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Paul Virtue was barely a year out of law school when he went to work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. By the time he left to join D.C.’s Hogan & Hartson 16 years later, he had risen to the post of general counsel, supervising more than 600 attorneys. Along the way he helped shape and implement the era’s most significant immigration law and policy, including the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the immigration provisions of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. In private practice since 1999, Virtue, 51, has represented a range of businesses and other entities, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Cadbury Schweppes, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. “He’s really an extraordinary asset to any in-house counsel,” says Hisham Khalid, associate general counsel of American University, which turns to Virtue for help with employment-based immigration issues such as H-1B visas. “He’s got both practical experience and a depth and breadth of knowledge of immigration law across the board.” The bread and butter of Virtue’s practice is visa work on behalf of multinational clients, “moving people from one position to another and from one country to another,” he says. But he’s also had his share of high-profile cases. In one recent dramatic display, Virtue secured last-minute citizenship for ice dancer Tanith Belbin so she could compete for the United States in the 2006 Olympic Games. A Canadian, Belbin had been living and training in the United States, and her partner, Ben Agosto, was an American citizen. Virtue worked to attach to an appropriations bill a rider stipulating that an alien with an EB1-EA green card (issued based on “extraordinary ability” in the arts, sciences, business, or athletics) was eligible for naturalization in order to compete for the United States in an international event. The tricky part was that the bill was signed into law on Friday, Dec. 30, 2005, and the provision expired on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006. Virtue arranged for the immigration office in Detroit to hold a special naturalization ceremony for Belbin on Saturday. Seven weeks later, Belbin and Agosto placed second at the Olympics. “We were thrilled to be a part of the team bringing back the silver medal for the United States,” says Virtue. In another notable case, he was part of the team representing Wal-Mart in an investigation about illegal workers hired by a cleaning contractor. In 2003 immigration authorities raided Wal-Mart stores across the country, arresting more than 300 janitorial workers. In 2005 Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle the case — the largest employer sanction to date for immigration violations. Christine Zebrowski, associate general counsel of the National Geographic Society, describes Virtue as “very responsive, very efficient, and very knowledgeable.” National Geographic taps Virtue for assistance with visas when sending correspondents to remote regions of the world and bringing visitors here. A West Virginia native, Virtue earned his law degree in 1982 from West Virginia University College of Law. He went to work for a Rockville, Md., firm, the three-lawyer Law Offices of William Skinner, before joining the general counsel’s office of the INS in 1983. “I thought I’d stay four or five years,” Virtue remembers. But in 1988 he landed the job of deputy general counsel, the No. 2 legal position in the agency. He became general counsel in 1998, serving until May 1999. (The INS was split into two separate agencies in early 2003.) One of the biggest tasks during his tenure at the INS was implementing the 1996 reform act, which involved “training over 20,000 people and publishing hundreds of regulations and notices in the Federal Register,” he says. He also helped draft the immigration provisions of NAFTA and directed the implementation of the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. Whether in government or private practice, Virtue finds immigration an inherently personal area of law. “Every single case involves an individual and his or her ability to live and work in the United States or be reunited with their family or be protected from persecution,” explains Virtue. “It’s very nerve-wracking to have people’s lives in your hands, but it’s very rewarding when you are able to help someone.”

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