Lina Yen Hughes
Principal Attorney, The Law Office of Lina Yen Hughes in Sacramento
Area of Practice: Immigration Law
Year Graduated: 1997
Solo practitioner Lina Yen Hughes counsels individuals, businesses, and charitable organizations on a wide range of issues related to immigration. Her practice is fueled by a passion for immigration law that originates at least in part in her personal experience with the subject. "I was born in Taiwan, and I came to the U.S. when I was five. That makes me 'first-generation,' so I feel like I'm close to the immigrant story," she explains. Even so, when Ms. Hughes decided to go to law school, she did not anticipate a career in immigration law. "I was thinking I would go into government or nonprofit work," she remembers. "Never did I think I would have my own practice."
Upon their arrival in the United States, Ms. Hughes and her family settled near San Francisco, California. After high school, she attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature and a minor in Ethnic Studies. In the months leading up to her graduation from Berkeley, Ms. Hughes debated between a career in teaching or in law, ultimately choosing law. She received her J.D. from University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in 1997.
During her time at McGeorge, Ms. Hughes took a course on immigration law that sparked her interest in the field. "I had a really good immigration law professor who was also a practicing attorney, and who was very fun, with a dynamic personality. That got me interested," she recalls. "So then, coming out of McGeorge, I interviewed immigration lawyers in Sacramento. They had their own practices and were successful. They were giving, honorable people — down to earth — and I respected that. It was good to see that the people who had been doing this were people I liked."
Based on her positive experiences with immigration attorneys, Ms. Hughes sought out work related to immigration law, and she held a few jobs in the field before opening her own immigration practice in 2010. First, she clerked for a solo practitioner while awaiting her bar results. From there, she moved to the established San Francisco immigration law firm of Fallon, Bixby, Cheng & Lee (FBC&L) as an associate attorney. After a little over two years at FBC&L, Ms. Hughes joined the legal department of a large, religious nonprofit organization in Orlando, Florida. "[Being in-house] was exciting because there was a little bit of everything: contracts, international law, taxation, immigration — I ended up doing mostly immigration," she says. "It was great exposure to doing immigration work for a large, multinational organization, and it was very challenging." After ten years in-house, Ms. Hughes moved back to Sacramento to be closer to her family, and there she set up her own practice, taking her former nonprofit employer on as a client. She notes that opening her own practice was less daunting because she knew the organization would provide her with a steady stream of work. The "strong camaraderie among lawyers in the immigration bar, because [they] never go up against each other," acted as an additional motivating factor for Ms. Hughes. "You can get so much help, so much mentoring [from other immigration attorneys]," she points out.
Today, as the principal attorney at The Law Office of Lina Yen Hughes, Ms. Hughes finds that her clients come to her for a wide variety of reasons and seeking a broad range of services. She explains, "My clients include business visitors, people coming [to the U.S.] for a wedding or to visit a terminally ill relative, and international students who want to know their work visa options. I also represent foreign national workers and employers." She helps individuals obtain immigrant and non-immigrant visas (which may be employment- or family-based), permanent residency status, and U.S. citizenship, in line with their unique immigration goals. She also counsels employers on compliance with federal rules regarding Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 and on preparation for potential audits by the federal government. Because Ms. Hughes does not represent clients in asylum or deportation cases, she does not have to appear in immigration court. Instead, she spends most of her time counseling clients, filing applications, and following up on the status of her clients' cases.
Ms. Hughes observes that it can be challenging to gather all the information that she needs from her clients in order to accurately complete their paperwork. Sometimes, she explains, clients don't understand why they need to disclose certain information because the information seems irrelevant to them. Other times, due to cultural or language barriers, clients have a different perspective that may lead to misunderstandings on how to best answer questions from the government. Ms. Hughes has also learned to rephrase questions during client interviews to make sure her clients truly understand the type of information she seeks. For example, she may ask, "Have you ever been in a police car?" to help her explore whether the client has ever been detained or arrested.
Interestingly, because immigration law is dependent on federal law, not state law, Ms. Hughes is able to represent clients regardless of where they are located, whether in California, another U.S. state, or abroad. To cope with geographic limitations, she uses phone, email, and Skype's video calling service to communicate with clients who can't physically come to her office. Skype, she notes, can be especially helpful in situations where the client or clients will be personally interviewed by government officials, such as when a citizen spouse sponsors a non-citizen spouse for permanent residency. In that case, the government official will conduct a personal interview of the spouses to determine if they have a bona fide marriage. With Skype, Ms. Hughes can see how the spouses interact with one another and their demeanor while responding to her questions, which then helps her identify any legal or cultural issues and best advise them regarding the interview process.
Ms. Hughes notes that there are several skills that immigration attorneys must have. First, they must be committed to keeping current on the law. "Immigration law is constantly changing, and it fluctuates," she explains, "because it's really driven by the economy and politics…. Even as an experienced attorney, you can't rely on what you learned five years ago." Second, immigration attorneys must be vigilant regarding the myriad deadlines they will have to meet, since "missing a deadline is very serious." Third, they must be detail-oriented in order to avoid costly mistakes. Fourth, they must have a basic knowledge of tax because the immigration service will often request tax information from foreign nationals living and working in the U.S. or from their employers. Fifth, and finally, immigration attorneys must have good client counseling skills and enjoy working with people. "You have to appreciate other cultures and have strong communication skills, especially excellent listening skills. A lot of what you get from clients isn't what they say but what you can take from what they say and use to ask the right follow-up questions. [Clients] might have different cultural cues, and you have to appreciate those differences too," Ms. Hughes notes. She recommends that students, as well as practicing attorneys, who are interested in immigration law do whatever they can to hone these skills and also that they join the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Ms. Hughes and most other immigration attorneys belong to AILA, which provides its members with educational trainings, networking, and other benefits.
Immigration law has provided Ms. Hughes with a challenging and satisfying career in which she can see how what she does benefits her clients in concrete ways. Reflecting on her work, Ms. Hughes remarks, "I like to help people reach their goals. My clients are coming to the States to visit, to work, to get married, or to be citizens, and I feel privileged to be part of their life journey."