It Takes an INS Lawyer to Know an INS Lawyer

Laura Wytsma devotes several hundred pro bono hours to immigration and asylum cases

Published in 2007 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2007

Laura Wytsma has been on both sides of the immigration debate, and that has left her with deep respect for those she has met from distant lands who hope for U.S. citizenship. It also has left her concerned about the government’s approach to immigration and asylum cases, as well as the quality of representation the applicants are provided.

Wytsma, who concentrates on patent litigation for Loeb & Loeb, devotes several hundred pro bono hours to immigration and asylum cases. She began her legal career in 1996 on “the other side” of immigration, working as a trial attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

When she left the INS for Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in 1998, she says she was frustrated with immigration law and swore she’d never practice it again. “People who deserved relief weren’t able to get it, and those who shouldn’t be allowed to stay got away with things,” she says. “I felt a huge sense of futility in that job.”

But immigration law resurfaced in her life in 2003 when Sonnenschein made a concerted effort to recommit its lawyers to pro bono work. Wytsma served as a chair of the Los Angeles office’s pro bono committee from 2003 to 2005. In that time, she won asylum for an 89-year-old Iranian woman fleeing religious and political persecution in her homeland, as well as for a second Iranian woman who had endured years of rape perpetrated through a state-sanctioned marriage. She also was part of the team that won asylum for a Cameroonian man who had been denied it by an immigration judge despite being tortured in his country for supporting two pro-democracy political parties.

Wytsma says her commitment to immigration work is reinforced by her concern that government attorneys often lose sight of their role in these cases. “Too often, the government focuses on ‘winning’ at any cost and forgets why asylum laws exist in the first place.”

She says the level of practice in immigration courts is sub-par and has been since her days at INS. “There are certainly some very good immigration attorneys, but I also would see attorneys come into the courtroom who hadn’t even met their clients yet. They had never interviewed them and never discussed their case.”

Wytsma says she’s fortunate to have the opportunity to tackle these fulfilling pro bono cases while maintaining her “day job”—she joined Loeb & Loeb in April 2007—practicing intellectual property law.

“It’s deeply satisfying to be able to help people who have gone through such hardship already. And you will never have a more appreciative client,” she says. “But asylum cases can be very taxing emotionally, so sometimes it’s nice to retreat back into patent litigation. I have the best of both worlds.”

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