Thought Leader – Immigration – Pro-Link GLOBAL Group

Thought Leader – Immigration – Pro-Link GLOBAL Group

Having grown up speaking several languages, and with a heart for helping people, our next thought leader was destined to be an immigration lawyer. Over the next few pages Lawyer Monthly hears from Andrea Elliott, the Co-Founder and CEO of Pro-Link GLOBAL Group. Andrea tells us about how she grew up from being an immigrant herself, to becoming a leader in said field, and how the firm she founded has kept her passion alive and blooming in an ever-complicated and changing world.

 

How did you come about practising immigration law when you began and how did this translate into your current position at Pro-Link?

 I was to born to European immigrant parents in South Africa. I followed in their footsteps and immigrated to the US in the late 90s. Having personally experienced the highs and lows that the immigration process carried me through, I was determined to make a difference. If I hadn’t seen it first hand, no, taken part in it, I would not have believed it true. From 11pm at night, queues of people, some with garden chairs, others with tents, stretched around the INS building; all hoping to obtain a ticket to enter the building. The building opened at 7.30am. Surely getting a visa did not require one to sleep outside a building in Los Angeles? I could hardly believe that this was happening in America. There is nothing like standing for eight hours in the dark, to focus one’s mind on what a difference a great firm could make.

Having resolved my own immigration process, I was fortunate enough to work for a boutique immigration firm in California focused on Corporate Immigration. This is a choice made by practioners who chose not to handle personal cases. The goal being to facilitate change in the corporate sphere where representing Fortune 500 firms, would give the firm the leverage to lobby for improvements in the process. I quickly learned the ropes of the alphabet soup of US Immigration. The dot-com boom had been the focus of the economy. High tech meant lots of H-1B visas ( a non-immigrant visa category). When the IT bubble world imploded, the U.S Congress downsized the number of H-1B visas available. Coupled with the devastating impact of 9/11, overnight, the desired American dream, became a nightmare for immigration practioners. It soon became clear to me that looking outside the US for opportunities to attract talent would be the “next big thing.”

Using my language skills and keen sense of diplomacy, I began my Global immigration career entirely by accident. The firm I worked for partnered with a Big 4 firm. I was handed a file and told to “fix it.” It was a complex case, involving an international aircraft manufacturer, software updates to the “stealth” firmware and a Spanish Air force base that was being impossible; I was hooked. Loving a good puzzle, I contacted a top ranking Military Diplomat. In my innocence of youth, I had no idea one did not simply call up a General and ask him to do the right thing. I remember that case as vividly as if it were yesterday. My ability to speak Spanish, my mother’s voice echoing in my head saying “darling you can be whoever you want to be” and my indefatigable belief that I could change the world, made it happen. That was over twenty years ago. I still believe all of the above. That was my new holy grail. Doing US inbound immigration no longer held any appeal. There were, in my mind, more interesting paths to tread if I ventured offshore and into the world of Global Immigration.

And with that, I knew I had found my passion. I was asked very earlier on in my school career, to describe an ideal job. I remember my response: “I would like to write, to travel, to speak, to inspire, to use my languages and all the while be a lawyer.” That is in fact, my present job description.

I spent many wonderful years building a global practice, met outstanding talented foreign lawyers in my travels to seek out valuable, ethical and like-minded people with whom I would later build a Global Group.

But I digress.

Following the merger of the law firm I was with, I was head hunted by a competing firm to continue the work I had done in building a global immigration practice. ‘Global Immigration’ being a term of art used by practioners to describe any move from the US outbound or any third country to third country move outside the US.

I relocated from “sunny” Southern California to “very super sunny ridiculous temperatures all the time” in Phoenix Arizona. The practice had an incredible strong female role model, who I was privileged to work with. She serves as my continued inspiration to all things fair and harmonious in the world, albeit just by Facebook as she has retired. My craft developed. I learned the workings of a national law firm and the importance of being the “originating attorney” versus the “responsible attorney.”

The focus I placed on the climate, plays into the reason Pro-Link GLOBAL emerged.

I was born in a city on the ocean, I have lived next to the ocean my entire life and here I was living in “very super-hot dry temperatures all the time” Phoenix, Arizona. Did I mention it was three hours away from the closest ocean? And that ocean was in another country? Mexico.

And so began the story of Pro-Link GLOBAL.

 

Do you have any opinions on the potential legislation to be implemented by the future US Presidency?

A student of Law and Political Science, it is virtually guaranteed that I would have an opinion on the upcoming US Presidential race and proposed legislation. As a woman lawyer who deals in the intricacies of immigration to and from most countries in the world, I venture to state that “build a wall” is not the most effective way to manage illegal migration. The question is a holistic one I believe. Why do people migrate at all? On a personal level, it is to find better economic outcomes, to escape war, to reunite with family. On a business level, legal migration drivers are also better economic prospects. If those are the drivers, then the solution should be tied to the drivers. One of the better examples of providing a win-win situation to combat illegal migration is Canada. Rather than have illegal migrants enter to work their fields in the picking season, they have a well-established migrant worker visa program. Workers obtain their migrant visa in advance of the season, they arrive in time for harvesting and return home when the season is over; it works. It delivers to a need both of the harvester and the farmers.

Regardless of who the President is, although I have a definite choice, as a US citizen, and global immigration lawyer, I would like to see an approach to immigration that is fair. For illegal immigration, a system that allows for an amnesty for those who have been here for all their lives and don’t know any place other than the US as home. From a business immigration standpoint, encouraging those people who have the funds and chose to invest in the US as their destination of choice, to have a visa program that is efficient and seamless. The current investor visa program is a disaster. The business plans that are developed for investor visas are complex works of art. They are crafted by exceptionally smart lawyers and finance specialists. Yet, the approval rate is around 13%, the funds are tied up for years on end. Why you may ask? They are reviewed by “Officers” with no business training or investment education. Additionally, visa investment programs are growing steadily abroad; at last count there were no less than ninety different programs offering visa on investment.

 

Can you detail a client’s case where you were challenged in solving an immigration issue, and had to apply particular thought leadership to?

 One of our clients is an integral part of the delivery of clean water into Africa. The company established a brand-new entity in Kenya, posting a Rwanda-born Dutch national to Kenya in a senior role to support the operation. The visa application was subject to multiple delays during processing due to public sector workers’ strikes and public holidays. The employee was further frustrated by an unannounced visit from Immigration. Our team had only 12 hours to submit a response. Two counsel worked side-by-side for 12 hours straight to prepare the 66-page document demanded at the inspection. It outlined the enormous value the company brought to Kenya, our client’s philanthropic efforts in Nairobi and the employee’s extensive experience. It was then delivered electronically to our PLG | KGNM in Nairobi, who printed it out, got on a bus, and hand-delivered it the immigration officials who then confirmed receipt of the submission.

We turned a negative experience into a positive opportunity and less than a week later we received approval for the employee. Using our local knowledge, legal expertise and sheer determination, we were able to help the employee settle into Nairobi happily. The client was extremely satisfied that we were both able to resolve the onsite inspection and the pending work permit approval in one fell swoop. This never would have been possible without our global organizational structure and deep-routed, authentic relationships.

When one of our clients opened a Costa Rica location in the Free Trade Zone (Zona Franca) America to support management services and internal processes, we saw this as a new opportunity for us to delight our client. One of their key goals was to bring Indian nationals to Costa Rica. We provided detailed guidance and support regarding travel and entry visa strategy of Bangalore employees assigned to Costa Rica. Our legal analysis, together with a cost benefit analysis, resulted in our recommendation that Indian nationals travelling to Costa Rica could avoid the travel and additional expense of securing a Costa Rica entry visa in India by leveraging the US business visitor system under Costa Rica immigration regulations.

This was a major victory for our client – saving more than one week per employee and several thousands of dollars. Additionally, our guidance streamlined internal processes whereby Indian nationals and their managers could more easily manage their project deliverables in Costa Rica. To date, our strategic approach of leveraging the US B1/2 visa to advance the travel needs of the Indian employees entering Costa Rica has worked with a 100% success rate.

This strategic guidance, which was in excess of 20 hours on conference calls, drafting of analysis, explaining the Costa Rica immigration process to all stakeholders, was offered to our client at no charge. We provided this level of service in order to ensure our client’s success in their new venture.

 

You have been practising immigration law since 1986; what would you say have been the top three impacting legislative changes since then?

If I was to select three trends, they would be as follows:

Firstly, the immigration world has become kinder in countries by recognizing LGBT couples and allowing for families to stay united. This is a huge victory for the rights of people to love and live with whomever they chose. It is also a universal right enshrined in the new South African Constitution, one that I am very proud of.

Secondly, the developed world economies, who were considered immigration market leaders by “ease of use” standards, have become protectionist and fearful of “foreign workers.” The UK and Singapore are examples of this approach. From having a work permit system, that worked well, all HR and Global Mobility teams were able to bring in talented people without much ado; to the new Tier system that changes every April like clockwork, creates a sense of disappointment in our clients who viewed the UK once upon a time as a preferred destination. Given the Brexit vote, one thing is sure; that nothing is sure anymore.

Thirdly, the world has advanced so much in the past 30 years; sadly law, even in developed immigration programs, has not kept apace. The best example would be to think of the technological growth just in the past 10 years. We used to have desktop computers, then we moved to laptops, then to tablets, and now most of us live on our smart phones. This means that the framework for how we work has changed completely. A worker is no longer tied to their desk, they are mobile and provided they have internet connection, they can communicate with their home office in a nanosecond.

Yet, sadly, immigration conceptually is still tied to the age – old wisdom of “you must work at an office.” Well what if your employer encourages virtual work or telecommuting? It is that leap that immigration law still has to make in order to keep up with the times.

 

What keeps you one step ahead of your colleagues when it comes to immigration law?

Undoubtedly, our culture is one of knowledge sharing, driven by the passion and energy that each of us feels about immigration. We are all immigrants and it shows.

 

Do you have a mantra or motto you live by in service to your clients?

 We exist to make the experience of the relocating employee and their families, seamless. Like the haute cuisine restaurant you go to once a year, and the waiter is quietly ensuring that the correct meals are delivered on time, changing out your napkin without you noticing and refilling your wine glass before you realized it was empty. That is the quality experience we aim to deliver.