Prior to law school, Aimee Guthat had no idea there was such a thing as "immigration law," despite hearing references to green cards and immigration papers.
"It didn't seem to be a big deal - how wrong I was," she says. "After surviving first year of law school, I accepted a student law clerk position with a local attorney that practiced immigration law. I thought it would be an interesting way to spend a year and get some exposure to administrative law. Now, more than 15 years later, I'm still practicing immigration law and can't imagine working in any other field."
A senior attorney with Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy in Troy, Guthat has taught Immigration Law as an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy Law School since 2007, and is involved in the university's innovative Law Firm Program.
"I love to learn and I love the law - and I'm very enthusiastic and passionate about what I do," she says. "The idea of sharing my knowledge and experience with law students seemed like a no-brainer to me. All they had to do was ask and I was in. Also, these students are smart. They challenge me at every turn - which is very invigorating."
The curriculum at UDM Law is specifically designed to give students critical tools for the development of professional legal skills that would normally be gained during the first year of practice, through required participation in clinical programs and the Law Firm Program. The Immigration Clinic, which gives students the opportunity to represent immigrants in a variety of non-employment based matters, is highly regarded in the field and "provides such an important community service to the immigrant as well as unique experience to the student," according to Guthat.
"When UDM added an employment-based immigration law module to the Law Firm Program, I was very excited and honored to be asked to participate."
In the immigration law module, students work through a simulation of how actual cases are processed - how communications are initiated by a client, the information presented, working through the legal analysis to identify issues and develop a strategy and presenting that strategy to the client, and finally working up the actual case.
"In effect, students are seeing just how an employment-based immigration practice works on an everyday basis, the types of issues that arise, and how to effectively deal with these issues and meet client needs," Guthat explains. "It's essentially an inside look, which other students don't get. There's a significant competitive advantage."
When entering the field of immigration law, possession of some level of practical, educational experience is critical to a successful practice.
"The issue of U.S. immigration stirs a great deal of passion in people, whether their view is pro- or anti-immigration," Guthat notes. "Further, this issue is one that's very politicized and immigration-related policies and laws are very much driven by the economy, especially in the employment-based arena. The ability to successfully interpret immigration policy, which tends to change with each administration, is gained only through experience."
The key to the U.S. maintaining its footprint and position as a leader in the global economy, she says, is to have workable immigration laws that allow companies to hire and maintain the best talent, regardless of citizenship or country of origin.
"It's no longer enough to be good at home - we have to be good everywhere. In order for the U.S. to maintain its global edge, we need to be able to retain exceptional talent here - the thinkers, the innovators, the researchers - many of whom are foreign nationals."
According to Guthat, employment-based immigration will continue to be a target among politicians and law makers at both the state and federal level, which will make entry into this field from the ground more challenging than ever.
"A new lawyer must have determination and the desire to make a difference, even if only on a small scale. Immigration law is a very rewarding area of practice, as your actions have a real impact on not only the potential growth
and success of a U.S. enterprise, but also on the lives of many immigrants seeking better opportunity."
The extensive and complicated set of immigration laws are governed not only by the Department of Homeland Security and its sub agencies - in particular Citizenship & Immigration Services, Customs & Border Protection, and Immigration & Customs Enforcement - but also by the Department of State and the Department of Labor.
"Each agency and sub agency has its own agenda, which may or may not be consistent with the existing rules of another agency involved in the immigration process," Guthat explains. "Immigration laws frequently change - and not just on an insignificant level."
About every decade there is a major overhaul of the immigration code with significant changes dramatically affecting individuals as well as global companies with operations in the U.S.
"The last major piece of employment-based immigration legislation was enacted in 2000, so we are due for reform. However, since then, there have been policy memos and directives from the agencies, which in some cases certainly affect the legal analysis and requirements for certain benefits," she says. "You have to constantly study and keep your finger on the pulse of the economy, political posturing, and agency changes. Immigration law is very
dynamic, which keeps it very interesting."
Guthat, who received her bachelor's degree in political science and Spanish from Western Michigan University, and her J.D. from the Michigan State University College of Law, joined Fragomen in 2000. She primarily focuses on employment-based immigration and corporate compliance, with clients ranging from small and mid-size companies to large multinational organizations in a variety of industries, including management of major OEMs and product and technology suppliers in the automotive industry.
Guthat enjoys the cultural interaction with people from countries around the world, and learning about customs and behaviors based on different religious beliefs, ethnicity, and traditions.
"I find this to be very enriching as well as helpful in understanding the thought process behind how people approach different situations."
With different approaches between U.S. and foreign entities to very common issues, such as policy development or strategic planning - especially if the foreign company is the controlling entity - clients often look to Guthat for guidance on how to communicate effectively with non-U.S. colleagues.
"There's no question we live in a global economy and the key to a strong U.S. presence in the global marketplace is the ability of U.S. companies to remain competitive," she says. "Collaboration with other corporate figures and colleagues outside of the U.S. is essential, and requires a refined level of sensitivity and understanding of the nuances between our cultures."
Above all, immigration law is about human beings, she notes.
"We live in a great country, with unparalleled freedom and liberty. Many around the world are not so lucky. It's our job to help those looking for a better life for their families to navigate through the very rough waters of legal immigration."
In many cases the legal path to immigration is a very long process, so change in policy and procedure mid-stream is a real risk that may impact eligibility for a particular immigration benefit. Guthat tries to give people hope, and hopes they will see the legal way is the right way.
"Current immigration rules are not very forgiving of violations, and as a result a short-term gain can often negatively impact future life plans, from career development and progression to family separation and loss of residence in the U.S.," she notes.
A favorite case involved a cardiothoracic surgeon with a major university hospital, with a sub specialization in pediatric cardiac surgery, and creator of an innovative, less invasive surgical procedure for treatment of a congenital heart defect in infants and pediatrics patients.
"It's an incredible development for our littlest and most vulnerable patients - and came at the hands of an immigrant," Guthat explains. "The Immigration Service agreed that our client should be granted permanent residence on the basis of his extraordinary achievements and ability in medicine. This person is someone that is truly an asset to the U.S. medical field, and has since gone on to develop cutting edge patient care programs to improve on safety and recovery at two of the leading university hospitals in the country."
Guthat and her husband Peter, both natives of Grosse Pointe, live in Grosse Pointe Farms with sons Joseph, 5, and 8-month-old Matthew. An avid reader, she enjoys skiing, spending time at Pier Park, and serving as chief "land crew" for her husband's sailing adventures.
"This is a very important job, as I'm required to make sure the extra luggage not allowed on board during the race makes it to the finish before the boat. This is especially fun when the finish line is somewhere tropical."
By Sheila Pursglove