Helping Employers and Immigrants Thrive in the U.S.

By Shannon Ballard Gorman

A career in immigration law came naturally to Gretel Ness ’93.

“It’s such a positive area of the law. You are challenged and you make a difference in people’s lives. It’s very fulfilling.”

Ness’s grandparents, doctors who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, sponsored her father when he was in college in the Philippines, but because of quotas, there was such a long wait that he was married and had a family before he could immigrate. Ness vividly remembers her family going to the U.S. Embassy in Manila and being interviewed by the consular officer. Her first time on an airplane was to New-ark to begin a new life. She was 15.

After high school, Ness attended Rutgers University for Political Science, and then set her sights on law school. “I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said (at least since age 13 when she saw a show starring a female attorney and was impressed) and her personal experience led to an interest in immigration law. She chose Albany Law School because of its immigration law classes and smaller, supportive environment.


In law school, she successfully navigated the process to earn U.S. citizenship. An internship with the Government Law Center prompted her to consider working for the government. Before graduation,  she applied to the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) and was hired by the Newark office of the INS as an Asylum Officer.

On one assignment, she went to Guam to interview Kurdish refugees from Iraq seeking asylum in the U.S. While there, she met her future husband, a Deportation and Detention Officer from Oregon.

Despite their polar opposite jobs (“We don’t bring work home,”) they have been married for 26 years.
“It was one of those whirlwind romances,”  Ness laughed, and since her husband would not move to New Jersey, she “quit her cushy federal job to follow him to Oregon.”

In Portland, she joined a small firm as an associate attorney, doing immigration law work. After two years, she followed her paralegal to a larger firm, Parker Butte & Lane, P.C., entirely dedicated to immigration. Immigration is a paralegal-driven field, she said, and after 23 years she is still there and with the same paralegal.

The majority of her practice deals with employment immigration matters such as arranging temporary and skilled worker visas and helping clients with proactive immigration planning, whether for future personnel needs or for compliance with employment verification requirements. She also handles cases involving family immigration and citizenship issues.

Many of her clients are aviation companies that hire specialized pilots from Canada to fly the airplanes used in fighting forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service.

“Canada has so many forest fires, they have developed the infrastructure necessary to fight them—including the pilots and mechanics to operate the planes,” Ness  explained. She helps arrange their necessary visas to work in the U.S.  Ness also advises corporations looking for talent overseas on work visas or, if none matching their needs are available, pursuing green card sponsorship. Her firm also helps arrange a temporary work visa. Sometimes her client is the employee, whom she helps by initiating or coordinating their employer’s sponsorship.

“No matter which party starts the process,  you have to represent both,” Ness said.

Sharing her experiences with new  attorneys was the focus of her recent speaking engagements including the  Regional Northwest conference of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Ness belongs to the association’s Asian Pacific Chapter and traveled to its annual conference in Japan in May. She hopes to attend the Latin American chapter’s annual conference in Uruguay this November and explore neighboring Argentina. Ness loves to travel, and plans trips around conferences.

“It’s nice to have been to the places where my clients are coming from,” she said. “It helps me relate to them and gives me a better understanding of the challenges and hurdles they have overcome.”