The Dear Abby of Immigration Law

[Lee esta historia en Español]

Advice columns have been a staple of American culture, dispensing tips about careers, health and relationships for decades. Those seeking words of wisdom about immigration, they have turned to a New York City-based columnist for nearly three decades.

The immigration landscape under President Trump has become much more complex, making the work of the columnist, Allan Wernick, 68, more relevant than ever.

An immigration expert and law professor at the City University of New York, Mr. Wernick sifts through a flooded inbox of questions from around the world and provides answers twice a week in a syndicated column published in English and Spanish. He has dealt with questions ranging from how to obtain citizenship to how immigrants can fight an abusive employer.

“I may not be the greatest writer in the world, but I know a lot about immigration,” he said during a recent interview in his office at Citizenship Now, an immigration center he helped start at City University. “I know about something that nobody else knows in a very deep way.”

Mr. Wernick took a winding path to becoming a columnist. He entered Loyola Law School in Los Angeles with a desire to work in public interest law, but was steered toward a focus on immigration because of some early interactions.

During law school, one of his roommates, Bert Corona — a Mexican-American labor and civil rights activist — invited Mr. Wernick to spend the summer working at CASA: Centro De Acción Social Autónomo, an organization in Los Angeles advocating for the rights of Mexican workers.

“In those days there weren’t a lot of people doing immigration law,” Mr. Wernick said.

He moved to New York after graduation in 1975. After unfulfilling years in private practice spent juggling two jobs, he decided to become a professor. In 1997, he co-founded Citizenship Now, which helps New Yorkers gain citizenship.

Reporters often contacted him, seeking his expertise on immigration policy. When an editor at The Daily News asked him in 1994 to consider writing a column to provide answers to common immigration questions, Mr. Wernick pounced on the opportunity.

“When I started 26 years ago, there wasn’t enough information,” he said. “Now, you have the internet. I would write stuff that people have never heard about. In those days, this was fresh, exciting.”

Mr. Wernick’s experience as an immigration lawyer and a professor give him an expanded perspective to help confused or worried readers, like a man in Nigeria trying to get his family into the United States; an Iranian student in Los Angeles concerned about President’s Trump’s travel ban; and a husband in the Philippines who wanted to know if he could qualify for a green card even though his American father-in-law had died.

“You have to be in the thick of it to know what to write about,” he said. “I’ve seen other columns before I was writing that were not successful. The lawyers were very good and knowledgeable, but they didn’t know what kind of public would be reading.”

A loyal reader since 2002, Charina Espino, 49, said her own understanding of immigration regulations had grown from reading Mr. Wernick’s work.

“Not everyone can afford a lawyer,” Ms. Espino said. “It gives a peace of mind to immigrants who have questions, especially with the current situation.”

“Everyone is scared,” she said.

Earlier this year, Ms. Espino worried that not having her passport from the Philippines would cause a problem in her citizenship interview. She wrote to Mr. Wernick, who had answered a previous question for her.

His response, in an April 4 column, explained that as long as she had a green card, the absence of her passport would not affect her naturalization process. The answer put her at ease, and she will be taking her oath of citizenship in June.

“The reason why I read his column is to educate myself with what’s happening with immigration law,” Ms. Espino said. “Because every time we have a different president, the laws of immigration change.”

“So thank God for him,” she said. “He’s keeping everybody informed.”

Since Mr. Trump took office, many in the United States have grown uncertain and concerned about immigration policies, causing a spike in questions. Mr. Wernick’s column has become a modern version of those old advice columns, using the internet to reach a wider audience and tackle a politically charged subject.

The most common questions pertain to delays in processing and marriage cases. “I found that, through experience, I developed the skill to explain these complicated matters in simple ways,” he said. His favorite answer to give: Telling readers that they will not be deported and that they are eligible to become citizens of the United States.

Mr. Wernick said the current immigration system should be improved, noting that immigrants make an important contribution to the country.

“You can’t fault the government, if they fairly follow the law, even if you don’t like what they do,” he said. “At least they can do it in an efficient and fair manner. But that’s not what’s going on, from deportation, family immigration to citizenship — they’re making it harder. Being more strict than they need to be and changing the rules in an unfair way. All I want is fairness.”

Monique Francis, 37, deputy director of Citizenship Now and Mr. Wernick’s colleague since 2005, said many people who work at immigration centers have a personal connection that leads them into this field. But not Mr. Wernick, who grew up with working-class parents.

“He’s not passionate because something happened to him,” she said. “Rather, he does it because he loves helping people.”