Immigration law firmunder investigation

The nation's largest immigration law firm is under federal scrutiny over whether it helped major U.S. corporations disqualify American job applicants and give thousands of high-paying positions to immigrants.

The unprecedented Labor Department inquiry centers on Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy – a New York firm at the forefront of a political effort to ease hiring of skilled foreign workers.

The Labor Department is auditing all pending applications for legal immigrant workers the firm has filed on behalf of its corporate clients.

Fragomen's client roster includes General Electric, IBM, Cisco Systems, Intel and Bank of America, according to company publications and trade journals. The firm also represents The Associated Press on immigration issues.

The inquiry focuses on the applications filed by the firm, but there was no indication that the inquiry involves any of Fragomen's clients.

The Labor Department said that Fragomen may have improperly advised clients to contact a Fragomen attorney before hiring “apparently qualified” U.S. workers.

The agency said lawyers can advise employers on how to follow the law in hiring immigrants but can't dissuade them from deciding a U.S. worker is qualified.

The audit focuses on what is known as the permanent foreign labor certification, or PERM, process. Companies normally use it to permanently hire legal immigrants who have been working for them on temporary visas. It essentially allows companies to sponsor workers for green cards, the first step to U.S. citizenship.

Before applying, companies must recruit and try to find a qualified U.S. worker for the same job. If they do, they can't hire the foreigner.

Fragomen said its lawyers have complied with the law and rejected the idea that lawyers can't give critical legal advice about the complicated process for permanently hiring legal immigrants.

“We do not tell our clients whom to hire or not to hire,” the firm said in a statement, adding that it is negotiating with the Labor Department to end the audit.

Labor Department officials refused interview requests. Spokesman Terry Shawn said the agency does not comment on ongoing legal matters.