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Closing the knowledge gap: Mira Mdivani’s corporate immigration institute trains counsel, executives to avoid pitfalls

When Mira Mdivani gives training sessions, she is used to seeing a degree of surprise emerge on the faces of the clients she counsels.

“Their first reaction is shock with how much [they] don’t know,” said Mdivani, a Kansas City-area attorney. “Most employers out there don’t know what they don’t know. Many of them are in unknowing violation of the law.”

Reducing the hazards posed by that knowledge gap is where Mdivani’s Corporate Immigration Compliance Institute enters the picture. Her company, based in Overland Park, Kansas, offers training to business management, in-house counsel, HR professionals and others on a variety of issues resting at the complicated nexus of employment and immigration status.

Mdivani notes that immigration law is among the government’s more complex endeavors — in fact, its rules run even longer than the U.S. tax code.

Mira Mdivani

Mira Mdivani

Leaders of many companies believe they need just a few tips on I-9 forms but suddenly discover a whole world of potential issues where the institute’s expertise can be of help. From visa problems to E-Verify to I-9 audits, the institute has established itself nationally as the place where businesses go for answers — hopefully before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers come knocking at the door.

The field is evolving quickly.

“For example, a hot issue right now is Social Security no-match letters and the effect they have on potential exposure of employers on immigration non-compliance issues,” said Mdivani, in a reference to letters indicating a mismatched Social Security number. “We’ve seen an increase in employers receiving no-match letters, and we train them on how to deal with those from an immigration-compliance point of view.”

Danielle Atchison, a colleague at the associated Mdivani Corporate Immigration Law Firm, said employers who come to the institute sometimes are surprised to learn documents are required for all employees.

“One of the other things that comes up a lot is when you need an I-9,” the form all U.S. employers must complete to verify the identity and employment authorization of each person they hire, Atchison said.

“Most people don’t understand that it is every single company, every single employee,” she said. “It is a shock to people not in this area, especially to HR and attorneys that we train.”

The Corporate Immigration Compliance Institute also can help with more complex issues. The organization helps to advise on “global mobility” for large companies that need to move people from foreign offices to the United States.

Mdivani said the ties she has established with clients are long-term.

“I’ve forged relationships where we would train them, and now we have a relationship going back years where we assist them when needed,” she said.

Mdivani said company officials sometimes arrive with what they believe are simple issues, such as getting an injunction to stop a deportation or trying to get a worker documented, without realizing the wider danger to which they already might be exposed.

“They come to us with, ‘Okay, what do we do for the workers?’ and the issue is that YOU are probably under investigation and have been for a couple of years and don’t know it,” Mdivani said. “It is a shock for people, and we are most of the time right because we’ve seen it all.”

Mdvani said the first step in assisting a company is typically a full audit to look for potential violations.

“In some cases, if the workers actually don’t have authorization, we’ll need to terminate the workers, and then we’ll figure out with the help of individual immigration lawyers if they have any options,” she said. “Then we concentrate on defending the employer and setting up compliance so they don’t repeat these mistakes in the future.”

Creating procedures is an important component and involves counseling on how management can formulate processes to prevent problems before they occur.

“If we train in-house counsel and HR professionals on I-9 compliance before the government is interested in them versus after the government comes, the result is either complete defense where our clients are in compliance or a lot of scrambling, a lot of expense and a lot of worry by business executives and owners if the training is not done timely.”

When it comes to corporate immigration plans, Mdivani wrote the book — literally. She’s also authored works on H-1B visas and how to deal with I-9 audits. She previously has served as president of the Kansas Bar Association’s immigration law and in-house counsel sections as well as chairing The Missouri Bar’s immigration law committee.

A graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, she now teaches courses there in her subject area. Mdivani also has collected a slew of honors through her career, from Business Practitioner of the Year and Mentor awards presented by Missouri Lawyers Media to an Outstanding Achievement Award by the Kansas Bar Association. She’s also received the President’s Award from The Missouri Bar.

Mdivani currently sits on the board of governors for The Missouri Bar and has done so in the past for the Kansas Bar Association, of which she is the current president. She’s been honored for her pro bono work by both the Kansas Bar Association and the University of Missouri Law Foundation.

Meanwhile, the institute’s reputation has grown beyond the borders of both states.

“We started getting trainees not just from Missouri and Kansas and not just from the Midwest, where most of our clients come from, but from all over the United States — New York, California, Puerto Rico,” she said. “The need is such that people are looking for it, and they come to us for training.”

That’s why she spun off the institute from her law firm in 2008, just four years after founding the latter. Before launching the Mdivani Corporate Immigration Law Firm, she practiced corporate law with another local attorney but found there was a demand for business immigration law work. The number of questions from HR professionals and colleagues only seemed to intensify as her firm’s reputation grew.

“We have this unique knowledge we could share with those who need it,” she said. “There was a huge need out there.”

The institute helps companies to comprehend the realities of the I-9 system by providing “the answers to questions that people don’t even know to ask,”Atchison said.

“The government put it into place for the purpose of ensuring that U.S. employers wouldn’t hire unauthorized workers and then unauthorized workers would stop coming to the United States because they couldn’t get jobs,” she said. “Instead, we just have employers filling out forms willy-nilly and not really getting why. I think the institute provides that education piece.”

That piece sometimes can even be delivered remotely. The Corporate Immigration Compliance Institute also offers webinars on its site at usimmigrationcompliance.com. Topics include everything from “Does Your Electronic I-9 Policy Comply with ICE Regulations?” to “Business Plans and Strategy for International Personnel.”

Atchison said the nation’s heartland has proven to be fertile ground for the business, given the region’s excess of manufacturing, food-processing and fast-food operations that frequently employ immigrants.

“In the Midwest, we have a lot of [those fields], so for getting the message out and educating employers I think we are really well-situated in Kansas City,” she said.

Rochelle Stringer, general counsel of Huhtamaki, a paper-goods-packaging firm in De Soto, Kansas, said her company is one of the institute’s clients. The company hired Mdivani’s enterprise to do a nationwide audit of the outfit’s nearly 4,000 employees and provide training for its human resources workers. Senior leadership then learned how to put in place an I-9-compliant policy.

“It was a big project, and they got it done,” said Stringer.

It also isn’t over. The company’s HR employees still do annual training sessions with the institute, something Stringer said works well due to the down-to-earth, direct style of the trainer.

“She made it very relatable and practical to them. She’s not reading laws to them or citing cases like lawyers tend to do,” she said. “To me, I was pleasantly surprised that it was very practical advice oriented to how they run their business.”

Stringer called the institute’s approach organized, systematic and based on common sense.

“We’re a very risk-averse company, so if it means we have a more detailed policy and we train on it once a year, we’d rather do that than run afoul of the somewhat changing laws or enforcement there,” Stringer said.

While Stringer said the audit turned up no major difficulties for the company, the process did turn up smaller issues. It was well worth the time because it removed the guesswork and helped to augment the “skeletal policies” the company had with greater expertise, she said.

Without Mdivani’s help, Stringer said she believes company procedures in this area would be more hit-or-miss.

“We wouldn’t have a consistent approach. That’s the problems with I-9s or any form,” she said. “People aren’t an expert in them, so they’ll just kind of fill them out however they think. By having experts come in and train people, then they get a consistent approach.”

Atchison said she hopes to see the Corporate Immigration Compliance Institute continue to grow.

“This institute has the deep expertise on the subject and really gets the message across in an effective manner to people who want to know how to fill out [the I-9] and make sure they are not hiring unauthorized workers,” she said. “Ideally, I’d love to be providing this training nationwide to all HR, employers and attorneys in this area.”

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