Studying Online to Prepare for a Career in Immigration Law
Travel ban. Border wall. Family separation. Migrant caravans. Access any news media in recent months and years, and it’s almost impossible not to come across a story about immigration law and policy. It is no surprise, then, that the number of law students planning to practice immigration law is on the rise. Perhaps more surprising is that immigration law may be an ideal field, particularly for those going to law school online.
To understand why, let’s begin with some background.
Immigration Courts Are Technically Part of the Executive Branch
Immigration cases—including but not limited to deportation and asylum cases—are adjudicated by 58 Immigration Courts nationwide, and appeals from these courts are heard by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). These immigration courts are part of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which is itself part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
So even though immigration courts perform a judicial function, they are technically part of the executive branch of the federal government, not the judicial branch.
Why Is This Important?
Because the EOIR has its own rules about who may appear on behalf of participants in immigration court proceedings, independent of who may appear in state courts or even other federal courts.
As reflected in the Code of Federal Regulations (see 8 C.F.R. 1292.1), five categories of representatives are permitted to appear in immigration courts on behalf of individuals entitled to representation. Two of these categories are of particular importance for those who are considering going to law school online.
An attorney licensed to practice in any state, as well as the District of Columbia or a U.S. possession, territory, or commonwealth, may represent clients in immigration court
This means that a law student anywhere in the country could go to law school online, become licensed in California (currently the only jurisdiction that allows graduates of a fully online law school to sit for its bar immediately after graduation), and practice in any of the immigration courts wherever they may be located throughout the country.
This is significant, because roughly two-thirds of students enrolled in Purdue Global Law School's online juris doctor program live outside of California, and most don’t intend to practice in California. Assuming they live in the U.S., none of them would need to move to another state to practice immigration law. In recognition of this, Purdue Global Law School developed a new immigration law course, available to all its students, including non-degree-seeking students.
Aside from licensed attorneys, “accredited representatives” designated by an “organization” recognized by the EOIR may also appear in immigration courts
(See 8 CFR 1292.2.) An organization must be “a non-profit religious, charitable, social service, or similar organization established in the United States” that establishes to the satisfaction of the EOIR that:
“It makes only nominal charges and assesses no excessive membership dues for persons given assistance;” and
“It has at its disposal adequate knowledge, information, and experience.”
The EOIR maintains an alphabetical roster of recognized organizations and their accredited representatives, which includes a list of nearly 1,000 organizations nationwide.
This is particularly significant for those who enroll in Purdue Global Law School's Executive Juris Doctor (EJD) program, which is not designed to lead to licensure. An EJD graduate could work for an EOIR-recognized organization and, once designated as an accredited representative, appear in immigration courts much like a licensed attorney could.
Additional Opportunities to Apply Knowledge of Immigration Law
Aside from appearing in immigration courts, numerous other positions involve the application of immigration law and policy.
Every employer must ensure the immigration status of its employees. Those who employ foreign workers may be subject to special tax withholding rules. Also, many employers use H-1B visas to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields.
In light of this, many midsize or large companies have in-house counsel, HR staff, or other personnel whose primary if not sole responsibility is to ensure compliance with federal immigration rules and regulations.
Opportunities exist in the public sector as well. Various not-for-profit foundations and firms not only represent participants in immigration court, but engage in advocacy, lobbying, or other law-related functions.
The U.S. government itself is perhaps the single biggest employer. The Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, employs 19,000 employees and contractors in over 200 offices across the globe. The EOIR employs not only the roughly 350 immigration judges, but also thousands of judicial clerks and other staff.
Is a Career in Immigration Law for You?
Immigration law may be a worthwhile field to consider, both in terms of market opportunity and social need. Because immigration proceedings are classified as civil, not criminal, there is no Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of immigrants lack representation in removal proceedings.
Data also shows that outcomes for immigrants improve dramatically with representation: detained immigrants obtained the relief sought more than twice as often with representation, and those never detained in the first place were nearly five times more likely than their unrepresented counterparts to obtain the relief sought.
High demand, the potential for fulfilling work, and unlimited geographical flexibility make immigration law an extremely attractive field, especially for those studying law online.