Former immigration lawyers aim to cut through political noise

Congress is full of lawyers, but few practiced immigration law

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning is one of the few congressional members with substantial experience practicing immigration law. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
North Carolina Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning is one of the few congressional members with substantial experience practicing immigration law. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 2, 2021 at 6:00am

Kathy Manning, a former immigration lawyer for nearly two decades, had recently decided to run for office when she turned on the TV — and listened to politicians engage in immigration rhetoric.

As her frustration increased, she called up a friend, another immigration lawyer with whom she shared office space when running her solo firm in Greensboro, N.C.

“Have there been really dramatic changes in our immigration laws that I don't know about because I stopped practicing, or do they just not know what they're talking about?” Manning recalls asking. “He said, ‘No, they don't know what they're talking about.’ ”

Now the freshman Democrat is the one talking about immigration, standing out as one of the few congressional members with substantial experience practicing immigration law.

In a recent video interview with CQ Roll Call, Manning speaks easily about the slew of work visas available, such as O visas for those with extraordinary abilities and L visas for internal company transfers.

She’s quick to describe her vision for the U.S. immigration system, which includes increasing the number of H-1B visas available for high-skilled workers, and making it easier for foreign-born medical professionals and foreign citizens with degrees from U.S. schools to work here.

“We do want to be making sure that our kids, our students know that there are great careers in the STEM areas, and give them great opportunities to get the skills and knowledge to go into those fields,” she says. “But in the meantime, we’ve got a lot of open jobs that companies can’t fill, and we’ve got to fill those positions with top quality people if we're going to be competitive.”

Manning comes to Congress as it considers landmark immigration legislation. Among the proposals are narrower bills that would create a path to citizenship for smaller portions of the undocumented population, like those brought to the U.S. as children, as well as White House-backed legislation to overhaul the whole system.

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While Congress is filled with lawyers — roughly 40 percent have a law degree, according to the American Bar Association — she is one of just a handful of members who practiced immigration law, revealing a gap in expertise on one of the most hot-button issues of the session.

That doesn’t surprise Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., who did substantial immigration work as pro bono counsel at a major law firm.

“Really?” she remarks sarcastically on the low number of former immigration practitioners in Congress. “Because so many of them talk about it every day.”

The absence of expertise in that area of law has fueled heated debate over technical immigration changes that can obscure the point.

During floor debate earlier this year before the House’s passage, largely along party lines, of a bill to provide access to counsel for travelers detained at airports, several Republicans argued the measure would use taxpayer funds to pay for lawyers — it doesn’t — and give immigration lawyers to asylum-seekers without legal documents — which it also does not.

“A lot of people who opine on immigration law, you talk to them, they have no idea what's actually in the law, and that can be a real impediment to progress,” says Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel — and a former immigration lawyer and law professor.

Scanlon, now in her second term, speculates the dearth of immigration lawyers in Congress is likely because the field usually isn’t lucrative.

“You’re dealing by definition with people who can’t legally work in the U.S. in most cases,” she says.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., on her way to the House floor in January. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

But she believes there should “absolutely” be more public interest lawyers in Congress.

In fact, her involvement in immigration and public interest law partly inspired her run for office. Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, Scanlon found herself scrambling to coordinate lawyers to assist foreign citizens who had been turned back at airports following his travel ban.

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Later, as the Trump administration expanded immigration enforcement priorities to sweep up undocumented immigrants without criminal histories, Scanlon’s firm pooled its resources in family law to help undocumented immigrants arrange support for their children in the event of their deportation.

“All of this stuff, just the inhumanity of it, and the craziness of it, was a big part of me saying, ‘OK, we’ve played defense, we’ve tried to enforce the law, but these folks are not abiding by the law, or they’re doing things that appear to violate the laws. So let’s change the venue for the fight,’” she says.

‘A huge help’

Former immigration lawyers now serving in Congress say their deep knowledge of the intricacies of immigration law, one of the most complex legal fields, has been an asset when approaching and understanding immigration legislation.

“Knowing the law is a huge help, if you’re willing to approach it without too much of a political tinge, because the law is extremely intricate,” says Lofgren, who worked as a partner at an immigration firm and taught immigration law at University of Santa Clara School of Law in the late ’70s.

Lofgren notes her experience practicing immigration law predates the last overhaul of the system, in 1996, but she has established herself as an expert on the law itself. Earlier this year, at the first business meeting for the Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, Lofgren said she had read the entire federal immigration statute over the summer.

Scanlon says she leans on connections with nonprofits and immigration legal services groups to help prepare her for questioning witnesses at oversight hearings.

“Having that understanding, so you understand how it works on the ground, how it’s changed over time, that helps inform policy discussions, oversight hearings, the questions I want to ask of witnesses,” she said.

Manning says she recently drew on her expertise in business immigration and suggested changes to the comprehensive legislation she believes would help the U.S. economy, including by increasing the H-1B annual visa cap to 300,000, from the current 85,000, even if for a limited time.

Having authority over immigration law can also help cut through the politics that constantly surround the issue.  

Scanlon points to instances where lawmakers call for legal immigration and slam “illegal” immigration, without acknowledging the asylum process is an avenue of legal immigration.

However, “it’s easy to cry BS when you know what you’re talking about,” Scanlon says.

Still, Lofgren stresses that non-immigration lawyers can still educate themselves and take leadership over the issue.

For instance, none of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” — the bipartisan group that passed a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, the last time Congress came close to passing a sweeping overhaul — is an immigration lawyer.

But an ability to dive deep into the weeds of the law, and work out a solution, may also help bridge the political divide.

In April, Manning participated with Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., in a virtual “coffee chat” hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Salazar was one of nine Republicans who voted for a bill to provide a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and those with temporary immigration protections.

The two went back and forth with their visions for the system, from labor protections to earned status for the undocumented population, with both agreeing changes needed to be made and conversations across the aisle had. Both ended the conversation on a note of optimism.

“With people like Kathy in the Democratic Party, there’s definitely hope for us to be able to work together,” Salazar says.