Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 19, 2021

New hope for immigrants

Election ushers in change from Trump policies

Less than 48 hours after Joe Biden became president of the United States, Chattanooga area immigration attorney Martin Lester says he started hearing something he’d nearly forgotten when he answered the phone in his office: The sound of hope.

Lester adds he smiled when he first recognized the optimism in a caller’s voice, as though a good friend who had been out of touch for a few years was on the other end.

“Immigration can be a joyful area of the law, but that was not always the case during the last administration; we saw bad things happen to good people for no reason that helped the U.S.,” he says.

Illegal immigration was a signature issue during Donald Trump’s presidency. During his term, Trump began an expansion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, imposed a travel ban on many largely Muslim countries, attempted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and implemented a zero-tolerance policy that required the arrest of anyone caught illegally crossing the border.

The latter policy led to authorities separating children from their families.

Lester, who assists families with visa issues, helps foreign companies open local offices and enables U.S. companies to hire foreign workers, says Trump’s policies negatively impacted every facet of his practice.

“People are usually aware of the things that happen at the Southern border, but they aren’t all aware of how much the last administration did to prevent U.S. businesses from hiring qualified foreign workers, or to discourage talented people from other countries from moving here to start businesses,” he says.

As Lester fought a system he explains as not only dehumanizing but actively working against immigrants, attorney Terry Olsen was running into a wall that Trump’s policies had built in his Chattanooga office.

As an immigration lawyer who facilitates what he says are highly challenging investment structures to approve, Olsen’s work is rarely easy, regardless of the laws in place at a given time. But he says he can trace the greater-than-usual difficulties he had serving clients during the Trump administration to specific executive orders.

In 2017, for example, Trump signed the Buy American and Hire American executive order that sought to create higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers by rigorously enforcing immigration laws. It also directed the Department of Homeland Security to help ensure H-1B visas (which allow companies and other employers in the U.S. to temporarily employ foreign workers) were awarded to only the most-skilled or highest-paid beneficiaries.

With foreign entities tasked with hiring more employees and spending additional money, international investment in the U.S. ground to a halt, Olsen acknowledges.

“Most of the companies I was working with started looking into Canada, Mexico, South America or other parts of the world. It felt like the faucet had been shut off.”

Meanwhile, Brittany Faith, a business and family immigration attorney with Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison in Chattanooga, was doing her best to keep her clients on their feet as they struggled to stand on shifting sands.

“The law was constantly changing, which made it hard to make decisions for an employer or a family,” she notes. “The previous administration would make a rule and then reverse it, and it would go back and forth and back and forth.”

Faith cites the Public Charge Rule, which establishes grounds for denying a person who might become dependent on government services admission into the U.S., as an example of a rule the previous administration repeatedly changed, making the practice of immigration law a head-spinning experience.

“I still offer two quotes for certain types of applications. It’s a quote for this or a quote for that, depending on what the law is at the time,” Faith adds.

Olsen says COVID-19 worsened these conditions by shutting down nearly all of the business and family immigration that remained open at the beginning of 2020.

“From March to June, executive orders shut down every consulate. Even after the consulates reopened, most of them were still not operational, or were under the executive order of June 22, which suspended entry for certain temporary workers, as well as certain exchange visitors and their family members,” Olsen explains. “Essentially, you’re not allowed to come into the U.S. unless you can show the country is going to benefit from you being here.”

Olsen does not give the Trump administration a pass for the immigration policies it enacted in response to COVID-19, as he adds he believes the former president used the pandemic as a pretext for implementing strict rules he’d been unable to usher through Congress.

“We lost around 10 million jobs due to COVID-19, which allowed Trump to say immigration was a threat,” Olsen claims.

One could argue otherwise, Olsen contends, referring to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development website (www.tdecd.com). According to the site, TDECD received 34 project commitments from foreign-owned businesses (including German-owned Volkswagen, Korean-owned Hyosung Heavy Industries, Chinese-owned Global Track Manufacturing and others) in 2019, resulting in 4,428 job commitments and $1.4 billion in capital investment.

This foreign investment accounted for nearly one-third of Tennessee’s new jobs in 2019 and 45% of all capital investment committed in the state, according to TDECD.

Olsen is not the only Chattanooga attorney who believes immigration benefits the U.S.; Faith maintains that immigration is not only good for the nation’s economy but necessary.

“Statistics show that every immigrant that enters the U.S., regardless of skill level, creates 1.5 jobs,” she states. “And since our birth rate has shrunk, we need immigrants in order to supplement the economy and have more workers, especially as more Baby Boomers move out of the labor force.”

With this in mind, Faith is concerned about the rising number of skilled foreign workers who are moving to countries with friendlier immigrant policies.

“People are choosing other countries instead of us because our immigration system is fraught with difficulties, and we’re losing international talent as a result,” she asserts. “They go to college here, and when they see what a mess our immigration system is, they move to Canada or Europe. If we’re going to educate them, we should be able to utilize them.”

Faith says economists have long been pro-immigration due to the way it benefits trade and industry, but this does little to ease concerns among U.S. citizens who say immigrants claim jobs belonging to others as opposed to spurring more economic activity.

“People think immigrants are going to take away their jobs, but that’s what the law is designed to prevent. There are rules that say a company can’t underpay immigrants to the detriment of U.S. citizens. But people either choose to ignore those laws or don’t know about them.”

Lester says he believes the U.S. needs to have an informed discussion about immigration to stamp out this and other misperceptions.

“Immigration is not about slamming the borders shut, and it’s not about throwing the borders open,” he points out. “It’s about us having a fair and workable system that protects both the United States and the people who want to come here, and that recognizes that immigration has been a net good thing for our society.”

The hope Lester heard on the phone arrived on the crest of a wave of executive orders Biden signed during his first day in office. With a few strokes of a pen, Biden halted construction of the border wall, ended Trump’s travel ban and reaffirmed protections for people brought to the U.S. as children without documents, among other actions.

Essentially, Lester says, Biden reset immigration enforcement priorities back to where they were before the Trump administration.

“This means the government will now spend its resources trying to remove people who are dangerous to national security or have serious criminal convictions as opposed to targeting every person in the U.S.,” he explains.

“We’re hopeful it’s going to improve the outcomes we can reach for people and that the system will become fairer and more responsive to the facts of individual cases.”

Clients are feeling expectant, as well. Just two days after Biden signed his initial spate of executive orders, Olsen started receiving calls from international parties about the possibility of making investments in the U.S. Those calls quickly blossomed into work in a variety of industries for the attorney.

New projects for Olsen that stem from the change in administration include opening a research and development facility, launching a software development office and assisting with agricultural, retail and manufacturing ventures throughout the Southeastern U.S.

“This is investment that will add jobs here, which is exciting,” Olsen says. “People were waiting for Trump to leave. They have hope now, even though they know it might take several months for the consulates to reopen because of COVID-19.”

Olsen adds that if the striking change in atmosphere had not occurred, these investments and the jobs they might create would have been lost to another country. As it stands, he’s going to have to hire help.

“I’m swamped.”

When the sun set on Biden’s first day in office, he was not done rolling back Trump’s policies. On Feb. 2, he signed three additional executive orders that further altered the immigration landscape.

These orders reunified families that had been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, launched a review of Trump immigration policies surrounding the migration surge from Central America and called for an assessment of the rules that make it hard for people to access the legal immigration process.

Biden also sent a bill to Congress intended to “restore humanity and American values to the nation’s immigration system,” according to a fact sheet on the White House website (www.whitehouse.gov).

Called “The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021,” the bill focuses not on rewinding more policies but on modernizing the U.S. immigration system by establishing a new system to secure and manage the nation’s border, keep families and communities safe and better manage migration.

Although Lester says the executive orders have alleviated many problems and adds Biden’s bill sounds good on paper, he’s encouraging his clients to temper their optimism with caution.

“Any big changes are going to have to come from Congress,” Lester clarifies. “That’s necessary because the immigration system is about the American people shaping who we are, but it’s going to take time, and we don’t know what the changes will eventually be.”

Faith is also urging her clients to adopt a wait-and-see approach.

“I have clients who are wondering if they qualify for this or that, but the government still has a lot of work to do. One client said, ‘They passed a law that says I can get my green card now,’ and I had to say, ‘No, that’s proposed legislation; it’s not law yet.’”

Despite their efforts to contain their clients’ excitement, both Lester and Faith believe Congress will take the bill seriously and update the country’s immigration system for the 21st century.

“There’s a good chance we’ll see legislation to help the people who were brought here as children,” Lester submits. “There’s a broad consensus on both sides of the aisle that simple fairness and justice suggest we need to give those people a path toward permanent residency or citizenship.”

“The law will still change – which is the problem with having a practice that depends on federal politics – but I believe there’s going to be more stability,” Faith says. “There will be litigation, but when I tell a client something, I’ll be able to deliver it.”

Looking ahead, Lester sees more than new laws that govern how the U.S. handles the individuals and companies that want to cross its borders, he also sees new tools that will allow advocates like him to help people.

He says that’s crucial if Americans are going to have the kind of country in which they want to live.

“We’re hopefully going to see more ability for talented entrepreneurs to come to the U.S. and help build our economy; we’re hopefully going to see the immigration courts, which are hopelessly backlogged, getting the discretion to sort out which cases need to take up their time and which cases don’t; and we’re hopefully going to see families having a better ability to be reunited and stay together.”

Lester says he also hopes people will be treated with more fairness – including attorneys.

“When I contacted the ICE prosecutor’s office at one immigration court concerning a case of mine, they were pleasant and responsive and invited me to send them the information so the prosecutor could review it,” Lester says. “I don’t know if I would have gotten that kind of response last year because they didn’t have had any kind of discretion.

“Brighter days are definitely ahead.”