Joseph Lavetsky, who lives and works in Beacon, is an immigration lawyer.
Why did you decide to practice law?
I was teaching in Japan but didn’t know what I wanted to do in the long term. I liked teaching, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a career out of it. One day, while taking a walk, I thought, “I could study international law, human rights laws, and go to law school.” I’d spent time traveling around the world and it opened my eyes, and that got me interested in immigration law. I didn’t realize what a rabbit hole it would be. Immigration law, and the situations and politics surrounding it, are complicated. It’s intellectually stimulating but challenging. It suits my personality because I don’t necessarily have to go to court; it can be done mostly in the office or at home. I’m grateful I was able to find my niche.
You grew up in Syracuse and attended college in Buffalo and Atlanta, but somehow learned to surf. How did that come about?
I did an exchange program at the University of Sydney. I lived in a beach town called Bradley. I’m not going say that I was the greatest surfer, but I did buy a surfboard for $175, and I did try to learn. I didn’t have a work permit, so the only thing to do was read, surf and exercise. That was my life for two months.
What is the biggest challenge of your job now?
Many immigrants have a hard time trusting someone with their stories and lives. Many are putting their future into your hands. For example, if they’re applying for a green card, and they don’t have legal status and the lawyer doesn’t handle the paperwork the right way, the person would be stepping out of the shadows. You have to remember, as I learned myself, that immigration law is so incredibly complicated, it’s easy to get it wrong. That’s one reason I think a lot of immigrants hesitate to apply for certain benefits, even if they qualify.
What challenges do people face to become legal residents?
For the person who overstays their visa or comes across the border, the immigration laws make it so difficult to get a green card that their only practical option is to marry a U.S. citizen or somebody with a green card. Even if an employer wants to sponsor you for a green card, it can be difficult to qualify. In some cases, even if you’ve been here since you were a child, you might have to go back to your native country for the interview. And sometimes the law says if you do that, you can’t come back for 10 years, at least. DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program established in 2012] recipients are fortunate in that they have a work permit, a Social Security number, the ability to apply for a travel permit for $575. But if you came to the U.S. after 2007, as a lot of high school graduates are now realizing, you don’t qualify for DACA. A lot of those people are in a difficult situation, and sometimes they don’t have any realistic options.
Recently New York City has been sending immigrants who are seeking asylum to hotels in Dutchess and other counties. What is required for an immigrant to apply for asylum?
There are various types of asylum, but most people apply for political asylum because, even if your claim is not great, you will likely get work authorization and a Social Security number, as well as access to state benefits like Medicaid or health insurance. That’s one reason people apply in New York. A lot of asylum approvals go to people from countries where there is political instability, authoritarian governments, minority groups who are persecuted. Notably, a lot of asylum attorneys are leaving the field because the immigration court system is such a mess. Some people are waiting six months or more to get their applications reviewed, and others wait three or four years to get a hearing. For some, it can take 10 years to get a decision, especially since the pandemic, because the courts have immense backlogs. The reality is that these people are here and it’s fine to welcome them, but at the same time, the federal government has a mess on its hands.
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