"I see a lot of anxiety": For this immigration lawyer, the process is personal

Border business: The lawyer
Border business: The lawyer 08:32

The story of Natalie Ghayoumi, in the video player above, is part of the new CBSN Originals documentary, "Border Business: Inside Immigration." Watch the full documentary at the bottom of this page.

Negar "Natalie" Ghayoumi is an attorney who spends most of her days on the road. "My niece used to say that my aunt is a truck driver because every time she calls I am driving either to the detention center or going to interviews for the asylum office, and everything is far," she said.   

As an immigration lawyer, she's one of thousands of attorneys working through a nationwide backlog of more than 800,000 asylum and detention cases. For migrants seeking asylum, the process can take years, and having access to legal representation is crucial to winning a case. Around 90 percent of asylum seekers without a lawyer are denied. Even with a lawyer, prospects are uncertain and less than half eventually obtain asylum.

Ghayoumi, who is based in Riverside, California, has been practicing since 2013. She focuses on United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and removal proceedings. She currently has about 150 cases making their way through the courts. She says she doesn't make much money and the hours are long, but for her the work is personal.

An immigrant herself, Ghayoumi came to the U.S. from Iran when she was 16. "I understand when people come here and don't speak the language, they don't know the laws — and it's difficult," she said. "Most attorneys that I know of that do immigration law, either they are first generation or second generation immigrants, and they all have a story of why they do what they do."

Immigration lawyer Negar "Natalie" Ghayoumi with a case file at her office in Riverside, California. CBS News

Recently the job has became more tense. Clients call more often, panicking over changes in policy and confusion over how the current administration is handling immigration. "I see a lot of anxiety in people that I didn't see before," Ghayoumi said.

One of Ghayoumi's clients, Ghullam Reza Khavari, is from Afghanistan and sought asylum in the U.S. based on religious persecution back home. His claim was denied and he is facing possible deportation. "Right now there are two cases pending, and I believe they're both very strong, but nobody can really guarantee the results," she said.

"We never know how long it takes, it could take a few months, it could take years," she tells him. "It's hard. But at least you're safe." 

Border business: Inside immigration 38:03