Who are we as a nation?

Who are we as a nation?
Who are we as a nation?

The lack of immigration reform threatens to rob Pittsburgh and the country of talent and economic growth


As the 2016 presidential election nears and the candidates escalate their fiery political rhetoric about immigration and immigrants, there’s been a devastating anxiety felt by talented immigrants who are here legally in the United States and who can add significant long-term value to our nation — or not.

Over the past few months, most of my immigration clients ask, at the end of our meetings, one more question: “Do you think that the law will change after the election so that I won’t be able to stay?” The most recent client who asked is an Indian physician pursuing a fellowship. Visa in hand, he’s talented, Hindu and scared.

I tried to minimize his concern, but had nothing to promise. All I could say was that anything is possible.

Congress has been trying to reform the nation’s broken immigration system for decades. Thirty years ago, it passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act to legalize some undocumented immigrants while stiffening penalties for employers who hired immigrants lacking legal status. Twenty years ago, it passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which required undocumented immigrants to leave the country for certain periods to apply for legal status, among many other things.

Other legislation has been passed that has impacted immigration and reflected the times, such as the U.S. Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001). Despite all the charged talk since the mid-2000s, Congress has not acted to comprehensively reform and control illegal immigration. That inertia takes a toll on the hopes and dreams of talented foreigners whose knowledge and skills help propel our nation into the future.

A long time ago, there was an open-door immigration policy, but that ended in 1790, shortly after the United States became a country. In the decades and centuries that followed, the door has been opened and closed a number of times, and for different types of immigrants.

 In 1875, convicts and prostitutes were banned. In 1882, all Chinese were banned by the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was installed in New York harbor and six years later Ellis Island opened America’s arms to millions of immigrants “yearning to breathe free.” The majority of those late-19th and early-20th century immigrants were different from the existing U.S. population: They were Southern and Eastern Europeans instead of Northern Europeans, and Catholics and Jews instead of Protestants.

My forbears came to Pittsburgh during that time and worked rolling cigars in the Hill District. Many thousands came to Pittsburgh and labored in the steel industry, coal mines and elsewhere during boom times. When the boom started to go bust and the new immigrants became too many for the earlier ones, the door swung shut with a restrictive quota system enacted in 1924 that closed immigration to more of the new “them” in favor of the earlier “us.” The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943.

After 1952, our current immigration system continued to evolve, adding along the way some special immigrants, such as refugees under the Refugee Act of 1980, Soviet scientists under the Soviet Scientists Immigration Act of 1992 and battered spouses of U.S. citizens under the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2005. Today, tens of millions of foreigners live in the country legally but temporarily to visit or study or work, and every year close to a million immigrants become lawful permanent residents — that is, they obtain their “green card.”

In a recent article, the Post-Gazette reported that Allegheny County’s foreign-born population increased 7.9 percent from 2009 to 2014 and that the foreign-born population holds $1.8 billion in spending power, contributes $6.8 billion to the county’s gross domestic product and $217 million in state and local taxes. That’s a significant contribution to economic vitality in Pennsylvania, and those figures are only for one county!

The messages from the two political parties seem to be polar opposites. Will a new Congress restrict immigration or conform policy to current economic needs? Will certain nationalities or ethnicities be favored, or certain religions excluded? Will undocumented immigrants in the country be given legal relief or be removed by legislation or executive action? Will the immigrants who contribute to our economic vitality be encouraged to stay or to come here, or will they leave or stay away? Will the United States remain a humane land of opportunity?

Political rhetoric notwithstanding, any change in the law requires congressional action and implementation by the executive branch. Any legal challenge to that law or its implementation needs to be upheld by the courts.

Our immigration law and policy reflect who we are as a nation and how we view and are viewed by the rest of the world. We are getting and giving mixed messages because we are conflicted about immigration, about “us” and “them.”

Who are we as a nation?

What answer will we give to the next foreign-born student or scientist or entrepreneur or fiance or asylum-seeker who wants to come to the United States to work, invest, raise a family, speak freely, join the school board or otherwise pursue the American Dream?

Robert Whitehill chairs the immigration group of the Fox Rothschild law firm and is based in Pittsburgh (rwhitehill@foxrothschild.com). His practice has focused on immigration and nationality law for more than two decades.

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