An immigration lawyer tells us about the legal obstacles in working with Baton Rouge’s immigrant population

Paul “Woody” Scott was 26 when he started his immigration and criminal defense law firm in Baton Rouge. “I saw that there was a need in Baton Rouge to help the immigrant community with their legal needs and also help the business community when they needed to hire foreign workers,” he says.

That was nearly 10 years ago, and The Scott Law Firm has since helped hundreds of Dreamers, hundreds more secure green cards and about 1,000 clients become naturalized citizens. But numbers, Scott says, aren’t important to his team—people are. We talked with the now-35-year-old to learn how he and his firm serve immigrants in Baton Rouge and throughout the United States.

How did you get into immigration law?

I was born in Honduras, and growing up, I guess I was kind of tangentially around immigration law. I remember my grandmother [becoming] a naturalized U.S. citizen. When I went to law school, I didn’t really intend on doing immigration law. But I started clerking at a law firm that did immigration law, and it kind of clicked for me.

Where are the immigrants you work with from?

Everywhere. They’re predominantly Hispanic, for sure, but it’s everywhere. Russia. Iran. But because of where we are [located], it’s predominantly Hispanic.

Not everyone believes that undocumented immigrants have the right to become citizens or even live in the United States. How do you respond to that?

Well, they’re right. Most undocumented people may not have the right to become a citizen yet, because it’s a long process to become a U.S. citizen. The law says you have to become a lawful permanent resident first, which means a green card, before you can apply for citizenship.

Luckily, the law does provide everybody, regardless of their citizenship status, basic rights and freedoms. They have the right to access to courts, and they should be protected.

Have more clients sought your firm’s help since Donald Trump got elected?

Definitely. We saw a lot of people who had green cards and maybe were eligible to apply for citizenship and just haven’t done it for whatever reason. Maybe it was money. But since Trump got elected, we’ve had a lot of people come and hire us to get their citizenship. He’s caused a lot of fear in the immigrant community—not just the undocumented but also the documented people who have valid status here. A lot of people have hired us or at least sought to talk to us since he’s been elected.

How does your firm help clients, such as those without legal status?

We’ll explore those options, and hopefully we’re able to find something for them so they can apply for legal status, whether it’s DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] or a visa. But, a lot of times, there might not be anything available under the law, so we’ll explain that to them.

We also represent a lot of companies that want to have their employees either permanently here or legalize employees. So it’s not always just the immigrant who comes in. It might be a company that wants to bring an employee from abroad, or maybe they already have an employee here who’s a student, in student status, and they want to make them a permanent worker. We also do criminal defense. We represent a lot of people who are undocumented who are charged with crimes, and we help them through that process. A lot of times they’re dealing with a court system that they’re not familiar with.

How has your firm helped Dreamers?

A lot of our job is just keeping people up to date as to what can they do, what can’t they do. Also, the Dreamers do know that, right now, there isn’t a pathway to citizenship, so we try to help them find a [different] pathway using the law. If they are eligible to adjust status or get permanent residency status, which is the fancy name for green card, then that creates a pathway to citizenship. We’ve been fortunate enough to help a lot of young people to get their [DACA] status. Once they have it, we help them maintain that status. We also see if there’s anything else available to move them to a more permanent status. Because right now, so many Dreamers are afraid of what’s going to happen to their status.

How has DACA made a difference in the lives of your clients in terms of education or jobs?

DACA has been one of the best things that has happened to a lot of young people. One of my clients was graduating high school. She was very, very smart, but didn’t really have any prospects. But once she did get DACA, she was able to attend LSU. She got her master’s in teaching. So now, she’s a teacher at a public school around here. She teaches Spanish.

She’s been in the United States her whole life. She just happened to be born in Mexico. She didn’t have any options, except for maybe menial-type jobs, but now … she’s teaching our kids.

To even have [DACA protection], you have to have a high school diploma or GED or be in high school. So, you’re talking about a group of people who are already somewhat educated and moving to where they should have the opportunity to advance themselves.

What do you think is important for people to understand about immigrants or the work you do here?

Most people do not have a route to apply for legal immigration status in the United States. I hear everybody talking about either building a wall, or, on the other side, people are saying, “Let’s do an amnesty.” So, everybody’s really butting heads. But what nobody’s talking about is that there isn’t a good viable legal route to immigrate to the United States for the majority of immigrants, and that’s what causes illegal immigration. There are so many jobs—I mean, I have employers tell me [this]—that they can’t hire people to do. No U.S. citizen will do that job, so they have to hire migrants. We have the need for it. If we could make it viable that they could immigrate for a short amount of time and work and return, you would cut down on illegal immigration substantially. The president says, “Make America great again.” I want to make immigration viable again.

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for space and clarity.

A quick guide to all the immigration terminology that comes up in the magazine this month.

Refugees are forced to leave their home country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. They typically secure U.S. protection before entering the country.

Asylum seekers usually obtain U.S. protection after entering the country, often citing fear of persecution if they were to return home. Note: Refugees and asylum seekers have similar rights to lawful permanent residents in that they can work in the United States and apply for a green card after a period of time.

Illegal or undocumented immigrants have entered or live in the country without authorization. They could have crossed the border illegally or overstayed a temporary visa.

A visa can be issued temporarily for nonimmigrants, such as tourists, foreign students or seasonal workers. Immigrant visas are issued for people wishing to live permanently in the United States as one of the first steps toward receiving a green card.

A lawful permanent resident is a noncitizen given the right to live and work on a permanent basis. They are issued a green card that comes with some restrictions, including ineligibility to vote, and their status can be revoked.

A naturalized citizen has obtained U.S. citizenship after several years as a lawful permanent resident and completing a rigorous test. They cannot be deported and have the same rights as other U.S. citizens, including the ability to vote.

The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) would have allowed young immigrants brought here illegally as children to remain in the country if they met certain criteria. The legislation, first introduced in 2001, has never found approval. But it spawned the term “Dreamers,” in reference to those young people seeking a path to citizenship.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) was an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 to provide temporary protection for Dreamers until Congress wrote more definitive legislation. It is currently in limbo in President Donald Trump’s administration.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of 225 Magazine.