City law firm's immigration video sparks an Internet firestorm

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What started as a simple marketing video for Downtown law firm Cohen & Grigsby has resulted in an Internet firestorm encompassing tens of thousands of YouTube viewers, Lou Dobbs and the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

The video features portions of Cohen & Grigsby's "Seventh Annual Immigration Law Update," held May 15 at the Pittsburgh Hilton, Downtown.

The video that's causing all the furor.

The segment of the video drawing all the attention is one in which lawyers from Cohen & Grigsby's highly regarded immigration practice advocate methods to comply with a law requiring employers prove that they have tried to find qualified American workers before applying for a green card for a foreign worker. The lawyers urge the audience, in so many words, to do exactly the opposite.

"Our goal is clearly not to find a qualified and interested U.S. worker," said partner Lawrence Lebowitz on the video. "And, you know, that in a sense that sounds funny, but it's what we're trying to do here."

When Kim Berry, president of an organization called the Programmers Guild that opposes the issuance of visas to foreign workers, watched the video clip after he received it in an e-mail on Saturday, he thought it was anything but funny.

Mr. Berry shortened the video from the version that he received, adding subtitles and music for emphasis. "I grabbed the two masters and edited it down, just to make it more convenient for the few hundred people I thought might want to watch it," he said. "I didn't expect it to get 44,000 hits in three days."

By the end of the weekend, political blogs of all stripes -- from DailyKos to National Review's The Corner -- had linked to the video, which just so happened to play nicely into issues raised in the immigration bill that the U.S. Senate is debating this week.

Yesterday, Cohen & Grigsby put out a statement that while the firm stands by the substance of the seminar, "we regret the choice of words that was used during a small segment of the seminar. It is unfortunate that these statements have been commandeered and misused, which runs contrary to our intent."

The firm already removed its version of the video after a Monday article in the online publication Information Week detailed the controversy.

But Mr. Berry's version remains on the Internet and by Tuesday, the story was widespread enough to be featured on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight," with Mr. Dobbs saying that "the law firms and everyone else, they're just basically try to [stick it to] the American worker."

Cohen & Grigsby, one of Pittsburgh's top 10 largest law firms, had found itself embroiled in the 24-hour news cycle fueled by cable news and the blogosphere. And it was about to get worse.

Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao asking her for assistance in "reviewing the video and investigating the law firm's unethical procedures."

What made the video into such an Internet hit, said Mr. Berry, is that it validated long-held suspicions that he and others had been unable to substantiate.

"It's proof from the attorneys themselves that they are getting resumes from qualified Americans and they are going through all sorts of steps so that Americans don't get jobs," he said. "It shows what's really happening behind the curtain."

But the issue is slightly more complicated than it is being portrayed on the Internet, said Crystal Williams, deputy director for programs at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.

When companies apply for a green card for a worker, she said, it's often for somebody that they already have brought over on a temporary visa and is working at the company. But in order to fill the green card requirement that there are no qualified American candidates, the company needs to redo the job search -- even though they already have somebody working in that position.

"It sounded a lot worse than it is," said Ms. Williams. "They were talking about the electronic labor certification and that is a program that is very formalized. By its very nature, it's a little bit twisted."

That twisted process leads to what Mr. Berry considers to be "fake" newspaper advertisements for jobs that are essentially already filled with green card candidates. For years, he's been tracking such ads in his hometown newspaper, The Sacramento Bee.

In the Cohen & Grigsby video, attorneys advocated placing advertisements in newspapers -- where they would be less likely to find qualified workers -- versus more fertile recruitment venues such as Monster.com or campus recruitments. "Certainly we are not going to try to find a place where applicants would be most numerous," said Mr. Lebowitz, who is also an adjunct professor of immigration law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

If a company does find an undeniably qualified American candidate through newspaper advertising, "if necessary schedule an interview, go through the whole process to find a legal basis to disqualify them for this particular position," said attorney Jennifer L. Barton on the video.

Those particular sections of the video "sounded bad," Ms. Williams said. "I don't know that they are common practice."

Advertising positions in places where a company would not find job applicants, she said, is "kind of the opposite" of the correct process.

But the real problem, said Ms. Williams, is the immigration process itself.

"Nobody's happy with it -- that's about the one consensus we can get, and that includes the Department of Labor," she said. "That being said, no one's been able to come up with a better one."


Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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