Intowners@Work: an interview with immigration attorney Erick Widman

In the coming months we're hoping to post a series of interviews with Intowners asking them how their faith intersects with their work life. Here's the first installment, an interview of Erick Widman by Pastor Brian Prentiss. (interview below image)

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Can you tell us first off a little about your current job and how you came to be doing what you’re doing? 

I'm currently practicing immigration law at a new non-profit organization and also at my own (small) law firm. I personally experienced the challenges of the outrageously complex immigration system when I handled the paperwork for my fiance and wife back in 2001. Lots of people end up frustrated, angry, and confused when trying to navigate the system. So it's gratifying to help remove roadblocks and reunite families.

I'm one of the founders of a non-profit called the Center for Immigrant Assistance. Our goal is to provide what can be called "low bono" assistance. The traditional "pro bono" model is where lawyers or non-profits take on cases entirely for free. However, the need for immigration related legal services is huge and far outstrips what is currently available on a pro-bono basis. Also, since many low-income immigrants can't afford to hire a lawyer at a law firm, they often end up unrepresented and make bad legal decisions. At the Center, our model is to keep fees low by reducing overhead costs and assisting clients primarily online and over the phone. We're finding that we can help almost anyone - including people who have never used a computer. This is because these clients often have a daughter or nephew who grew up using computers and are happy to assist.

What is a typical day like?

One of the best parts about working in the immigration field is that you get to interact with lots of fascinating people who are - no surprise - from all over the world. For example, some of my current clients are from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, France, India, Mexico and the UK. I usually meet with one or two people a day in person and also do a fair number of phone calls.

In general, practicing law can be an unpleasant experience that is somehow mind-numbing and stressful at the same time. Thankfully, helping clients with immigration issues is one of the best types of law out there. Rather than fighting other lawyers you're mainly fighting the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

In addition, I'm grateful I get to be my own boss and feel fortunate that my supportive wife has allowed me to start up my own law firm and non-profit. There is real financial uncertainty starting out. But it is also very satisfying to have clients refer their friends and family to you after helping them become citizens or get a visa. Since there is no "big boss" I report to, I'm the one who has to make sure that accounting, website issues, and paralegal support are handled well. I've found some good people to help me as contractors (rather than employees) in each of these areas. I work with them usually on a daily basis.

Are there specific things about the Christian faith that either prepared you for or maybe even led you into this kind of work?

I think that lots of Christians in the U.S. are recognizing and acting upon the clear biblical call to care for people who are vulnerable in our own society. There are many references in the Bible to welcome and assist "the stranger" or "alien" living among us. This includes helping refugees figure out how to buy groceries or simply being friendly to your neighbors from the Middle East who work in high tech. Also, regarding the controversial illegal immigration issue, it's helpful that Christian teaching on the importance of both law and grace gives us a solid framework to think things through. All of us are imperfect and all of us have broken the law (both moral and civil) in one way or the other.  I think this perspective is important as our elected leaders try to figure out the right balance on this issue themselves. In any event, all of us are called to extend kindness and mercy to our neighbors now. A great book I recommend that impacted me a lot a few years ago is Tim Keller's "Generous Justice."

Thanks Erick, God bless you and your family, including the new(ish) little girl pictured below.