Lawyer Limelight: Charles Foster

Charles Foster has built a celebrated immigration and employment practice by working with a roster of international clients throughout decades of shifting immigration policies. Foster’s dedication to his work is matched by a commitment to giving back: Among many local and international works of service, he served as immigration policy advisor to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Chairman of Foster LLP, Foster received his JD from the University of Texas at Austin.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within the employment arena?

Charles Foster: The firm and I are dedicated to helping multinational corporations and organizations who seek to employ highly skilled foreign nationals obtain non-immigrant work visas and permanent resident options worldwide – particularly in the STEM, energy, medical, educational, entertainment, and professional sports fields. We also help employers develop long-term immigration strategies and expectations to establish internal procedures to maintain immigration compliance.

LD: How did you first become interested in developing this type of practice?

CF: I grew up along the Texas-Mexican border. It was in my DNA. I first developed an interest in Mexico, then Latin America, and finally the world and was determined to be an international lawyer. I quickly discovered the field of immigration law was the closest practice to fulfill my interest of working with international clientele in a complex, but well defined statutory and administrative area of law.

LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying? What keeps you excited about it?

CF: At times I've wanted to keep immigration law practice a secret because immigration is such a unique and complex area of law and you work with a highly motivated international clientele and at the same time there’s a significant public interest in U.S. immigration law and policy.

LD: Is there a particular matter that stands out in your career thus far?

CF: I knew at the time I was representing Chinese dancer extraordinaire, Li Cunxin, it would be a career defining case. When I was called upon to represent Li, when he was unexpectedly held at the Chinese Consulate in Houston, there was hours of negotiations with Chinese officials into the wee hours in the morning. Fearing he would be put on an early morning flight out of the country, by 3:00 am I woke a Federal judge and spoke with the DOS China Desk officer and by 6:00 am made oral arguments to two federal judges on a loading dock behind the Federal Court House on complex issues of the court’s authority to restrain a consular official and to grant a writ of habeas corpus. By the time Li was allowed to leave the consulate as a free man, Li's case was the center of worldwide television and journalism. I was not surprised that his story would later result in a book and award-winning movie "Mao's Last Dancer."

LD: What trends are you seeing in immigration policies these days that are particularly impacting employers?

CF: The biggest trend is one that has been woefully unreported and has a major impact on U.S. employers. Although it is recognized the Trump administration has taken tougher policies regarding individuals seeking entry without inspection as well as asylum seekers, what is under-reported is the Trump administration's all-out effort to restrict legal immigration. The Trump Administration has taken significant steps to implement so-called "extreme vetting" under the "Buy American, Hire American" Executive Order and to “reform” the H-1B visa program. The Department of Labor (DOL) has increased H-1B audits and investigations for violations of the H-1B visa program. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is far more prone to challenge visa petitions on highly technical grounds and to issue unnecessary Request for Evidence (RFE) and reversed long standing policy giving due deference to USCIS prior approvals. Unfortunately, these highly restrictive developments are just a preview of coming attractions, which will bring less certainty and more instability to businesses and foreign national employees and their families.

LD: I’m sure you’re coming up with innovative solutions to these developments. Can you give us an example of the type of matters keeping you busy at the moment?

CF: While U.S. employers have benefited substantially by being able to hire highly skilled foreign nationals from our universities with advanced degrees, given quota limitations, Indian and Chinese applicants face a lengthy waiting period for permanent residency. The problem is particularly acute with the numerical limitations on H-1B applicants, resulting in U.S. employers being unable to hire the most talented and skilled applicants. Because of these current backlogs, we have seen large numbers of Indian and other foreign nationals turn to the EB-5 investor program for a quicker path to permanent residency. I work closely with these foreign investors and entrepreneurs to develop a creative solution to gain proper work visa status in the United States.

LD: Is this the type of practice you imagined for yourself while in law school?

CF: Yes, I imagined I would be an international lawyer and naively assumed that immigration would be an essential component. Once I started with Reid & Priest, a large New York Wall Street firm, I soon discovered I was the only international lawyer who thought that way. However I was fortunate to be able to handle a growing number of immigration issues as part of my international practice first in New York and later with Bulter, Binion, Rice, Cook & Knapp in Houston, and then I opened and developed one of the countries largest immigration practices in my own law firm.

LD: Any advice for current law school students?

CF: Get the highest grade possible to get the best job with the biggest law firm possible to get the best and most varied experience possible, and then follow your passion and interest.

LD: Was there an early experience that helped shape the course of your professional life?

CF: After I started University of Texas School of Law, I received notification I was a recipient of a Rotary Foundation Fellowship for graduate studies – one of the most generous and coveted programs, which allowed me to study international law and live in the Republic of Chile for a full year. This experience of living abroad and having full immersion into the culture allowed me to learn Spanish, which has been an essential skill I've utilized throughout my career and helped me to secure my only two legal jobs outside my own law firm.

LD: How has your employment practice changed since the early part of your career?

CF: The biggest change is technology, going from carbon copies, to Xerox to faxes to emails to social media and the expectation of clients for immediate responses. Over the years, USCIS has been able to implement electronic filings online. These shifts in technology have dramatically changed the way the firm’s attorneys and myself operate and manage key clients.

LD: What keeps you busy outside the office?

CF: I’ve been extremely involved in the community, serving as Chairman of the Asia Society Texas Center for more than 20 years and leading the effort to build a $48.5 million home in our Museum District. I also initiated and headed efforts to build the George Bush Presidential Monument, James A. Baker Monument, Robert Mosbacher Memorial Bridge, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Monument in downtown Houston. For many years, I engaged in mountain climbing worldwide, until common sense and my wife made me retire.

LD: Clearly you believe in giving back. What other pro bono or public interest activities are you involved in?

CF: I’m involved in, at any given time, multiple pro-bono activities in addition to the above. I’ve served as Chairman of the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, U.S.-China Partnerships and Americans for Immigration Reform, and on the Boards of a number of non-profit organizations, including the Houston Ballet, the Greater Houston Partnership, the Holocaust Museum Houston, KIND Houston Advisory Board, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the Hobby Center for Public Policy, Barbara Bush’s Celebration of Reading, George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, and Invest in the USA (IIUSA).

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

CF: Yes, my favorite movie and book has to be “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

CF: I’d be a movie producer, as I would be able to take my interest in great stories, and bring them to the widest possible audience.