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In 1996 the authors of the bestseller “The Millionaire Next Door” recommended business immigration law to those readers seeking a life of riches. At the time it seemed like good advice. With more foreign employees flooding the U.S. workforce, American companies needed more help in ushering them through the immigration pipeline. Since the ’80s, the practice had been outgrowing its roots in boutique firms as large firms rushed in to handle corporate clients’ work. Seven years later, however, the business immigration practice is anything but a get-rich-quick scheme. Even before 9/11, many business immigration lawyers were struggling. With the downturn in the economy came smaller caseloads, as American companies stopped recruiting droves of tech-savvy foreigners. Then came the national security crackdown, which shook up the immigration landscape even more. Nowadays, more time and more sweat goes into each case. For a practice that operates largely on a flat fee basis, hours spent don’t always translate into money earned. And as though the practice weren’t troubled enough, there remains the question of how things will change now that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has officially rolled its functions into the Department of Homeland Security. Chief among many immigration lawyers’ frustrations are the delays in visa processing, a trend the INS sees as a necessary by-product of heightened security. A few years ago, temporary work visas were processed in less than a month. Now, unless a company shells out an extra $1,000 for expedited “premium processing,” visas can take up to six or seven times that long. Green card processing, for which expedited service is unavailable, ceased entirely for several months and then resumed at a crawling pace. “You’ve got to give yourself at least 18 months,” says Carl Hampe, an immigration partner at Baker & McKenzie’s Washington, D.C., office who has noticed a slowdown since the INS began running applicants through name-matching databases. Perhaps more daunting, adjudicators now frequently request multiple rounds of supporting documents for even the simplest visa applications. “You’ll get a six- or seven-page letter in fine print asking for all sorts of evidence that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the case,” says Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. And when they finally do issue an opinion, visa adjudicators seem to be applying far stricter standards, a phenomenon that many lawyers blame on a case of the nerves. “Nobody will ever yell at you if you deny somebody’s application,” says Jo Anne Adlerstein, the head of the immigration group at Proskauer Rose. Adlerstein says she is frustrated and angered by the unreasonable demands of inexperienced adjudicators. “All of a sudden,” she says, recalling the case of a high-level credit analyst at an international bank, “they’re asking why someone who’s making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and has highly specialized job skills is unique.” For some business immigration lawyers, helping employees leave the country is just as challenging as getting them in. Since 9/11, many foreign executives risk being stuck abroad for months if they choose to leave the country. Rodney Malpert, senior counsel at Texas Instruments Inc. in Dallas, advises many male TI employees from predominantly Muslim countries to avoid international business trips unless absolutely necessary. “I probably don’t sleep as well at night, wondering if someone’s going to make a mistake,” says Malpert. Aside from handling the difficulties of particular cases, business immigration lawyers now face the Herculean task of keeping pace with immigration rules and guidelines that seem to change daily. “You study something, and you know something, and then you turn on the Internet and find that everything’s changed,” says Adlerstein, who has started asking Proskauer senior associates in the firm’s immigration group to take daily shifts checking government Web sites for new rules. Other firms are adjusting in other ways, from staffing cases with more paralegals to marketing their immigration practices to existing corporate clients. Some boutique firms have been increasing flat fees, while many large firms in the practice are moving away from flat fee arrangements altogether, charging clients hourly rates for some types of immigration work. Several firms have created homeland security practice groups, in part to deal with the new complexity of business immigration law. While no one seems willing to admit — yet — that the practice should be abandoned, one major labor and employment firm, Littler Mendelson, recently spun off its small immigration practice into Littler Mendelson, Bacon & Dear, launched by Littler and Phoenix immigration boutique Bacon & Dear. Some view Littler’s move as a retreat from the practice; Littler explains its decision by citing the unique management challenges of maintaining an immigration practice, such as flat fee arrangements and a greater reliance on paralegals. Other firms, such as Reed Smith, an international firm that just expanded its immigration practice, claim that business is still strong. For now, though, newcomers looking for easy money may want to pick up some other skills suggested in “The Millionaire Next Door,” like tattoo removal or cosmetic dentistry. Related chart: Migrating the INS

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