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The Ins and Outs of Immigration Law

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Stephen Yale-Loehr ’77, JD ’81—a Cornell professor, attorney, and immigration advocate—weighs in on a complex topic

A portrait of Prof. Stephen Yale-Loehr
Yale-Loehr sees offering legal status to undocumented immigrants as far preferable to mass deportations, both for them and for the U.S. economy. (Photo by Robert Barker)

Stephen Yale-Loehr ’77, JD ’81, has been practicing and teaching immigration law for more than three decades. A longtime faculty member at the Law School, he also represents clients from around the world through the immigration practice he founded at the Ithaca law firm Miller Mayer.

Yale-Loehr is a native Ithacan and a member of a large Cornellian family: many of his siblings are alums and their father, Raymond Loehr, taught engineering on the Hill. Frequently quoted as an expert on immigration issues in the national media, he is also one of the leaders of Cornell’s ambitious, multi-year effort to study global migration—not only by humans but by animals, insects, plant life, and even microorganisms.

What’s the current state of the U.S. immigration system?

It’s broken. We haven’t revised our legal immigration categories since 1990, and the world has changed significantly since then. So it’s outmoded, and it’s very backlogged. For example, if someone wanted to bring in their brother or sister from the Philippines, they would have to wait almost 20 years.

Is now the toughest time in American history to immigrate legally?

Yes. In my 30-plus years of practicing immigration law, I’ve found it the most challenging in terms of the background checks that are required and the slowness of the process. Then you have the pandemic on top of everything else: it’s hard to get a visa interview in an embassy. I feel sorry for people who are trying to immigrate to the U.S. now.

What about refugees? How does the number being admitted this fiscal year—125,000—compare historically?

We’ve waxed and waned in terms of how many refugees we take. In 2020, under the prior administration, only 15,000 were authorized, and even fewer actually made it here. By contrast, right after the Vietnam War, we felt a moral responsibility to take large numbers of refugees from Southeast Asia; we admitted over 150,000 in one year.

The same issues are playing out now with Afghanistan: most Americans are sympathetic toward Afghanis because we feel like we created the problem there. By contrast, many Americans don’t feel sympathetic toward people from Mexico, Central America, or Haiti who are fleeing persecution.

Do you think the average American understands how the immigration system works?

There are many misconceptions. People think it’s easy to immigrate legally, and it’s not. I had a client from India who just got his naturalization; it took him over 20 years from the time he came to the U.S. on a student visa, worked on a temporary visa after he graduated, went through the long green card process, and waited to become a citizen. Even if you’re trying to do things correctly, it’s a long, complex process.

So a lot of people enter illegally, or they enter legally but then overstay their visas. People say ‘Just get in line’—but the line is so long that for a lot of people, it really doesn’t exist. And if they’re fleeing persecution, they can’t wait. We have an obligation under the U.N. Refugee Convention to allow people to apply for asylum—so whether we want to or not, we have to adjudicate their claims.

People think it’s easy to immigrate legally, and it’s not. I had a client from India who just got his naturalization; it took him over 20 years.

Something you often hear is, ‘My great-grandparents came in the right way, not like people who are coming in illegally now.’ What’s your take on that comparison?

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Before the 1880s, when we passed laws banning Chinese immigrants, we didn’t have any laws that excluded people. In the 1920s, we limited the number who could come in, so it became harder—but even then, it was fairly easy. In 1952, Congress passed an overhaul to the immigration laws that codified some of the previous restrictions.

Then, in 1965, during the civil rights movement, Congress expanded immigration. We started to see immigrants not just from European countries but also from Latin America and Asia, in larger numbers than ever. After 9/11, while we didn't formally change our laws, we made it more difficult for people from certain countries—particularly Muslim-majority countries—to come to the U.S.

What about the argument that immigrants take jobs from U.S. citizens?

You can always point to anecdotes where one U.S. worker was laid off and replaced by a foreign one. But there are many jobs—like getting up at 4 a.m. to milk cows—where employers can’t find U.S. workers, no matter the wage. Unfortunately, we seem to be closing the doors to immigration at the time when we need more immigrants, because of our labor shortages.

If the system is broken, how would you fix it?

You need three things for comprehensive immigration reform. One is to control our borders. The second is to have the right kinds of work visas, so people who want to work here temporarily can do so, and employers who need foreign workers can get them. The third is to take care of the 10 million people who are here without status. If we can bring them out of the shadows—but make them pay a financial penalty for having been here illegally—that will mean they’re competing fairly with U.S. workers, and it will protect them from being exploited.

How would you answer the objection that legalization rewards lawbreakers?

We have to do something, and legalization is the better alternative. We don’t have the money or the manpower to deport 10 million people—and losing all those workers would wreck our economy.

Does the U.S. need more immigration lawyers?

Absolutely. I think every immigration lawyer in the country is swamped right now. Immigration law has been called the second most complex area—second only to tax law—and there are often life-or-death consequences if somebody is fleeing persecution.

What do you find gratifying about this work?

Helping individuals get through this gauntlet so they can get to the U.S., either on a temporary visa or a green card. I co-wrote a book a couple of years ago called Green Card Stories, where we profiled 50 average immigrants. We didn’t go into it with any particular preconceptions, but one thing I found is that a lot of immigrants really do have an entrepreneurial drive. Immigrants bring a spirit and a vitality to the United States that we need.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published October 29, 2021

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