H-1B: Meet the attorneys behind the tech industry’s favorite visa – The Mercury News


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Marco Satala is an H-1B superstar. He filed 9,338 new visa applications in the past fiscal year — roughly one an hour if he worked every hour of every day.
That made him one of the 100 most prolific H-1B attorneys in the country. But he’s not even close to the top producer of applications for the visa intended for highly skilled foreign workers. That attorney filed six times more applications than Satala.
Together, the top 100 lawyers filed 262,000 new H-1B visa requests, almost half of all the applications filed in the 2018 fiscal year, according to data from the Department of Labor. It’s been a big business for years, with teams of legal workers compiling thousands of documents for tech giants like Cisco, Google and Qualcomm, to outsourcing firms and even financial companies such as JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.
“It takes a whole operational staff to make this happen,” said Satala.
The labor department data provides a window into the high-volume legal specialty of H-1B visa applications. Some 6,900 attorneys in offices from coast to coast filed 555,000 applications for companies hoping to hire software developers, data scientists, accountants and others. With a few exceptions, they’re competing for the 85,000 H-1B visas awarded each year in a computerized, random-selection lottery that begins in April. Amid changing immigration rules and heightened scrutiny of H-1B visas from the Trump administration, attorneys who know the system are in high demand.
At Pearl Law Group, which Satala joined late last year, the entire application team gets matching t-shirts. He’s a big fan of this year’s shirt, his first.
“We have the Statue of Liberty with the poem that’s written underneath it as a reminder of, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do,” he said. “This brings an office together like no other project.”
The H-1B has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate and a target of the Trump Administration. Companies, including tech firms that have lobbied for more H-1B visas, say hiring highly skilled foreign workers is the only way they can meet a skills gap that would otherwise hamper growth. But critics say the visa is abused by outsourcing firms and others as a way to hire cheaper foreign labor at the cost of American workers.
The nation’s most prolific H-1B lawyer was Toronto-based Melanie Bradshaw of EY Law, an international firm with ties to the consulting company Ernst and Young. She filed 57,411 new worker labor department applications. That’s roughly one application for every 9 minutes had she worked non-stop for a year.
Although each application is signed by just one attorney, teams of paralegals, specialists and other lawyers typically work to prepare the documents submitted to the labor department.
Lawyers start preparing applications in October. The application form is simple, but they must also compile a job description, a letter of support from the prospective employer, and even college transcripts, generating hundreds of pages of documents that have to be printed and stuffed into envelopes. A typical application takes anywhere from three to five hours of staff time, attorneys say. No attorney who was interviewed was willing to discuss their fees.
Once an application is submitted, the labor department reviews it for completeness, then certifies it. The paperwork then moves to the Department of Homeland Security, which determines whether the position meets the high-skill requirements for an H-1B job and whether the employee has a matching level of education and experience, before a visa is approved.
Some applications are rejected. In other cases, companies abandon the process and never move ahead to Homeland Security for an actual visa. But every year, the number of applications certified by the federal government far outstrips the number of available visas, necessitating the lottery to determine who will get the precious documents.
Satala’s applications for fiscal 2018 were filed when he was with Fragomen, whose clients include Apple, Uber, San Diego-based Qualcomm Technologies, IT contractor HCL America and non-tech companies like Walmart and Bank of America.
Fragomen had more attorneys among the top 100 in H-1B applications last year than any other firm. Thirty-two of the 100 most prolific H-1B application attorneys worked for Fragomen at the time of the filings, according to an analysis by this news organization of Department of Labor data and law firm staff pages and LinkedIn accounts. And those 32 lawyers filed about one fifth of all the new worker applications submitted in the last fiscal year.
Cynthia Lange, a managing partner at Fragomen, which has offices in San Francisco and Santa Clara, said the firm is one of the first and largest to specialize in corporate immigration law. Three decades ago, when Lange started her career in the government’s immigration services department, Fragomen was a big name.
“I remember the government people I worked with said that they read the Fragomen books to understand immigration better,” she said.
When it comes to filing thousands of applications in a short time, software plays a key role. Berry, Appleman & Leiden, which has offices in San Francisco and Walnut Creek, had eight lawyers in the top 100, putting it in the No. 2 position behind Fragomen. Those eight lawyers filed about 10,100 H-1B applications for clients that include Facebook, Amazon and Expedia.
Last month, Berry, Appleman & Leiden announced it plans to start using an artificial intelligence “process automation” platform to cut down on repetitive tasks so the firm could “focus on higher value and more customer-focused interactions.”
“Every good law firm in the United States, as well as any good business, would automate as many processes as they could,” said David Berry, a founding partner at the firm. However, he added, “the level of scrutiny necessitates individual and careful attention to every single case, and that’s why we have a thousand employees and not just computers.”
Berry estimated that while a simple application may take three hours of attorney time, a complicated one can take up to 40 hours. Some applications even require the law firm to bring in outside experts to explain why a candidate is qualified for a visa or why a type of job needs a highly skilled, well-credentialed worker, he said.
The time required has gone up under President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, which has led to a dramatic uptick in H-1B denials and requests for more evidence about prospective employees and their qualifications before a visa is granted, Berry said.
“The whole process that used to reliably take a few weeks when it was processed at its fastest is now taking months,” Berry said.
But the attorneys say they understand what’s behind the additional scrutiny. It’s their job to make sure clients follow the rules, and are honest and consistent in their applications. It’s particularly important given recent lawsuits and federal actions against companies accused of abusing the visa system.
Very occasionally, a client company or prospective client firm will ask a question like, “What do I need to say to get the visa?” Berry said. “My answer 100 percent of the time is, ‘Let’s start with the truth.’” If a company’s representative indicates they’re unlikely to play by the rules, Berry said, “We would tell them, ‘You shouldn’t be engaging in this process. We won’t help you, and we won’t recommend anybody who will.’”
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