Navigating immigration law

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2012 - 5:30 PM

A Sri Lankan lawyer helps U.S. companies get the world's best and brightest hired.

Piyumi Samaratunga an attorney for the Minneapolis firm Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon & Vogt, at her office on March 11, 2012.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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The road from her native Sri Lanka to the U.S. Bank building in downtown Minneapolis was serendipitous for attorney Piyumi (pronounced P-U-Me) Samaratunga.

There was no chart or five-year plan that said immigration law was the place to be.

But today, at 47, Samaratunga leads the fledgling immigration practice of Felhaber Larson Fenlon & Vogt, helping some of the state's largest companies navigate the legal landscape when they want to recruit and retain highly skilled foreign nationals.

Samaratunga was raised and educated in her native Sri Lanka. She got a law degree there, went to work for one of the country's most prestigious law firms, got a master of law degree from the University of Cambridge in England, worked for two law firms in London and one in Washington, D.C., before returning to her homeland to practice in securities regulation and corporate finance.

But an emergency in her husband's family, who had migrated to the United States years earlier, brought Samaratunga to Minnesota for a temporary visit that became a permanent residence.

She quickly realized her law degrees were not recognized by the Minnesota Bar Association so she went to work as a independent contractor in the legal office at Medtronic. "I was going stir crazy," Samaratunga said of her search for work.

Colleagues at the med-tech giant eventually persuaded Samaratunga to earn a third law degree, which she did at Hamline University School of Law, graduating in 2001.

"I never thought of immigration law as a practice area for me," Samaratunga said in a recent interview. "Corporate law had always been my focus but it seemed like a logical point to do something different."

At Felhaber, Samaratunga oversees a staff of three attorneys, three law clerks and a legal assistant.

QIs there a growing need for immigration attorneys?

AYes, there's definitely a growing need at multiple levels. We are an employment-based practice. For U.S. corporations to remain competitive, they have to attract the best and the brightest talent. If Fortune 500 companies want to stay on the cusp of creativity they want the best brains and the best people for those positions.

Companies will say this is the best person in a given field and we need to bring him or her over here. We'll also work with students who are graduating to go to work with U.S. companies rather than go elsewhere and compete against U.S. companies. The demand for top-notch talent is global.

QHow do you market your services?

AIt's always been through personal conduct and connections. We'll tell a client, give us a case and try us out. We've grown one case at a time.

QWho are your top clients?

ABecause of attorney-client privilege I can't name them but we represent some of largest companies in Minnesota, including multinational corporations and Fortune 500 companies as well. We've worked with smaller companies and universities.

We've worked with physicians at leading medical facilities and rural, under-served areas that struggle to attract the physicians they need. We work with individuals of extraordinary abilities in science, technology, engineering, math -- the STEM subjects. These are individuals who are at the top of their chosen field, often science-based.

We get brought into the picture once an offer has been made and accepted. It's a situation where a foreign national wants to live in the U.S. and the company has the right fit for that individual. The U.S. still attracts the best and the brightest.

QWhat are some of the challenges in immigration law?

AThe quota system for sure is one. Also the uncertainty of the process and the time that the immigration process takes. You have employer patience too. People ask themselves, what if I get laid off, what if I get terminated. It's a very sensitive issue.

QAre U.S. companies sensitive about hiring foreign workers when unemployment in this country remains stubbornly high?

AWe are not displacing American workers. We're helping employers retain the best talent they need for the job.

Frankly, no employer would want to go through the expense and uncertainty of the immigration process if they could hire a U.S. worker to fit their need. This is a last-ditch effort to get that talent.

One client needed someone trained in deep-brain stimulation. There are few who could fill that spot. We are not filling roles where there is plenty of U.S. talent. Absolutely not. Look at the economics and time of putting someone through the immigration process. It costs thousands of dollars."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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    Saturday April 21, 2012

    Position: Immigration practice group chair, Felhaber Larson Fenlon & Vogt

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