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An Immigrant Lawyer’s Story
By Mohammad A. Syed*
There are many immigrant attorneys in the U.S. like myself. After almost 12 years of law practice with private law firms in both D.C. and Nashville, I have recently started my law firm and focus, in part, on immigration matters. As I write this, I am still feeling the joy of my very own recently filed application for U.S. citizenship. This is an important milestone in my life and a good time to share my own immigration journey.
My father was a student at Brigham Young University from 1978-80 in Provo, Utah while on leave from the Government of Pakistan. My mother, two sisters and I enjoyed those two years in Provo immensely, and my earliest childhood memories are from those years. I discovered much later that my father was on a J-1 visa, an exchange visitor agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan governments.
In 1993, I was accepted to the University of Rochester. At that time, U.S.-Pakistan relations were good; therefore, it was easy to obtain a visa. I remember getting stamped for an F-1 student visa the same day as I had my interview at the U.S. consulate in Karachi.
I finished my studies in December 1996 with a double major in Economics and Political Science, and a minor in legal studies. After taking the LSAT and finishing my law school applications, I headed back to Pakistan in the winter of 1996. While back in Pakistan, I got accepted into George Washington Law School in Washington, D.C. It was an honor and privilege to be studying law in the capital of the United States. In May 1997, I returned to Rochester to attend my graduation though because my F-1 visa was no longer valid, I traveled on a tourist visa.
Canadian Permanent Residence
Between college and starting law school, I was sponsored by my aunt, who lived in Canada, for Canadian Permanent Residence. I spent a month in Canada prior to arriving in D.C. for law school. At that time, Canadian Permanent Residents did not need visas to enter the U.S.; therefore, all I needed was the I-20 form from George Washington Law School and my Canadian Permanent Resident Card. My travel to and from the U.S. was greatly facilitated by the Canadian PR card.
During law school, I used part of my 1 year optional practical training (OPT) for summer jobs. My first summer job was working for the Office of Corporation Counsel as an unpaid intern; thus, I did not need special authorization. However, the next summer I worked in a full-time paid position with the D.C. based firm of Ashcraft & Gerel.
During my job search for post-law school employment, some employers, including federal and state governments, were not an option because of my immigration status. Private employers would have to sponsor me for an H1B visa. I had to teach myself about H1B visas so that I could intelligently discuss with employers what they would have to do if they wanted to hire me. Those conversations were always stressful. I noticed that most employers were not enthusiastic about getting involved in this process. They feared legal costs and perhaps the uncertainty of whether I would be able to work legally in the U.S.
Attorney at Law!
I graduated from law school in 2000 and passed the New York Bar. I took an offer from Ashcraft & Gerel and spent 7 wonderful years at that firm. They did not hesitate to complete the H1B paperwork for me. The process was simple enough, being a combination of proving that I had the education and experience required for working in a full-time legal position, and the law firm having the ability to pay the prevailing wage. I stayed in the H1B for two three-year terms for a total of six years.
In 2001, Ashcraft & Gerel applied for permanent residence on my behalf. This process was more in depth than the H1B. The employer had to prove that they had searched for a qualified U.S. employee and not having found one, had offered me the job.
September 11, 2001
This was a horrible day. In the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistani citizens, no matter whether they were Canadian permanent residents or not, were required to have valid visa stamps in order to enter the U.S. Since I had originally relied on my Canadian Permanent Residence status to enter the U.S., I never got an H1 visa stamp.
Many people faced denials and others faced delays so long that they lost their jobs or their student enrollment offers expired while they waited for the visas to be processed. Given the security threat to the U.S., it was understandable that visa processes were delayed. Therefore, I decided that I would not visit Pakistan and risk being stuck there. This caused hardship because I missed several of my best friends’ weddings and was also unable to visit my parents.
There were major delays in the approval of the labor certification. This is the process where the D.C. Government had to certify that the employer had complied with the search for a qualified U.S. worker and was paying me a prevailing wage. The problem was that D.C. had only one officer responsible for this part unlike some other states where this process moved quicker.
Stuck in Pakistan for 8 months for H1B visa stamping
In 2004, I decided I had had enough waiting and I needed to visit my parents in Pakistan. My father was having some health issues and I wanted to be with him. I discussed my plans with Ashcraft & Gerel and told them that I could not guarantee a return by a certain date. They said not to worry, go home; so I did. Upon my return, I went straight from the airport to the U.S. Embassy and applied for an H1B visa renewal. It took eight months to receive my visa and then return to D.C. During this time, I was admitted to practice law in Pakistan, where I worked at a corporate firm and received some great international experience. My firm in D.C. was marvelous - they gave me two months paid vacation and then put me on six months of unpaid administrative leave. Afterwards, I resumed employment with them.
Green Card and Writ of Mandamus
Finally, in 2006 my labor certification was approved – a giant step towards getting my green card. Immediately after this, my I-485 was filed. My research and discussions with immigration lawyers suggested that the end was in sight and approval should take place within six months. I would finally be free to work for an employer of my choice. After seven years of doing complex civil litigation, my professional interests had changed and I wanted to experience something different. Being restricted to my H1B sponsor became frustrating. Do not get me wrong, I loved working with Ashcraft & Gerel and shall be indebted to them for my entire life for the experience and their great mentoring. But I was not ready to commit the rest of my life to the areas of law that were practiced at the firm.
However, I told myself that I could wait another year and see what happens with the I-485. After waiting a year, I decided it was time to take charge. I filed a Writ of Mandamus against the USCIS to expedite the processing of my green card – this is a device to cure undue delay experienced by applicants for immigration. Luckily it worked and within months my green card was approved!
Nashville to Syed Law Firm, PLLC!
Finally, with my green card in hand, I was ready to change jobs in the fall of 2007. I was hired by King & Ballow in their antitrust and commercial litigation practice group. There I had the opportunity to get some great experience in a variety of areas including antitrust litigation and counseling, commercial litigation, labor litigation, and intellectual property. I also got a chance to contribute articles on immigration matters in the firm’s newsletter, edited by my friend and mentor, Bruce Buchanan.
After almost four years at King and Ballow, I decided it was time to start my own law firm, and I am now the proud managing principal and founding partner of the Syed Law Firm, PLLC, where I focus on representing persons and businesses of foreign origin in legal matters. Also, I represent professionals, such as physicians and architects, small and medium businesses and non-profits.
I have a strong passion for assisting people who are trying to achieve legal status in this country. The rewards of family reunification and the opportunity of being rewarded for hard work are very well known to me. I have worked on cases involving marriage and family-based sponsorship, employment-based cases, and investor-based immigration cases. I am also proud to be the President of the Board of Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), a non-profit organization in Tennessee.
September 2012 was my five-year anniversary of becoming a permanent resident. Eligibility to apply for citizenship is tied to this date and applications can be made 90 days prior to the fifth year anniversary. I had been waiting for this moment for a very long time. Therefore, three months before the fifth anniversary, I gathered all my paperwork and supporting documents and filled out the N-400. It is a pretty straightforward document and the instructions with the form are very helpful. The most time consuming part for me was to determine with precision the dates and destinations of my trips made outside the U.S. in the past five years as I do travel quite a bit. I took this step seriously because I did not want to unintentionally leave a certain trip out and then be faulted for not being honest!!
I have now had my fingerprinting/biometrics appointment and am awaiting notification of my interview. I am hopeful that in a few months I will be a citizen!!
*Mohammad (Mo) Ali Syed is the Managing Partner and Founding Principal of the Syed Law Firm, PLLC with offices in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and New York, NY. He practices in the areas of dispute resolution, healthcare compliance and investigations, business litigation, international business and trade, and immigration. He may be reached at email@example.com or (615) 601-0786.