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Garfinkel Will Get You In

This sought-after immigration lawyer opens the door for NASCAR engineers and other top economic drivers

Published in 2014 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine

By Bruce Barcott on January 17, 2014


The annual calendar at Garfinkel Immigration Law looks like it belongs at an accounting firm. There are the other 11 months of the year. And then there’s April.

Tax day is April 15, but for Steven H. Garfinkel, head of one of North Carolina’s leading immigration firms, the big deadline arrives two weeks earlier: April 1, the filing date for all H-1B visa applications. Those are the temporary professional work visas that allow U.S. companies to recruit foreign talent. These highly skilled foreign workers keep companies moving ahead in the state’s booming financial services, health care systems and motorsports industries. And it’s Garfinkel’s job to keep the talent flowing. When a NASCAR team director needs to bring over an Australian engineer to rework an engine design, his first call is often to Garfinkel’s boutique firm based in Charlotte’s SouthPark neighborhood.

“We do some family-based immigration work, but 90 percent of our caseload has to do with employment-based immigration,” Garfinkel says. He relies primarily on word-of-mouth, referrals from other firms and repeat clients. “They range from the two-person company up to corporations listed on the Fortune 500.”

Various forces have propelled the 54-year-old attorney’s success. The Charlotte area’s emergence as a welcoming home for major corporations like Bank of America Corp., Duke Energy Corp. and Lowe’s Companies Inc. has turned the city into a destination for highly skilled immigrants. The increasing globalization of the economy has spurred international companies to recruit top talent across national borders.

Garfinkel’s experience in navigating the morass of federal immigration procedures, and his emphasis on providing excellent client service has earned him a solid client base and a steadily rising reputation. “Steve came up with innovative solutions that allowed us to process in 30 days or less visas that used to take months,” says Kathy Prosser, legal services manager at SGL Carbon LLC, a global carbon-based product manufacturer whose U.S. branch is headquartered in Charlotte. “He and his staff are always available. They’re a great bunch of people with really good expertise in immigration law.”

Nowhere is that client service more in demand than weeks leading up to the H-1B application deadline.

Current immigration law caps the number of high-level foreign worker visas at 65,000 per year. Another 20,000 are available to workers with a U.S. master’s degree or higher. Each year the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accepts H-1B petitions beginning April 1. In 2013, USCIS received approximately 124,000 petitions, and the application window closed within five days. The agency used a lottery to determine which petitions would be considered for review because the number of petitions far exceeded its 65,000 cap. In any given year Garfinkel’s firm will submit dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of H-1B petitions at the beginning of April.

“When the H-1B quota gets capped by the end of the first week, those visas aren’t available for another year,” says Garfinkel. “That places a hardship upon those clients.”

Immigration applications are all about strong documentation and meticulous paperwork.

To make sure his clients’ petitions are rock-solid, Garfinkel and his staff (six lawyers, 15 paralegals, and five administrators) start working the cases months prior to the deadline.

“Some of the folks we deal with are working pretty high up in their fields,” says Garfinkel. “They’ve developed innovative new processes and so forth. That’s the kind of thing that can help a person qualify under EB-1, ‘extraordinary ability,’” a kind of high-level permanent green card. “Sometimes a person’s natural humility gets in the way, though,” adds Garfinkel. “They’ll say ‘Oh, no, it’s nothing, really,’ but actually their resume is very impressive.”

That’s when Garfinkel’s corps of paralegals dig in, bird-dogging the documents, awards, articles and patents that can prove a client’s qualifications under EB-1.

“Getting the documentation is a challenge,” says Garfinkel. That means talking clients into opening up about themselves and their accomplishments. “These folks are often in very busy jobs. I don’t want to be a pest, but at the same time, I want to get my cases approved.”

Soft-spoken and courtly, Garfinkel counts himself a Tar Heel by choice. Born and raised in Kearny, N.J., a town in the New York metro area, he picked up stakes and headed south a week after high school graduation. “My dad had gone to college and med school in North Carolina, and the UNC system recruited him to teach in their family practice program just around the time I was finishing high school,” he says. Garfinkel liked what he saw of the people and the pace, and decided to put New Jersey in his rearview mirror for good. After four years at Wake Forest University, he continued on for three more years at the School of Law on its Winston-Salem campus. 

Immigration law has topped the headlines in recent years as Congress has attempted—and failed—to pass major efforts to reform the antiquated system of categories and quotas that govern the flow of people across our borders. But back in the 1980s, when Garfinkel was a young law school graduate, immigration law wasn’t exactly a popular practice area. Even so, when a Charlotte immigration attorney mentioned that he was looking to add an associate, Garfinkel jumped at the entry-level slot. “It included some of the aspects of economics and political science I’d enjoyed in college,” recalls Garfinkel. “In those early years, I did a little bit of everything: family cases, employment cases, asylum cases.”

After a few years Garfinkel moved on to Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, one of the state’s largest firms, where he focused on business immigration in the international division of the firm’s corporate department. “That’s when we started doing more work with the financial industry and health care providers,” he recalls. “There were a lot of large international companies moving to North Carolina,” which meant a lot of work for Garfinkel.

He built up a healthy client list, but after eight years Garfinkel grew tired of big-firm bureaucracy. He started looking for new opportunities. In 1997 he stepped out on his own, bringing along two paralegals, and a secretary. It was an amicable parting, but one that wasn’t without risk for Garfinkel. Parker Poe’s immigration clients were offered the option to go with Garfinkel or stay with the big downtown firm.

“Fortunately, the majority of the clients decided to come with me,” he says. “We were busy from the start.”

Garfinkel set up his shop just as things began to boom both in Charlotte and in the immigration field. The rise of financial institutions like Wachovia (later acquired by Wells Fargo) and Bank of America turned the city into a major banking center. NASCAR, the racing association created in the late ‘40s by North Carolina moonshiners, transformed itself into a global sports powerhouse. Lead racing teams like Penske, Joe Gibbs and Hendrick Motorsports went on a hiring spree, drawing talent from all over the world to their state-of-the-art garages on the outskirts of Charlotte.

Immigration was changing, too. From 1998 to 2003, Congress temporarily allowed the H-1B visa quota to skyrocket from 65,000 to 195,000. By 2004 the post-9/11 nation clawed back the H-1B numbers to 65,000. That put more pressure on attorneys like Garfinkel to present the strongest possible petitions for their clients. 

“One of the great rewards of the job comes when we get approval on the most challenging cases,” Garfinkel says. Several years ago he worked with two South Koreans applying for green cards. “Some glitches came up in the process, and they had to enter the country before they turned 21 … in order to make it all work. And that was just a day or two away.” Garfinkel spent the night on the phone to the U.S. consulate in Seoul, moving their paperwork through the system. “We were able to get them green cards, and they were on a flight back here, through customs and on the ground in time to secure their residency status.”

That emphasis on client service extends to technology, too. Garfinkel was an early adopter of cutting-edge technology allowing clients to have easy and timely access to their case status and documentation. “Steve’s a visionary, always looking for better ways to serve clients and instilling that desire in his employees,” says Jennifer L. Cory, a Garfinkel Immigration Law partner who signed on as an associate in 2001.

For clients, Garfinkel’s creative solutions to complex immigration problems can sometimes speed up the pace of innovation. Garfinkel’s client SGL Carbon LLC has sites in the U.S., Canada, China, Malaysia, India and throughout Europe. The company’s “SGL Excellence” program offers managers the opportunity to move around to different locations around the globe, exposing them to new cultures and ways of working, and pollinating the various offices with the executives’ ideas and expertise. “When people come over and work in the same organization but in a different country, they’re much better able to know how the puzzle pieces fit together in a global organization,” says Kathy Prosser.

Early on, SGL’s program suffered because of delays in visa processing. But Garfinkel found a way for SGL to register as a treaty investor, which allowed German executives to come to the U.S. under special E-2 visa status. The company also could move employees under L-1 blanket visas, which cover intracompany transfers within large multinationals. “It really helped us streamline the program,” says Prosser. 

Those creative solutions are often kindled by Garfinkel’s deep knowledge of both immigration code and the government agencies that carry it out. “In immigration law, we’re constantly dealing with one of the less well-funded government agencies,” he adds. “That provides challenges for those of us assisting clients through the process. A lot of our work is fixing mistakes and getting things unstuck.”

With Congress gridlocked on most major issues, immigration has shown signs that it may be one of the few topics that could find bipartisan agreement in the coming year. “We’d sure like to see some changes,” Garfinkel says. “It can be a frustrating practice area because of the hardships that come with outdated immigration laws.” Change may eventually come, but he’s not holding his breath. “I try to set reasonable expectations,” he says. For some, that can mean an exercise in patience; “I let them know it’s going to be years before that green card is issued.” If there’s a way to make the process faster and easier for his clients, Garfinkel will do all he can to make it happen.

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