc Van Der Hout, of San Francisco immigration boutique Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale. Among the most important unanswered questions is what type of access the program would offer workers to achieve permanent residence, whether workers in the program could travel out of the country, and whether the government would raise the number of green cards it issues each year. And, of course, the program needs to become law. Until the proposal actually turns into legislation, let alone gets passed by Congress, immigration attorneys say it’s too early to determine its significance. “Sometimes these bills have been the ‘immigration lawyers full employment’ bills because they do create a lot of work for immigration lawyers,” said Van Der Hout, citing landmark immigration laws in 1986 and 1996. Immigration boutiques like San Francisco’s Pearl Law Group and the Phoenix joint venture Littler Mendelson, Bacon & Dear, whose clients include Sun Microsystems Inc., Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc., don’t expect much business would be generated if the proposal becomes law. Those firms mostly assist companies that employ legal foreigners working with H-1B visas, lawyers say. Rather, say attorneys, the demand will come from low-income, unskilled workers interested in gaining legal status. “This isn’t the sort of thing that a large law firm jumps on,” said Roxana Bacon, of Littler Mendelson, Bacon & Dear. “It’s not an economically viable client population.” That population, estimated at 8 million, still could overwhelm the immigration bar. The American Lawyer Immigration Association counts only about 8,000 lawyers. Even if the proposal never becomes law, immigration attorneys predict they’ll have plenty of work representing victims of fraud. Unscrupulous notaries in Mexico have a long history of selling immigrants false papers promising legal residency in the United States. For example, on Wednesday the Santa Clara district attorney’s office brought charges against a pair it accused of bilking busboys and dishwashers. According to prosecutors, defendants Noel Acosta Ramayrat and Mercedes Alcantara, who aren’t lawyers, charged illegal immigrants as much as $6,000 to assist them in applying for green cards they were unlikely to qualify for. Lawyers worry that word of Bush’s proposal will create opportunities for the unscrupulous. “The first thing is immigration lawyers need to step up to the plate and be very, very clear that right now there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do,” Bacon said.

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