How Immigration Attys Are Battling Burnout Under Trump

By Nicole Narea | July 29, 2019, 7:16 PM EDT

An unending flurry of policy changes since President Donald Trump took office has sent the immigration bar into a tailspin, and attorneys, reporting their highest stress levels in decades, are establishing new ways to cope.

All areas of immigration law from asylum to business visas have been in constant flux under the Trump administration, and the pace has taken its toll on overworked immigration attorneys. The federal government has focused sharp scrutiny on petitions for immigration benefits, and clients demand some level of certainty for the services they retain.

"The current environment is testing not just the stamina but also the competence of immigration attorneys," said Andrew Greenfield, a partner at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy LLP. "What was once straightforward is now very complex and far more intellectually demanding."

The chaotic early days of the Trump presidency have become the norm, according to Nandini Nair, a partner at Greenspoon Marder LLP, who said that her stress levels during her 20-year career have never been higher than they are under Trump.

"It doesn't make your day to day any easier but having your eyes opened about this administration takes away the surprise factor," she said.

Trump announced multiple high-profile immigration-related actions during his first few months, including a sweeping travel ban on nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries that was later amended due to court challenges and the "Buy American, Hire American" executive order aimed at protecting U.S. workers from immigration.

Now, as attorneys learn to anticipate the prospect of sudden changes in immigration law, the bigger challenge may be the unreliability of federal immigration agencies. These agencies have been reinterpreting long-standing laws without notice, issuing arbitrary denials, and severely delaying the processing of immigration petitions despite an overall decrease in filings under Trump, Nair said.

While attorneys have struggled to keep abreast of policy developments and their clients informed of how these changes may impact them, the American Immigration Lawyers Association has been offering articles and seminars that it says help improve workflow and lead to better business practices.

Reid Trautz, senior director of AILA's Practice and Professionalism Center, said the organization provides guidance on how to use software to automate business practices and move certain administrative tasks online. Online scheduling, payment processing and portals that allow clients to access information about their cases in their own time can free up more time, Trautz said.

"Keeping their clients informed and handling those expectations is a lot more time-consuming and stressful these days," he said.

AILA is not only focused on helping its members increase the efficiency of their practices to tackle heavier workloads, but also on promoting wellness. The organization has created a "self-care center" that includes information on burnout and secondary trauma — an issue for immigration court attorneys who represent asylum-seekers fleeing difficult situations — and it has even gone so far as to provide online audio meditations and yoga sessions at its conferences.

It also directs members to state bar associations' lawyer-assistance programs, which previously offered services to lawyers suffering from substance abuse but have since shifted their focus toward burnout and other work-life balance issues, Trautz said.

Nair concurs that it is important for immigration attorneys to care for their mental health. She encourages the attorneys in her firm to "actively and consciously take time to step away from work" — whether they do so by taking a vacation or even just a day off or by commiserating with colleagues — to avoid allowing stress to swallow them up.

But she admitted that she has a hard time following her own advice. She took a vacation last month, but still worked during that time.

"I am rarely away from my phone or emails," she said.

Nair's workdays are frequently dictated by sudden agency changes, such as in April 2018 when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services imposed unannounced new restrictions on student visa holders seeking practical training in STEM fields post-graduation.

Immigration attorneys are also under greater pressure to deliver on their clients' hopes and expectations, when in reality, adjudications under the Trump administration have become "so arbitrary," Nair said.

Agency data confirms Nair's experience. The U.S. Department of State reported that 10 million nonimmigrant visas were issued in 2016, but only 9 million were issued in 2018. Denials for H-1B skilled worker visas in particular jumped to a 10-year high in the first quarter of 2019, with 32% of first-time applicants facing rejections and existing H-1B holders having no guarantee of extensions, according to USCIS data.

Moreover, overall average case processing times surged 46% from fiscal years 2014 to 2018, USCIS data shows.

"All this just has created chaos and volatility in this practice area, which in turn creates an incredible amount of stress for all," Nair said.

Work-life balance is only one reason to look after one's mental health. Taking downtime also helps attorneys serve their clients better. The American Bar Association published a report in 2017 that equates attorney wellbeing with an ethical obligation to clients.

Trautz, an immigration lawyer for 30 years, said that mental health was a taboo subject for a long time, but that is changing now.

"If you're not taking care of yourself, you may not be providing the full level of attention and care to your clients' cases," he said. "We believe in helping the lawyer as a whole person to make sure they are mentally capable of handling this kind of stress and showing them where they can get assistance."

--Editing by Breda Lund and Kelly Duncan.

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