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When veteran immigration attorney Marc Van Der Hout represented Pakistani native Nasir Ali Mubarak in a deportation hearing in June, he realized the stakes had changed. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Mubarak might have had a better chance of remaining in the United States. His student visa had expired in 1992, but he had applied for permanent residency after marrying a U.S. citizen in 1999. He owned a business and had lived in Northern California for more than 10 years. But Van Der Hout knew that even if an immigration official granted Mubarak more time in the country, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would have the final say. The San Francisco attorney told his client the INS would likely use the automatic stay provision — which allows the agency to veto any decision by an immigration official in such cases. Since Sept. 11, Van Der Hout said the INS used the stay provision much more regularly. Instead of staying and facing a prolonged legal battle, Mubarak chose to move back to the Middle East. The World Trade Center disaster altered the playing field for many lawyers, but perhaps most markedly for immigration specialists like Van der Hout. As laws continue to change in the post-Sept. 11 climate, San Francisco Bay Area immigration lawyers say they face the complicated task of adjusting to new laws and much slower visa processing by the INS. Attorneys handling deportation cases say the INS is cracking down on technical violations — like expired student visas — it had ignored before the Sept. 11 attacks. In addition, immigration lawyers who represent businesses seeking to lure professionals from overseas are frustrated by much slower processing times for their clients’ visas. “The INS has even prosecuted people in the Bay Area for failing to file a change of address,” said Van Der Hout, a partner at Van Der Hout & Brigagliano. Angela Bean, a San Francisco solo practitioner, said her immigration practice has changed dramatically: “People were waiting for motions to reopen [their cases] or the INS just hadn’t bothered to look for them for years,” she said. “Ten years later they have spouses and children, businesses and homes. All of a sudden there’s a knock on their door and they were deported.” The changes have not only affected immigration attorneys working on deportation cases. Lawyers representing businesses searching for talent overseas are bogged down by the INS’ increasingly slow processing times. “Companies are still in need of talented people, and when they can’t find it locally they look abroad,” said Jonathan Wong of Donahue, Gallagher, Woods & Wood in Oakland, Calif. “I am telling my clients to expect stricter scrutiny and to expect more questions.” The main cause of visa-processing delays is the INS and State Department’s new inter-agency database. A product of the post-Sept. 11 Patriot Act, which enacted tougher national security regulations, the new database is a centralized source of information that can be shared between agencies. But the database has yet to be perfected, and examiners at both agencies are being slowed by constant changes to both the database and the law, said Carl Falstrom, a solo immigration lawyer and former head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. San Francisco INS spokeswoman Sharon Rummery acknowledges there has been some slowdown in processing since Sept. 11, 2001, but said the agency is getting back up to speed. Wong, who represents businesses in their search for talent overseas, said the INS should not be held fully responsible. “To be fair, [the INS] have not been given additional staff to process the requests,” Wong said. “It’s popular to blame the service, and they share blame, but it’s unfair to blame them totally without giving them time to adjust.” As both lawyers and the INS try to adjust quickly to new immigration laws and procedures, the INS’ examiners and adjudicators who process visa requests have been slowed by a post-Sept. 11 agency directive. The directive has been nicknamed the “zero tolerance” memo by immigration attorneys. The memo instructed examiners not to exercise discretion when processing visa requests and to instead do everything by the book. The stricter guidelines have resulted in longer waiting periods for people trying to come to the United States for work or travel. “INS examiners feel personal responsibility to catch terrorists,” said Falstrom. “They don’t want to be the next one to have processed the paperwork for a dead terrorist.”

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