For the corporate immigration market, the past few years have been characterised by significant political shifts across the globe and uncertainty around policy and procedure. This year has been no different. The UK market continues to deal with the fallout of Brexit, while in the US President Trump has ramped up on anti-immigration regulation, making it all the more difficult for corporates and individuals to gain visa approvals. Lawyers we spoke with also highlighted the increase in work relating to compliance, as well as the growing importance of technology in corporate immigration law.
The most significant challenge facing immigration lawyers in the US remains the problems posed by the Buy American Hire American (BAHA) executive order, which came into force in 2017 and sought to protect US economic interests and provide higher employment rates for US workers. Two years on and lawyers have witnessed substantial resultant changes in the immigration market. As one lawyer put it, the approach now seems to be, “How can they make it more difficult for people to process applications?” Indeed, many sources we spoke to highlighted the increase in application denial rates coupled with ever-growing requests for further evidence. The whole immigration process is becoming “a lot more document- and detail-oriented” with the government “looking for every way to reject applications”. This shift, according to lawyers, is now also being reflected in the number of immigration appeal cases being pursued in the US.
For lawyers, each application now requires substantially more work in terms of preparation – “It’s definitely significantly harder now,” says one source, “Trying to advise clients on how to proceed is difficult,” not only due to the increasing number of policy changes that the US market is seeing, but also because of the frequency and last-minute nature of the updates. One lawyer noted, “It is hard to explain to clients that you can’t be certain about applications – you have to keep changing gears.”
It is clear that practising immigration law in the US has become significantly more complex and demanding. As one lawyer puts it, “You’re trying to find workarounds with a government that is determined to deny every type of visa or application you put forward – it has put pressure on absolutely everything we do.” Many lawyers we spoke to emphasised their efforts in taking a more strategic approach to visa applications, advising clients at an early stage of the process about the further evidence that will highly likely be requested, and managing their expectations in terms of the outcome.
Despite the difficulties facing immigration into the US, lawyers have been quick to say that the demand for immigration continues due to a “tremendous shortage of qualified talent”. Those based in California have highlighted tech hub Silicon Valley as a key area that is drawing in talent from all over the world. Furthermore, EB-5 investor visas have remained an incredibly active area of work with lawyers noting a huge demand, particularly from Asian countries including Vietnam and India.
As regulation on immigration has tightened across the world, so too has compliance increased lawyers’ workload, with one source noting, “The compliance aspect has definitely kicked up a notch.” In the UK, sources have seen this primarily in the Tier-2 visa category, with “the Home Office doing more visits – especially with Tier-2 sponsors”. As the government imperative to reduce net migration remains strong, it is becoming ever more important that corporates ensure they remain compliant. In the immigration world, this often pertains to corporate immigration schemes and processes, with many lawyers noting the rise in long-term strategic advice that they are providing to clients on immigration policies.
“Clients are becoming more and more cautious,” says one lawyer, with another highlighting “less transactional work and more of a focus on building relationships with clients and providing ongoing support”. Political changes have forced lawyers to adapt their approach to tackling applications, processes and advisory matters. In today’s climate, strategy and perseverance are prevailing.
As well as a significant increase in the number of immigration-related policy changes being witnessed around the world, the volume of information being handled is also rising. According to lawyers we spoke with, companies now want and expect law firms to provide more efficient processes and technology. As one source puts it, “Those people who can provide it seem to be in higher demand.”
In an environment where “people are expected to do more with less”, advanced in-house technology seems to be the main way in which law firms are ensuring they can process documents and collect information more efficiently. Additionally, it “makes it easier to provide clients with data analytics”, allowing them to clearly see the bigger picture – most notably when it comes to reviewing cases and assessing what stage they are at in the immigration process. Coupled with more stringent and regulated data protection rules, for law firms, “being able to meet these standards is becoming more and more important”.
Traditionally, specialised immigration work has been practised primarily through boutique outfits and sole practitioners. However, as highlighted by our research, larger firms have gradually moved closer to the forefront of corporate immigration and now hold a strong position in the market. This trend has been seen with labour law firms entering the arena, but has most notably come in the form of the Big Four accounting firms, whose global mobility teams “have seen the value in this area” via a rising demand for related services and are now expanding their capabilities worldwide, by enhancing and developing their own global relocation teams.
This change comes not only in-house, but also in terms of these firms’ interaction with other service providers. Indeed, in the past year, PwC has entered into a strategic alliance with immigration powerhouse Fragomen Del Rey Bernsen & Loewy, aiming to provide clients with enhanced cross-border integrated services. Likewise, Deloitte has formed an alliance with Berry Appleman & Leiden, providing the accounting firm with a platform into the US market. These moves have signalled a dramatic shift in the role of global accounting firms in the immigration market, and further highlight the growing importance of, and demand for, far-reaching immigration services worldwide.
Demand for top-tier legal services remains high in the corporate immigration sphere. As authorities around the world persist with restrictive and stringent attitudes towards immigration, the commoditisation of immigration services will slow down. The use of non-specialist immigration practitioners is “out of the window now” say sources, who note that “the move towards top-rated firms will continue to be strong” as clients seek out quality specialist advisers.