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Mike Terry, Deseret News

When Laura Owen, 18, graduated from Bingham High School, she was excited to attend LDS Business College, with hopes of transferring to Brigham Young University.

But now those plans are on hold, indefinitely.

Owen and her family are immigrants from Great Britain who lost their legal status, apparently because of an attorney's error. They're hoping U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will review their case, but for now are planning to leave the country early next month.

"I'm devastated," says Owen. "Going to college is really important to me. ... That's (BYU) where I'd love to go. Pretty much because of my faith and it has a great business school."

The Owen family moved to the United States about three years ago, with an investment visa and plans to start a hot air balloon business. They've been in South Jordan for about a year.

About a month before the family's visa was to expire last December, Owen's parents, Kevin and Debbie, went to an attorney to apply for a two-year extension for themselves, Laura and their two other daughters.

However, the attorney filled out the wrong form, says Kevin Owen. By the time the correct paperwork was filed, it was rejected because the family's legal status had expired. Owen said they received their final decision from CIS in May.

"We wanted to come to America to live and work," says Kevin Owen. "There was a lot of bad advice, a lot of mistakes were made."

Heather Barney, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the congressional office does occasionally see cases such as the Owens'.

"Unfortunately this situation does occur," she said. "It's not very common."

The family has sought help from Hatch's office, and the senator's office has requested that CIS review the family's application. If CIS approves the review, the visa application would be considered on its merits.

The immigration agency does have the discretion to reopen an immigration case, but proof falls on applicants to show the mistake was not their own fault, said CIS spokeswoman Maria Elena Garcia-Upson.

Anecdotally speaking, those second shots aren't very easy to get, said Kathleen Walker, an El Paso attorney and immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

That makes it all the more important that people who need immigration attorneys be savvy consumers, Walker said.

Before retaining an attorney, people should ask if they're licensed and if they have had any malpractice claims filed against them. When it comes to immigration, they should also make sure that attorney specializes in immigration. She said membership in AILA indicates a lawyer is serious about immigration practice.

"It's one of the most complex areas of law in the country," Walker said. "After 23 years of practicing, I'm still learning every day. It's not an area for the dabbler."

And, she says, before paying a retainer fee, clients should get a written statement about what they're paying for and request copies of their case documents.

"You need to be engaged in your immigration case," Walker said. "You need to understand what's being done."

In the meantime, the Owens are grateful for the outpouring of support from their friends and family.

"I'm so grateful. The American people are great people," Kevin Owen says. "American people have the power to change things. That's one reason we want to be here."

Still, the family is selling off its business assets to pay their expenses. And Laura Owen says she's bracing for her education to be delayed by a year. She says she's missed Great Britain's application deadline for college. And, she'll miss her life and friends here.

"Utah is where I've really grown up," Owen says. "This is home for me right now. ...If I go home I go home to nothing."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com