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Let’s Dance

Leslie DanceThis blog post is adapted from the speech I gave when I was installed as AILA’s President for the 2014-15 term. I was thrilled to be able to reflect at the Annual Conference hosted by my home chapter, the New England Chapter of AILA.

New England is where I found immigration and, if I hadn’t found immigration I don’t think that I would be practicing law. I started my legal career in New York as a commercial litigator, but I found my calling after moving to Vermont. I found it in immigration law through dance in Vermont – African dance in Vermont.

While I have always loved to dance, I’m not the most adept at it, but that never stopped me from enjoying all forms of dance in all its facets. So it was that in 1998 I began attending African dance classes in Burlington. Several members of the National Ballet of Guinea as well as Senegal and the Ivory Coast lived and worked in Burlington and after class they would ask me questions about their immigration status (P-3s). However, I knew nothing about immigration whatsoever and referred them to a terrific immigration attorney instead.

I am a first generation American (my mother was born in and escaped from Hungary) and between my history and my involvement with foreign dancers I made a life altering decision by deciding to concentrate only on immigration.  I distinctly remember my first task. I needed to determine whether a client had been admitted to the U.S. Admitted? They were here weren’t they?  – Of course they were admitted.  It took 16 hours of research before I realized that I had entered a world where nothing was as it seemed: the world of immigration law.

Five years ago I started on my way to the AILA presidency, working my way up from Secretary through all the roles and responsibilities until this year. Looking back at those years, I reviewed the goals I had set out each year for myself and the organization. I took a look at what had been resolved and accomplished, what issues recurred over and over again, what issues still remain, and which of my goals have not yet been reached.

While many of my priorities changed from year to year one issue remained constant – ironically it was the lack of consistency and predictability in adjudications, determinations, rulings, and admissions – and the need to fix this through, among other things, interagency engagement. Our world requires that we typically deal with not just one agency, but at least two, and generally three.

When I meet with new clients, I along with other immigration attorneys, often find myself saying something akin to the following during our initial consultation:  “Before we proceed it is imperative that you understand that, even if your petition is approved by the USCIS, you are not home free. You also need approval from the Department of State and then, even if you pass that hurdle, you still must obtain permission from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to actually enter the U.S.”

This situation is unfortunately a constant in all areas of our practice whether it is business, family, or removal. Think of H-1B visas denied after petition approval for critical employees, approved fiancées who never get here, or as we call it in our office, “love’s labors lost,” or waiver applicants with provisional grants denied on other grounds not previously believed to make one inadmissible. The interagency disconnect is not limited to the petition, visa, and subsequent admission situation. It is also at the heart of so many of the procedural issues that we face.

Thus, it makes sense that my primary long-term goal relates to AILA’s liaison work. One of the many benefits of living in Vermont is that I learned to practice immigration in a place where I truly had access to government officials and was able to work with them to address some of the issues that came up as a result of interagency miscommunication.

Having learned to practice where openness and accessibility continue to be the standard has guided my vision. Those of you who have sat in meetings with me likely have heard two recurrent themes. The first is that my local CBP, USCIS, and ICE offices are the exemplar. I have never felt that I could not approach them and they have always been willing to talk and listen. The second is a request I make, at each and every meeting: whether the agency would be open to a multi-agency dialogue at a later date.

I believe that many of our adjudication and process problems stem from the fact that two or more agencies have conflicting interpretations of the law or regulations and that they do not actually know the effect that their actions have on the applicant when that applicant must next deal with another agency. They may not know what switching to an automated form might mean for another agency which still requires a hardcopy. I believe that we could solve so many issues if we were just permitted to sit down together and explain the problems that crop up.

Interagency engagement is not the only way to attain more consistency and predictability in what we do. Another aspect is the need to locate, isolate, and change the negative policy that seems to be driving so many adjudications, decisions, and admissions. In our area of practice, I think more than in any other, discretion abounds. But it seems that more often than not the trend is toward denial rather than acceptance.

Earlier I told you that I found immigration through African Dance. However, not only did African Dance lead me to immigration, it taught me immigration. In representing my dance community I encountered early on in my career almost every immigration situation there is. The good news is that I was able to help them, at least until fairly recently.

Almost three years ago, one of my clients returned home to Guinea to visit his family and bring back new and current dance and drum rhythms. He had an approved P-3 and had never been in trouble with the law or violated his status. However despite that, his visa was denied for immigrant intent. He had returned to Guinea because of his strong family ties, yet he was denied. That sort of denial would not have happened just a few years ago.

Through all the ups and downs of immigration law practice, one thing has been constant – AILA. AILA is a community where people who perform the same work can obtain from it the tools they need to practice their profession. I truly believe that with just the InfoNet and AILAlink immigration attorneys have all the tools they need to practice immigration and, practice it well. But by also offering accessibility to mentors, practice management help, ethics guidance, media training, advocacy, and liaison assistance, immigration attorneys get all that they need to become well rounded and truly excellent in their field.

More than that though, I believe AILA goes far beyond just a professional community. It is also a fellowship. I practiced law for 11 years before joining AILA. I never experienced elsewhere the support, camaraderie and professional generosity with my peers that I found here. I ask that all of you continue to engage, to care deeply about AILA and its governance, and to share your thoughts and insights.

I am looking forward to this year. To liaising with the government and you. To working together to make positive changes in immigration, to make things better for our clients, to making AILA the best it can be.

Almost every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday I wake up with a feeling that something is special. They are dance days. I hope that every day this coming year is a dance day. If that happens I know that we can accomplish our goals and make a difference, as, in the words of the Hopi who steadfastly believed that through dance they would influence the Gods and accomplish their goals,  – To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak. So, let’s dance!

Written by Leslie A. Holman, AILA President

To watch Leslie’s full speech, including a performance by her friends from the African dance and drumming community Jeh Kulu, watch here: Video: Leslie Holman Installation Speech

Numbers Add Up

Numbers can be, well, mindnumbing.  But they are something that all of us use every single day.  Price of gas? A number.  Mortgage or rent payment due?  A number.  Groceries, utilities, daycare, you name it and it can be numbered.

I want to share some numbers with you—powerful numbers on immigration reform that have been stacking up over the last few months.

Today, Gallup released a poll, that showed 72% of Americans said immigration was a “good thing” for the country and a quarter who said it was bad.  That is a huge step forward as we try and convince the House that tackling real immigration reform is necessary.

People across the country are recognizing that our current system is broken, it’s not fair to families, businesses, and offers no chance of a life free from fear for those undocumented.  This isn’t red state versus blue state we’re talking about here. Polls done in 29 states, ranging from Texas to Maine and Arkansas to Illinois had over 87% off respondents (Democrats, Republicans and Independents) saying that “it was very or somewhat important that the U.S. fix it’s immigration system this year.”  It’s been a good long while since I saw over 87% of Americans agree on anything.

And despite a lot of the rhetoric out there, a majority of us (72%) are in favor of a tough but fair path to citizenship for those here without documents, including 59% of Republicans surveyed, 68% of Independents and 90% of Democrats.

Let’s not forget some of the most important numbers of all: those from the recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) updated scoring of the Senate bill as passed.  My favorite number from that was the more than $800 billion over twenty years that would be removed from the federal deficit if we actually implement S. 744’s set of comprehensive reform provisions.

Now these are mostly national numbers, and those can be compelling but most of our Congressional leaders are going to be focused in on their constituencies and the impact of immigration on their district or state, because that’s in their interest as they gear up for the 2014 elections.  There are plenty more numbers for that each of us can use, available at AIC’s state-by-state interactive page.  And yesterday, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released estimates of what the undocumented pay in state and local taxes, including what additional revenues may come in after immigration reform.

So pick a number, any number, and get out there.  Work with other stakeholders, coalition partners, and your community.  Use the numbers, add in your client stories, and our voices will be multiplied.

The Day the Music Died

Music – It’s as American as apple pie.  Last week 39.3 million Americans tuned in to watch the Grammys. I was not one of them. It hurt too much.  That morning I had to tell a Master drummer and dancer who has spent the last five years sharing with our country the unique and beautiful music and dance of Guinea West Africa that he was no longer welcome here. The discordant and sad timber of his voice when I delivered the news, were not welcome notes.

Senny is the lead dundun player for Jeh Kulu, an African dance company based in Burlington, Vermont. For almost two decades Jeh Kulu has brought to the U.S. the music and dance of West Africa. As a member of Jeh Kulu, Senny held regular dance classes for adults and children, conducted regular workshops and residencies for local elementary schools and high school schools, taught at universities around the country, and performed regularly for audiences of every type.

On the books at least, our laws recognize the importance of bringing to our shores the sounds and culturally unique talents of others beyond our shores. Without their influence, classically American forms of music such as jazz dance and Zydco would not exist. The P-3 visa category was created for just this purpose, to insure that we continue to evolve and grow through the infusion of the talents of those that are different. Yet sadly, despite the fact that our laws recognize the importance of this mission, those administering them do not.

Senny went home in January to visit his parents and children and to learn new moves and music so that he could bring them back to the American public to continue sharing with it the beauty of his culture.  His application to extend his status in the U.S. was approved by the USCIS. It recognized the important role that he has and continues to play in the U.S. However, when he applied for his visa so that he could return he was told that he had been here too long and thus, they didn’t think he would return to Guinea. Ironically, this finding was made despite the fact that Senny had returned to Guinea to engage in activities that in and of themselves show that his ties to his home country remain as strong as ever.

Senny never violated his status while in the U.S.  He did only what he was authorized to do, that is bring to the U.S. the uniqueness of his culture by performing and teaching regularly and sharing with us something that we would not have access to without him. Senny’s costumes and instruments remain in the U.S., however, they have been silenced. Not me. Today I can’t help but sing the following for Senny and the hundreds of artists and entertainers who are refused entry to our country:

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to
Make me smile
And I knew if he had the chance
That he would teach our people dance
And they would be happy all the while
But February made me shiver
With the decision DOS delivered
Bad news at the Consulate
Made sure he’d dance not one more step
I do remember that I cried
When he told me his visa’d been denied
This damned thing touched me deep inside
(it was) the day his music died


It’s All About Enforcement

Enforcement. It is the current catch-word of the presidential race. I hear it every day. Governor Perry said it in last night’s debate. “I believe in enforcement. We must enforce the laws as they are on the books.” I agree with him. Bet you never thought you’d hear me say that. But yes, I agree. The laws must be enforced. All of them. Not just those that exclude. Those that include must be enforced as well.

Enforcing the law means approving applications submitted by qualified applicants. It means promoting investment in the U.S. and encouraging entrepreneurs, medical professionals, artists and entertainers, and students to share their talents with us.

Our laws say that applications are to be decided favorably when they meet the legal criteria of a preponderance of evidence. That is, that an applicant has shown that it is more likely than not that he or she qualifies for the status they are seeking.

I spent the last two weekends responding to an absurd request for additional evidence in connection with an application for L-1 Intracompany Transferee status. It is a category created to encourage and assist companies that exist both in the U.S. and abroad to work freely and smoothly with each other. Our economy needs it. The global economy needs it. Our laws sanction and provide for it. Sadly, those are the laws that are not being enforced.

Friday I had to tell a company with 31 subsidiaries on five continents who opened its fourth U.S. major manufacturing facility that the employee it wants to transfer to the U.S. to assist with the development of the new facility, and who has been employed by a subsidiary outside of the U.S. since 1962, doesn’t, in the eyes of our government, possess specialized knowledge about the company.

The company doesn’t understand why the press releases, newspaper articles, company letters, and performance evaluations we submitted did not show that it was more likely than not that the employee had specialized knowledge about the company. Neither do I.

They don’t understand how the government’s request that we provide and account for every single percent of the employee’s time spent in each of his duties over the past 40 years is what is necessary to meet the preponderance of the evidence standard. Me either.

They also don’t understand how the company’s audited public annual report, which shows the existence and ownership of the company’s affiliates as well as their financial status doesn’t prove that there is relationship between the companies. Even when there is an additional certification to state that nothing has changed since the filing of the annual report. It’s inconceivable.

Yes, I favor enforcement. Enforcement of the laws that permit people to come here when they are qualified, that encourage the growth of business, that keep families together, that make us the nation who offered to take the tired, sick and hungry. When we enforce the laws that include the need to enforce those that exclude will lessen. Think about it. Give it a shot. Clearly concentrating on enforcing only those that exclude has not solved anything.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Don’t worry, be happy. The elevator played it each and every time we reached the lobby floor of the AILA National Fall conference hotel. I consider it the theme song for this year’s conference. How apropos. Despite the fact that our conversations and panels were dominated by the fact that adjudications by USCIS, DOS and CBP have never been tougher, we banded together and taxed our brains to devise solutions to make things better. Truth be told, yes I am worried, but our unity, creative ideas, and resolve made me happy.

Our location played a part in this. In addition to the educational programs offered, every AILA conference that I have attended has something that stands out as particularly memorable.

For example, I vividly remember wading through flash floods in the middle of the day in New Orleans, whales interrupting a BOG meeting in Hawaii, elevators that never came in San Francisco, and sheer panic in the eyes of 2,500 immigration attorneys in Orlando when the visa numbers suddenly went current.

This year’s memory will definitely be the conference’s location – The Curtis Hotel. It is a themed retro hotel where the elevators speak, the bathroom stalls bear double entendres that can’t help but make you blush or laugh and, where every floor is themed.

I got off the elevator on my floor the first day after flying for hours and was a bit stunned to hear it say out loud “one hit wonders.” At first I thought I was being insulted. However, as I walked to my room I passed a mirror that said “I’m too sexy for my shirt” and along the corridor there were posters of the songs Disco Duck and Kung Foo Fighting.

There were also plexiglass boxes holding real Billy Beer with actual pull tabs and a herd of Pet Rocks. Too bad they didn’t have Klick Klacks. Anyone remember those? Solid acrylic hard balls held together by a string that you waved around to smash each other. Great fun till children bonked themselves in the head full speed and got seriously injured. If only I had been a plaintiff’s products liability attorney at the time.

Other floors in the hotel – chick flicks, horror movies, famous couples, and classic tv comedy just to name a few. Truth be told, I rode the elevators just to discover the secret of each floor. Ok, Eloise-like was I and it was more fun than the Plaza.

Even the gift area (you always have to check out the hotel shop) did not have the usual array of fake watches, scarves, and t-shirts. Instead, it had retro toys and candy. I had to buy the paper button dots. Sadly, they did not have those little waxy bottles with a thimble full of colored water. I used to love those.

Our panels and meetings were held in rooms entitled “Peek-a-Boo” and “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Absolutely fitting venues for discussing respectively FDNS site visits and L-1B kitchen sink RFEs.

When you got off the elevator on the conference room floor you heard children playing the swimming pool game Marco Polo. I couldn’t help but think: Lucky for him that he ended up in Asia since if he had landed here he clearly would not have been able to prove his intent to return home, that he wasn’t intending to “work” or that the new fangled pasta-ish thing he discovered and wanted to import would produce enough revenue within one year to be substantial.

While it all sounds terribly kitsch and over the top, it worked because the hotel doesn’t take itself seriously. Frankly, I think it fostered our productiveness since it offset the seriousness of our discussions and purpose. Laughter is truly the best medicine.

It was a great conference. In the face of adversity we were productive, received the best continuing education possible and even managed to giggle.

Thank you to our Colorado Chapter for choosing wisely, AILA National for making it so, and everyone who attended and generously shared their knowledge and sense of humor.

Why the Major Leagues Should Boycott AZ

They’ll take you out of the ball game
They’ll pick you out of the crowd.
They’ll hand you a warrant, your bags they will pack
They’ll make sure you never get back
‘Cause they root, root root
For their “home” team.
If you’re not white it’s a shame.
Don’t say uno, dos, or tres strikes
you’re out
At an AZ ball game.

Blog by Leslie Holman, AILA Secretary, 5/7/10