The only large U.S. law firm in the country dedicated solely to immigration work is in crisis management mode in the wake of President Donald Trump’s immigration order.
“It’s much like a natural disaster… in terms of getting people back to the United States and facilitating normal business processes,” said Blake Chisam, chief audit and privacy officer at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy.
Chisam said the firm has initiated twice-daily structured internal telephone briefings to keep partners up to speed on administrative issues, news updates, unsettled legal issues and upcoming risks, while Fragomen employees in offices from D.C. to London to Dubai have gathered and shared information as the situation unfolded. In the days since the Trump immigration order has taken effect, Fragomen has helped clients draft letters to their board, briefed upset executives for meetings with the President, and even sued the Trump administration on behalf of a CNN journalist detained at the Atlanta airport. The firm’s attorneys have also jumped in on a pro bono basis to help travelers, visa and green card holders facing deportation and uncertainty.
Fragomen, founded in 1951, staffs approximately 550 attorneys worldwide and is ranked 65th on The American Lawyer’s 2016 list of the 100 largest law firms by revenue. Since opening its first international office in Brussels in 1999, the firm has expanded to more than 40 offices in 20 countries and now claims to service 170 jurisdictions. The firm is different from its AmLaw 100 peers in that it has built its entire practice on helping individuals and employers navigate immigration laws, and it stands out among immigration-only firms as, by far, the biggest. Because of its narrow focus, Fragomen often stays off the radar in the competition among and coverage of Big Law firms.
In recent weeks, though, Fragomen has sprung into the public focus after Trump’s executive order, which banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspended refugee admission for 120 days. The order has been temporarily blocked by several district court judges and is currently being reviewed by the Ninth Circuit. Amid the growing uncertainty as to the ban’s legality, members of the Trump administration have also appeared to change and contradict their own guidelines several times, notably with regard to whether green card holders and dual citizens are exempt. The changes have kept Fragomen attorneys on their toes.
Some companies are so upset they want this to be on a note to the board of directors, for example. Some CEOs are meeting with the Trump administration or Trump personally. —Austin Fragomen
“Our internal network of offices and partners around the world, who participate very actively in getting to know officers and State Department officials, were sharing with us up to the minute information on client experiences, or word from officials, even when the word was, ‘I don’t know’,” said New York-based partner Carmita Alonso. Fragomen also relied on its team of data analysts to help its client services groups let companies know exactly which employees would be impacted by the rules, and how.
The home page of Fragomen’s website currently directs visitors to a separate section, Immigration in the Trump Administration: What You Need to Know, featuring daily alerts about the status and implications of President Trump’s executive order. Alonso said she and her colleagues have also been on the phone with clients around the clock to give them individualized guidance.
“They need to understand who within their employee group is impacted by this. And then they need to understand what this means for the company and the bigger picture, and are they going to get involved in this issue politically,” said Chairman Austin Fragomen. “Some companies are so upset they want this to be on a note to the board of directors, for example. Some CEOs are meeting with the Trump administration or Trump personally.”
“We have at least one client that was so outraged by this they wanted us to sue the government over this, and that’s what we did,” he added.
That client is Mohammed Tawfeeq, an Iraqi journalist and manager of CNN’s international desk. Tawfeeq was detained and subjected to additional screening at the Atlanta Hartsfield/Jackson International Airport on his way home from a reporting trip, according to the complaint filed in the Northern District of Georgia against the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, and the State Department. The lawsuit claims Tawfeeq, a legal permanent resident of the United States, was denied his due process rights because he shouldn’t have been subject to the order in the first place.
The past two weeks have been ‘just brutal.’ — Blake Chisam
Some of the firm’s attorneys — like those at other big law firms such as Paul Weiss, Akin Gump and Davis Polk — also volunteered their services at airports around the country in conjunction with the International Refugee Assistance Project, a non-profit organization that brings lawyers and law students together to enforce legal and human rights for refugees. They helped travelers impacted by the order as well as other Big Law attorneys less familiar with immigration law, according to Fragomen partner Careen Shannon.
Austin Fragomen said the most frustrating part of the last two weeks, aside from the executive order itself, has been the constant change in how agencies have interpreted it. “I had some lingering hopes that one of the good things about President Trump was that he’d be a well organized business guy, but he certainly didn’t do a good job with this one,” he said. Representatives for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Fragomen said the firm has been busy in its response, but not overwhelmed. Shannon said it was too early to conduct any official financial analysis of the business upswing, but Chisam said the past two weeks have been “just brutal.”
In the meantime, Alonso and Fragomen said they’re gearing up for potential policy changes relating to U.S. work visas, which might come down in the form of new legislation or regulations.
“That’s also prompting everyone to get organized for a bigger fight, which could occur very quickly,” said Fragomen. In anticipation of the Trump administration’s likely increase in employee work eligibility audits, Fragomen is in the process of hiring additional government audit and enforcement attorneys as well as data analytics support staff, he said.
“We got lucky over the weekend with the TRO in Seattle,” said Chisam, referring to a Seattle federal judge’s February 3 nationwide block on the executive order. “It’s a lull in the middle of a crisis so you can take a breath, take stock and look ahead.”