David Herzhaft arrived in Los Angeles in 2012 with a business visa and a 5-year deadline. A musician, Herzhaft wanted to expand his harmonica company, Harmonica Land, beyond what was possible from his hometown of Lyon, France. The E1 business visa allowed him to stay in the U.S. until 2017.
Soon, Herzhaft fell in love with another immigrant, a woman named Olesja who came to the U.S. from Estonia on a diversity visa. The couple married in 2014. She became a U.S. citizen last year, and they had a baby in May. The family then moved to Meridian.
Herzhaft, 42, is now seeking permanent-resident status before his visa expires. He is one of a growing number of Treasure Valley residents who seek help from immigration lawyers.
95,635Immigrants living in Idaho in 2014, of which 37 percent are naturalized citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Pew Research Center says 42 percent of immigrants in Idaho are unauthorized.
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Herzhaft tried to complete his permanent-resident application himself. But he made a mistake that sent the application into a bureaucratic tangle. After moving to the Treasure Valley, Herzhaft found Jordan Moody, one of the newest immigration lawyers in the area.
The fee of about $2,000 for Moody’s services is worth it, Herzhaft says.
“If I would have taken a lawyer right away, I would have already had a permanent resident card,” he says. “I lost over 18 months.”
A GROWING LEGAL COMMUNITY
There are fewer than a dozen immigration lawyers in the Treasure Valley. About two years ago, the number of immigration lawyers statewide had finally grown to 20 — enough to start an Idaho chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Those lawyers help clients with immigration cases such as:
▪ Family and marriage-based petitions.
▪ Employment, investor or business-related visas.
▪ Citizenship, naturalization, permanent residency.
▪ Deportation defense.
▪ Asylum applications.
▪ The “U visa,” a nonimmigrant visa for victims of crime who cooperate with law enforcement.
Moody opened a Downtown Boise office for Wilner & O’Reilly, a California-based immigration-law firm, in August. He offered free consultations. Within days, he was getting calls.
Moody, who is part Mexican and did a Mormon mission in Mexico, was drawn to immigration law as a student at the University of Iowa College of Law. He did internships and clinics in the specialty, then went to work for Wilner & O’Reilly.
“With immigration, it is very hard to get into the business unless you have the skills already,” Moody says. “For me, for example, to hire someone straight out of law school who knows nothing about immigration law, that means a lot of training.”
Most of the clients come from word-of-mouth recommendations and through Internet searches.
Cases take anywhere from four months to many years. The cost for a simple immigration case is a few thousand dollars, usually a flat fee.
Kimberley Schaefer’s small immigration-law practice has about 100 active cases, with clients coming from almost every continent. She moved from Washington, D.C., to Boise in 2013.
About 80 percent of Schaefer’s current business involves family immigration. A growing portion is employment-related, including worker visas.
“My business has exploded since coming here,” Schaefer says. “It’s actually a much more diverse state than most people realize. From a business perspective, there aren’t that many dedicated immigration lawyers.”
“In this day and age, you see people meeting all over the world ... and wanting to live in the same place: here,” she says.
Penton and other local lawyers say the federal officials who deal with immigration, including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security, are accessible in Boise.
Some clients who seek out local immigration attorneys are living in the country illegally — such as overstaying a visa or crossing a border without legal approval. Lawyers can help them seek amnesty status, defend them in a deportation case or help them receive legal status.
Moody says that until there is comprehensive immigration reform, the work of immigration lawyers will generally continue to be what it is now.
He says he enjoys sharing real stories about immigrants who are in the country illegally.
“What I often end up doing is humanizing what many might think of as just another undocumented immigrant,” he says. “Once you shake their hand, hear their story, meet their family, perceptions can often change.”
Moody adds that his job has “persuaded me politically,” causing him to want changes in immigration law.
“Most people that learn about U.S. immigration law are shocked to see how harsh and draconian our immigration laws are,” he says. “Even small, common-sense changes in the law would help so many of these people in a way I think we could all mostly agree on.
“I feel that criminals have forfeited a large part of their ability to freely pursue their dreams. But people who have roots here, have families here, and are productive individuals working to give their children a better life, I think it is clear that we should work with them more than we do currently.”
ENOUGH TO GO AROUND
Some local attorneys say there is more demand for immigration-law services than they can handle. They wish more attorneys specialized in immigration law so they could refer potential clients to colleagues.
“When clients find out that we are ... part of a larger firm, and that we do a free consultation, and that we specialize in immigration law, they are very candid with me in saying, ‘We need this so badly here,’” Moody says.
It would be impossible to be a very good criminal defense attorney and a very good immigration attorney at the same time.
Jordan Moody, Boise immigration lawyer
He expects to add a few more lawyers to the Treasure Valley office in the next five years, with each specializing in sub-areas of immigration law.
Schaefer just added a new full-time attorney who eventually will open a Rexburg office, and she has a new lawyer lined up to start in the spring. She expects her revenues this year to double from last year.
“Our biggest issue at this point is making sure that we don’t take on too many cases until we get the staff on board,” she says.