Hiring video's aftermath: Law firm says words ill-chosen, but advice proper

Cohen & Grigsby exec defends comments that sparked controversy as 'legally correct'

The law firm that last spring inadvertently gave H-1B visa opponents a YouTube sound bite for the ages said in a lengthy letter to two federal lawmakers that it "regrets certain ill-chosen language" but did nothing legally or ethically wrong.

Pittsburgh-based Cohen & Grigsby PC sent the letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in July, after the two congressmen had written the law firm with questions about a video posted on YouTube LLC's Web site featuring clips from a seminar that Cohen & Grigsby held May 15. During the seminar, attorneys from the firm's immigration law group provided advice on hiring foreign nationals and obtaining green cards for workers from overseas.

Grassley's office provided a copy of Cohen & Grigsby's letter to Computerworld this week, following a request for the document. It also released a letter to Grassley from Emily Stover DeRocco, assistant secretary for training and administration at the U.S. Department of Labor, who wrote that the DOL was reviewing green card applications filed by Cohen & Grigsby for clients "to verify that U.S. workers who applied but were not selected for advertised positions were rejected for lawful reasons." Copies of both letters can be found here (pdf format).

DeRocco's letter was a response to a request made by Grassley and Smith to DOL Secretary Elaine Chao, in which they asked the agency to review the YouTube video and investigate the law firm's procedures.

A spokesman for Grassley said this week that the senator's office believes the Labor Department will "properly review" the green card applications submitted by Cohen & Grigsby. DOL officials couldn't be reached for comment on the matter, and the law firm declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

As part of the Program Electronic Review Management (PERM) process, which is one of the steps in obtaining a green card, employers are required to place help wanted ads, with the intent of either hiring U.S. workers or showing that no qualified Americans are available for the job that a foreign national holds or is seeking.

However, the positions advertised for under the PERM process are derided as "fake jobs" by critics, who contend that the employers aren't seriously looking for candidates other than the foreign workers they already have in mind. Immigration law attorneys have argued in many cases that companies are simply seeking to hire an H-1B worker who may be a multiyear employee but whose temporary visa has reached its end.

The issue is a volatile one, and it exploded into public view last June. Cohen & Grigsby taped portions of its hiring practices seminar and posted the videos on its Web site, evidently for marketing purposes. But when Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild in Summit, N.J., saw the video, he annotated excerpts of it and posted his version on YouTube.

The most memorable part of the YouTube video is two sentences uttered by Lawrence Lebowitz, an attorney at Cohen & Grigsby, during an explanation of the PERM application process to employers. "Our goal is clearly not to find a qualified and interested U.S. worker," he said in the video. "And that, in a sense, sounds funny, but it's what we are trying to do here."

In the letter that Grassley and Smith sent to Chao, they claimed that the video exposed a "blatant disregard for American workers and [a] deliberate attempt to bring in cheaper foreign workers through the H-1B program."

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