Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
A look at my records over the past 15 years of an immigration law practice shows that I have handled somewhere on the order of 1,300+ cases, some straightforward, some complex. That does not include easily two or three times that number of single consultations I have done. Now, out of 1,300 cases, for the most part, I can count, to the best of my recollection, ON ONE HAND the number of people who did not pay me the entire retainer or attorney fees they agreed to pay at the outset. As a matter of policy, like numerous attorneys in my field of practice, we do not litigate claims for our own unpaid fees. In my personal view, an immigrant unable or unwilling to pay his or her attorney fees likely has much bigger problems following them around than not paying their immigration attorney. I cannot speak for my colleagues, maybe some of them are easier by nature for clients to justify not paying them.
Having an unprofessional, overpriced, or incompetent attorney can certainly lead people to feel cheated, for sure. I understand that.
I do not pretend that all immigrants, as a whole are governed by a higher set of ethical conduct when it comes to the honor of abiding by paying one’s debts. It may have something to do with numerous things: I am a solo practitioner, not a big impersonal corporation; to deliberately not pay me when there is means to can potentially create problems with their application process; the nature of what I’m doing for them, fixing their immigration status, is a sensitive process that in some ways can trump (no pun intended) all other of life’s problems. If you can’t live or work in this country legally, all your other problems seem relatively minor by comparison. So perhaps paying me is a form of personal priority, a “karmic” privileging, if you like. I’m not sure any or all of my clients would say that is true, but the personal relationship they forge with me is founded upon an individual trust: they trust me to work with them to manage and fix their case, and in exchange they tell me everything I need to know (in confidence) and won’t do anything that obviously tries to breach or cheat that trust. It all seems so very old fashioned, like when hand-shakes and a word was something that no self-respecting person would intentionally break. And that word, respect, may be the key.
Immigrants, to sweepingly generalize, more than many people may realize, are more often than not highly sensitive to issues of dignity and self-respect. Where those boundaries may reside and who sets them are frequent sources of challenge within those first generation immigrant communities. The notions of self-worth and values of forging stable relationships. The people around you from another country are not necessarily typical of their fellow countrymen and women. That is just as true of Americans either traveling abroad or emigrating elsewhere. The components that make up a person with the resolve, courage, resources, desperation, luck, opportunities, kismet, or some radical combination thereof that brought them to this country in the first place sets them apart from the average citizen of their home country. They form part of the group of persons who have managed and decided to leave their place of birth. This already sets them into a unique minority. If they are from a country where English is not the first language, or part of a Judeo-Christian or westernized tradition, their hurdles are compounded many times over. Imagine, for a moment, how hard it would be for you to relocate to a country where an overwhelming minority actually speak your language, celebrate your holidays, and you have no points of reference in the community. The stories of people who relocated to my area of the country through Refugee Services is astonishing. Here are some recent ones: https://www.komu.com/news/refugees-thankful-for-new-life-in-mid-missouri-say-they-can-never-complain
For the most part, however, my clients are not the refugee population assisted by Refugee Services who act in concert with the Office of Refugee Resettlement or the State Department. For the most part, they are U.S. citizen or permanent resident family members seeking to bring other family members here. Or they are already residents or undocumented who are in trouble and need to figure out how to stay to be with their families. In less frequent cases, they may be students or visitors here applying for asylum now from a war-torn country. Or they have been residents for a long time and now wish to become U.S. citizens, or are one of the many DACA deferred action young people, some of whom are coming up on 7 years in that non-status. But at least it has work authorization and they can try to accomplish something in their lives, however limited. What links all of the clients is their need. The need to have competent representation before a government whose immigration system often seems intentionally NOT user-friendly. There are so many “traps for the unwary,” as is said in the law, that what seems logical or obvious in some instances may be precisely a trap for persons who see nothing wrong, but in the eyes of the government certain problems loom larger than others.
To put a precise point on it, I believe there is a cultural link, but it transcends world culture, or the culture outside of present day America, that says, this is a person whom you must not try to cheat. Thus there is a connection, somehow, in my firsthand observation, between persons who have done everything it takes to get here, and they seem unwilling to test the court of comeuppance, or violating the essence of the Golden Rule, just to see if they come out ok on the other side. The evidence I have for this conclusion is really just deductive, but it also comes from numerous conversations with clients on tangential topics, and guaging exactly what for them constitutes a priority in their lives.
I do not possess any special powers to withhold some kind of sacred benefit, much less am I willing to make people lives difficult intentionally, either by harassing them or sabotaging their cases. After all, I have ethical rules to follow of my own, and even if the Rules of Professional Conduct didn’t specify what I should or shouldn’t do, I would never intentionally trip up those in a lesser station or position than myself. For money? Never. That’s inviting some serious malediction, cosmic or otherwise, into one’s life, and it stands against everything that guides the ruling principle in this type of practice. Not unlike the Hippocratic Oath, it also dictates, Do No Legal Harm.
Of course there are plenty of Americans and people in other countries who make fraud and cheating part of their daily currency. The truth is, though, I believe that the desperate people who are trying to make a new life here, or stay here legally, for the most part are much likely to be swindled by crooks than for them to be exploiting a lawyer’s legal services for nothing by having defaulted on paying the attorney’s fees. I can only speak for myself, and my own practice, and the vast overwhelming number of good people I have worked with, those from over 80 different countries who have come through my office door and sat and talked to me, told me their story and how they ended up on the other side of the world, talking to an immigration lawyer.
Perhaps, in the end, this is all related to the concept of Gratitude. Human nature dictates that when people do nice things for us, or helpful things, and we are aware of it, we are, if not morally impaired, motivated to reciprocate. Even after cases are complete, I am always pleasantly surprised when clients present me with a gift, whether in the form of thank-you cards, thoughtful notes, money, gift cards, plants, food, candles, clothing, or even leather water bottles (all of which have been given me at various points in my career). And they affirm for me the notion that gratitude, generosity, and Providential gifts are not part of some closed economy, where there is only so much to go around, or one person’s gain necessitates another’s loss or lack. Not at all. The fountain of giving is itself an infinitely repeating circle, extravagant at times, the spirit of generosity never in itself goes unrepaid many times over. It is very easy for persons assigned the task of fundraising to preach this message of the gospel, it is another (I think) to hear it from a person within a professional business describe just what that looks like. And though I do suspect it does have something to do with the precise nature of the legal work I do, and its direct impact on my clients’ lives, I am confident that the same spirit exhibited in any type of service we provide for others, for remuneration or otherwise, will surely yield “the greater part.”