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Immigration Law Specialists Are In Short Supply In North Carolina

Lisa Worf / WFAE
Charlotte's Immigration Court is home to many immigration cases heard in the area -- and the city has the highest number of certified immigration specialists in the state.

Immigration law is complex, and there is a short supply of lawyers in North Carolina who are specifically certified in it. The certification is one way to assure immigrants that their lawyer understands the system. Immigrants seeking help have a wide range of choices, and in some cases, they turn to people who don’t even work in the legal field.

Cynthia Aziz says she has always been passionate about immigration. After graduating college in Massachusetts, she worked with nonprofits in the state to better understand the hurdles immigrants have to go through.

She went on to law school. And after taking the bar exam in Massachusetts, and again in North Carolina, she says she wanted to prove her commitment to practicing immigration law. So in 1997, she joined the first group of immigration lawyers to get specialized by the North Carolina Bar Association.

“I've already taken two state bars, then I had to take a third one for specialization. That means I'm either crazy or dedicated. I hope it’s the latter,” Aziz said.

Aziz is one of 43 attorneys in the state certified as legal specialists in immigration law by the Board of Legal Specialization of the North Carolina Bar Association. Charlotte has the highest number of specialists in the state with 16 attorneys.

In order to receive this title, attorneys must fulfill a list of requirements. Among these, are being involved in immigration law for at least five years, completing a peer review process and passing a six-hour exam.

Specialization Is Not Required

Specialization is not a requirement to practice immigration law in the state. But Brian Oten, the executive director of the specialization program for the North Carolina Bar Association says the certification acts as a tool when people are looking for an attorney.

“The general reality is that finding a lawyer can be tough. Deciding who you go with can be an overwhelming thing,” Oten said. “So the specialization program was created to really achieve that first goal of identifying certain individuals who don’t just say they practice in a particular area, but can say that they have objectively demonstrated their proficiency in the area.”

Aziz says this was one of the reasons she chose to become certified and has continued to renew her certification every five years.

“The measure of how I'm going to do for you as a lawyer is what is my work ethic, how much time and commitment I want to give to this. And if they see that my practice is solely immigration, they'll see that I'm dedicated to this,” Aziz said.

Aziz says immigration law is constantly changing. She explains that between October of 2019 and March of 2021 there were at least seven changes in the requirements for demonstrating financial self-sufficiency in permanent residency applications.

According to Aziz, immigration law is so complex that winning a case can hinge on an attorney's qualifications.

Attorney Jennifer Cory, who is also certified as a specialist, says she’s had cases of individuals who have previously been advised by “notarios,” who are not licensed attorneys. She says this can lead to serious problems.

Attorney Jennifer Cory agrees. She’s also a certified specialist, and says she’s had cases of clients who were advised by notarios. These notaries advertise themselves as legal advisors.

“There are a number of people out there that are not licensed attorneys at all, notarios that provide advice that is incorrect. And unfortunately, the people that take that advice can find themselves in a great deal of trouble and distrust,” Cory said.

Cory’s firm is working with a woman who was advised by a notario. She unknowingly signed papers to apply for asylum and was told to lie in the interview. Now, Cory says, she is facing deportation.

Cory says she chose to become specialized in 2013 to show her dedication and expertise in immigration law. She was re-certified in 2019 and she says that can give clients the confidence that she has continued her education in immigration law and is up to date with new developments.

“It just made sense to go forth and be recognized as somebody who really is specialized in this area of law as opposed to someone that may just kind of practice on the fringes and practice in a number of different areas of law,” Cory said.

A Growing Specialty Area

While the immigration specialization has been around for more than 20 years, the number of specialized lawyers is still fairly low.

It’s unclear why. Brian Oten who heads the specialization program says not wanting to sit for a lengthy exam could be one reason.

According to Oten, there are around 25,000 active lawyers who practice in the state. Of those, 1,100 are certified in one of the 13 available specialization areas. And less than 4% of those are specialized in immigration.

However, the number of specialized immigration lawyers is growing, Oten says. In 2020, 14 attorneys applied for the immigration specialization and five received the certification.

“Something like 15% of the applicants were actually in immigration,” said Oten. “That tells me that there are more people that are interested in applying. And that's why I think that perhaps while we don't have a very large number or seemingly large number, I think it's likely growing because there is more interest in a need for services in immigration law.”

Oten says not only are there more immigration lawyers applying for the program, but there are also more public interest attorneys applying. These are lawyers who work in government or nonprofit organizations.

“They really have nothing to gain from their certification in terms of personal benefit. They don't advertise themselves,” Oten said. “They want their clients, who are really those that might need legal services the most, that they want to instill in them the confidence in the legal services that they're receiving. And I think that's just a great thing.”

Anna Cushman is one of those lawyers. She’s an immigration attorney for Legal Aid NC, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to low-income people, and received her certification in 2020.

“I always saw it as something that I too wanted to achieve and that it would be an indicator of expertise. And I had really wanted to dedicate my career to really becoming an expert in the area,” Cushman said.

A recent reportfrom the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission found that immigration law was the fifth most mentioned area of unmet legal needs for low-income North Carolinians.

Cushman says there is a gap in access to justice, especially for immigration law. She says even though certification is not necessary to be a good attorney, growing the specialization program can be one way of narrowing that gap.

Maria Ramirez Uribe works with WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte, through Report for America to cover immigration and deportation issues facing the Latino community.

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org