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VOL. 38 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 28, 2014

Joy, frustration go with Arroyo's immigration practice

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Mabel Arroyo is increasingly being asked to help a second generation of immigrants through her work at Baker Donelson. ‘It’s this feeling that you help people, you make people happy. It makes me happy.’

-- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger

For Mabel Arroyo, immigration law is deeply satisfying both professionally and personally. Arroyo is a shareholder at Baker Donelson and one of the city’s best-known immigration attorneys.

Her reputation is such that her name is often passed around the immigrant community as a person who can help get things done, even though her current work for Baker Donelson falls under corporate labor law and mostly deals with professionals who are sponsored by their employers and in legal work status.

“It’s this feeling that you help people, you make people happy. It makes me happy,” Arroyo says of passing on good news that a visa or green card has been approved.

“It’s a process that we go through together. We laugh, we cry, we go through all the emotions together. My staff, they love the clients. It’s a good feeling.”

Mabel Arroyo

Employer: Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz

Academic background: Inter American University Law School

Quote: "I have several cases from people who still know my name from when I got here 15 years ago. They call and say, ‘You filed my case or my cousin’s case and you speak Spanish so I want you to handle my kid’s case.’”

Arroyo, who grew up in Puerto Rico, has been in Nashville for more than 15 years, practicing mainly family law for her first six years.

For the past seven years, she’s served as one of five immigration attorneys within Baker Donelson labor and employment group. Some of the corporate services they provide include transferring managers and executives from other countries into the U.S. – a relatively routine process – as well as filing for an H-1B, a non-immigrant, three-year extendable work visa for professionals in specialty occupations.

The U.S. currently issues only 65,000 H-1Bs per year, and in recent years, the cap has been hit during the first week of applications.

“It is very frustrating for employers,” Arroyo explains. “They’re trying to hire people legally and meet all the government requirements. They spend all this money recruiting, and then when they’re ready to file, the cap is reached.”

Arroyo’s position gives her a unique perspective on the job market in Tennessee. IT workers, software engineers, web developers and database administrators are needed, especially in the healthcare industry, which is digitizing all its records. And all types of engineers are in demand.

“We do need more H-1B visas, and we, and employers would benefit as well if they raised it,” Arroyo adds. “Employers are hurting because they need these skilled workers. They cannot find qualified IT workers here.”

Clients also include companies transferring managers into the U.S. from overseas, including manufacturing companies doing business with companies in Tennessee.

Immigration policy is evolving so rapidly that there’s a great deal of misinformation among those who hope to become U.S. citizens – especially young people who were born in the States. Politics complicates the issue further, with some states mounting legal challenges to federal policy.

The wait for a visa, a green card or citizenship can be demoralizing, with years passing before families are united.

“Sometimes you have to tell them it’s going to take 10 years,” Arroyo says.

“It’s very frustrating. You see it in their faces. They’ve been waiting so long.”

Language barriers combined with lack of knowledge or legal skill in filing can have major consequences, including deportation.

That’s why much of Arroyo’s pro bono work in the community deals with families and individuals seeking to immigrate. And it’s why she’s become a trusted advisor over the years.

“I still get calls from people I helped in 1998,” she says. “I have several cases from people who still know my name from when I got here 15 years ago.

“They call and say, ‘You filed my case or my cousin’s case and you speak Spanish so I want you to handle my kid’s case.’ There’s a comfort level when they know you speak their language.”

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