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In the Spotlight: Cohen & Grigsby

Law team helps clients weave through immigration maze

Sunday, March 18, 2001

By Stephanie Franken, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ellen Freeman, born Elena Kutseyko, came to the United States as a refugee from the former Soviet Union in 1993.

Larry Lebowitz, front right, Ellen Freeman, front left, Matthew T. Phillips, background left, and Jeffrey Van Doren practice immigration law at the Downtown law firm Cohen & Grigsby. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Since that time, she has married an American, changed her first name to Ellen, and become a lawyer at the Downtown law firm Cohen & Grigsby.

"I appreciate the United States very much," Freeman said. "It was my dream to come here."

An immigration lawyer who seeks to obtain work visas for foreign nationals, Freeman is constantly reminded of the contrast between her past and her present. And she knows that each day she holds clients' futures in her hands, in the visa applications she handles for them.

It can be an emotional job for Freeman and her colleagues in Cohen & Grigsby's immigration law group, a five-lawyer practice headed by Lawrence Lebowitz. The group's work volume has nearly tripled in the past three years, fueled by the 1996 acquisition of a Buchanan Ingersoll immigration practice group and growth of a local technology sector that's been forced to look overseas for programmers, engineers and researchers.

Even as the economy softens, causing some Pittsburgh companies to contract or even fold, demand for highly skilled foreign workers persists, said Lebowitz, chair of the immigration and international business groups at Cohen & Grigbsy and an adjunct law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "There continues to be a totally insufficient supply of U.S. workers for these high-tech jobs," he said.

The statement holds true for Ansoft Corp., a South Side software company that looks to Indian and Chinese workers to fill high-level, hard-to-find spots, primarily in electrical engineering. "We're still hiring a ton of workers, foreign and otherwise," said Jennifer Osgood, a human resources group leader. Several local technology firms report that while overall hiring is tapering off, they're still looking for master's- and doctorate's-level employees.

In addition to tech firms such as CoManage, Blue Hammock, Marconi Communications and Ansoft, Pittsburgh stalwarts such as PNC Financial Services and Bayer Corp. use Cohen & Grigsby to obtain work visas or green cards for the foreign professionals they hire.

Much of the immigration lawyers' working lives are spent staying abreast of frequent changes in immigration law -- and knowing which of the myriad types of visas to use in various circumstances. In addition, they work to pull strings that may help push an application through the massive U.S. immigration bureaucracy.

That process hasn't gotten any easier. Lawyers say it used to take roughly three weeks for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to process a temporary work visa application. Now, it usually takes more than a month -- and often three. "There's more paperwork, more documents and it takes longer," said Sharon Kimble, manager of immigration services at Cohen & Grigsby. Kimble has done immigration work in Pittsburgh since 1986.

Plus, the application process is more remote and less personal than it used to be, she said. When Kimble began her career, visa applications were filed Downtown. "If you had a problem, you could walk over and talk to an immigration officer and get some help," she said. Now those applications are mailed to Vermont.

And applications for permanent residency -- to obtain a green card -- used to require personal interviews with an INS agent. That, too, has changed and now is handled only through mail. So paralegals and attorneys need to find new ways to push cases through the system, Kimble said.

Beyond aggressive phoning and paper-pushing, life in immigration law is punctuated by scary moments, in which a person's future hangs in the balance. And the quality of an immigration practice group becomes most evident when a crisis strikes, said Ron Pozzi, director of international compensation and transfers at Bayer.

Freeman, who is an associate at Cohen & Grigsby, recalled a recent situation that tested her.

She was filing a visa application for a young man who grew up the same city she did -- Odessa, a former Soviet city in what is now the independent Ukraine. The client's parents had immigrated to the United States, and the young man had received a job offer from a Pittsburgh company. Before he could accept his job, however, he needed to return to Odessa to obtain a visa stamp for his passport.

Things didn't go smoothly. Once he arrived alone in Odessa for what was to be a quick trip, he had to wait -- and wait. "The consulate was making requests for additional documents that had nothing to with his visa," Freeman said. Those documents had to come from the INS, and they were hard to obtain.

"He was basically stuck there. His mother was crying; she couldn't understand why he was turned away."

Freeman took it hard, too, knowing her client wasn't financially prepared for a long stay in Odessa. "I even called my Dad, who still lives there. I asked, 'Dad, would you meet him and give him some money?' "

After many days spent negotiating with the consulate in Odessa and with the INS, Freeman found a way to get the visa stamp. The young man returned to the United States to start his job.

Although Freeman doesn't routinely offer her dad's financial assistance to clients, "When people are at the border, I always give them my phone number," she said. "You never know what they'll encounter."

In addition to Freeman and Lebowitz, partner Jeffrey Van Doren, outside attorney John S. Brendel, associates Ira Podheiser and Matthew T. Phillips and 10 paralegals also handle immigration cases at the firm.

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