New Warner Norcross associate brings background in refugee, immigration law


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

A class in international refugee law so intrigued Johnny Pinjuv that he entered the University of Michigan Law School’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, which the website calls “the world's most comprehensive program for the study of international and comparative refugee law.”

“I found it intellectually challenging,” Pinjuv says, “and the potential to do good was out there, which is why I went to law school.”

This led Pinjuv to any number of interesting experiences, both during and after his time at MLaw, including branching out to work in the related area of immigration law.

But once the Las Vegas native decided to settle in West Michigan, his ability to practice in that type of law was limited. He spent a year at the Grand Haven firm of Scholten Fant, during which he honed his skills in business law. Pinjuv’s Masters in Accounting from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he also did his undergraduate work in business administration, stood him in good stead as he changed his focus.

But refugee and immigration law fascinate him, and that is one of many reasons why Pinjuv has now joined Warner Norcross + Judd.

While he will continue to concentrate on corporate law and real estate transactions, Pinjuv believes Warner Norcross is the type of firm where his previous experience in – and passion for – refugee and immigration law can be put to good use.

“I wanted to be able to redevelop that practice, yes, but also to have a sustainable career in West Michigan. The business practice they have here is incredibly thorough and incredibly well-run,” he says.

Before Scholten and Fant, Pinjuv worked at Immigration Legal Services in Grand Rapids, where he was a staff attorney. Immigration Legal Services is part of the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids, and “provides low-cost, legal representation in immigration matters to those in our community whose household income falls below 200% of the poverty line.”

Pinjuv comments, “It was mostly family reunification stuff. A refugee comes here from somewhere else and has a mother in his home country, and we would put a case together to document her coming here. Most of it is just done administratively and we were  pretty successful.

“We didn’t necessarily take the more difficult cases, because we were there to do the most good for the most people and it was a small office. If we couldn’t take it, we would suggest they seek legal counsel elsewhere.”

He also worked on a project for Migrant Legal Aid.

During law school, in addition to being the editor of RefLaw, Pinjuv had the opportunity to work as a legal intern for the Department of Justice in Detroit, and one summer had a fellowship in the Human Rights Watch Refugee Program in Geneva, Switzerland.

“The program includes a few lawyers and journalists who document and track refugee issues around the globe. I worked for their senior research person, who was out of Geneva. We were right down the street from the United Nations High Committee on Refugees, the UNHCR. We were basically the legal fact checkers when they put out publicity.

“Human Rights Watch tries to keep governments honest, and documents certain atrocities, certain illegalities. It was fun, in the sense that it’s working on very current issues. That was the ‘summer of Snowden’ so we talked a lot about whether he could qualify for refugee status or not in Russia.”

Pinjuv points out that, though each country has a different body of refugee law, most take their cues from the 1951 treaty known as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, established by the UNHCR. “It’s a body of international law, and basically everybody is subject to that 1941 treaty,” he says, and it sets out standards about who is and is not eligible to be granted refugee status.

“To be a refugee you have to have a legitimate fear of persecution for the reason of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group,” says Pinjuv. Because that would include war criminals, the international protocols specifically exclude them.

Pinjuv also stresses that being a lawyer seeking refugee status for an individual requires a great deal of patience. “Even a smooth case can take a year, and if it’s more complex, it can be several years.”

But, he adds, at Warner Norcross he is more likely to work on business immigration, where a company sponsors someone from another country to come and work for that company specifically.

Pinjuv lives with his fiancée, Maggie Pennell, and their daughter, Emilia, in Spring Lake, so he will work most of the week from Warner Norcross’s Muskegon office.

Noting that most of his own family has “jettisoned” the Las Vegas area, Pinjuv comments, “We have her family here, so it’s nice for our little kiddo to be around them.”