Sheela Murthy is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a public speaker, and an internationally recognised US immigration lawyer. The Murthy Law Firm is the world’s pre-eminent US immigration law firm, with three affiliate offices in India – in Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai. Together with her husband, Vasant Nayak, Sheela co-founded the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to working on socially transformative projects to improve the lives of women, children and immigrants, in both India and her adopted country, the US.
Why did you decide to specialise in immigration law?
Deep down, I have a desire to help others and empower people. On top of that, personally I had an unpleasant experience with my immigration lawyer who did my processing. That lawyer did not respond to my calls or messages. I wanted to make a difference with the simple act of responding in a timely manner to our clients’ questions and concerns. I did not want any other person to have to go through the agony of waiting to hear back from the attorney. I wanted a law firm that was different from most of the others, in terms of helping and taking great care of our clients.
What qualities are essential for an immigration lawyer to have?
An immigration lawyer should have a strong knowledge of the law and a love of learning, to keep up with the constantly changing laws, regulations and policies. Empathy and compassion for clients, and the ability to see issues from the client’s perspective, are essential for the success of the lawyer and the law firm.
To what degree has the process of granting routine extensions of H1B and L-1 visas changed over the course of your career?
Over the past 30 years, since I have been practising, US immigration laws and policies have changed and are constantly in a state of flux. However, dramatic changes have occurred in the past two years. A “simple” H1B extension is now subject to an intensive and gruelling review. Notices of intent to deny (NOIDs) and requests for evidence (RFEs) on previously approved petitions are the new normal.
What factors have led to the increasing numbers of NOIDs and notices of intent to revoke (NOIRs)?
The Trump administration, and the signing of the April 2017 Buy American Hire American Executive Order, have resulted in ever-increasing NOIDs and NOIRs. The entire attitude of the USCIS, top down, has completely changed as well.
What impact is the increased quantity of work having on corporate immigration lawyers and the profession?
Overall most attorneys, paralegals and support staff are overworked and demoralised with the increased workload and the onslaught of RFEs, NOIDs, NOIRs and denials. Most practise because they want to help people in a positive manner, and the hard work resulting in denials, disheartens them. It is an unhealthy, toxic and stressful environment for many immigration lawyers and their staff, with the policies and processes changing with little or no notice.
The number of student visas has dropped considerably in recent years. What advice do you give to universities and students currently navigating the US immigration system?
It is a tough and unusual climate since the rules are in a state of flux – particularly for universities and students. Although there is a risk in waiting, since you may lose valuable time, some are choosing to wait it out to see if things will improve. The lawsuits and challenges by universities and students to the current polices of the administration will likely yield positive results, since a majority of the policies violate existing law and regulations. The UCSIS’s strict polices for F-1 OPT and F-1 CPT students is a dramatic change from prior administrations.
To what extent have immigration authorities expanded their focus to include high-skilled professionals, particularly in the technology industry?
The USCIS is heavily targeting IT professionals and the IT industry in general, especially those working at third-party client sites. Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) officers are going to client worksites, knocking on doors of H1B employers and emailing H1B employees, to look for any mismatch in the information, in order to revoke previously approved petitions. They are also looking to investigate and determine that there is employer fraud in the H1B process, even when none may exist.
What advice would you give to younger corporate immigration lawyers hoping to one day be in your position?
Hang in there! Believe that you are on the right side of the law. Today we have dark clouds but things will get better. Immigration law is one of the most gratifying and fulfilling areas of law because of the deep and meaningful impact we can each have on the lives of so many families that we are each so privileged to represent. Do not forget that by helping US employers attract highly skilled global talent, we are helping the US economy and making American stronger. To bring it full circle, when the foreign national employees send money back to their home countries, to assist their families living abroad, we are enriching the global community by helping families, in deep and meaningful ways that we may not even be aware of. So do not lose faith. Hang in there!