Immigration lawyer Susan Im runs a respected Grand Rapids firm that serves employers ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 firms, and has three employees and more than $500,000 in annual revenues. Im — who is a past chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)’s Michigan chapter, serves on 3 AILA National USCIS liaison committees, and was named Michigan immigration lawyer of the year by Corporate INTL Magazine — says she believes that through her work, she’s helping not just Michigan employers, but also the broader immigrant community. “I know first-hand the good that immigrants bring to their communities,” she says. “I see it in our clients every single day — from the highly talented researchers and engineers, to the lesser-skilled essential workers, to the families running mom-and-pop shops.”
Im’s own parents came to the United States from South Korea in the 1960s, after the Korean War. “They’d served side-by-side with U.S. forces, and they had a true sense of patriotism and a really deep sense of gratitude towards the United States,” Im says. Her mother came to America as a nurse on an exchange program, while her father, a qualified doctor, came as her dependent, and worked as a janitor while taking his U.S. board exams. “They’d had a good life in Korea, but they gave it up, with a lot of hardship to come, for the dreams of the next generation,” Im says.
Im is amazed by her parents’ bravery and determination. “I have a great sense of gratitude towards all immigrants who are courageous enough to leave their home countries and go into the unknown in the hope of a better life. I look back and think, I don’t know if could have done that,” she says. Now, through her work, Im also knows how important immigrants are to the Michigan economy. “For the employers we work with, immigrants are hugely significant,” Im says. “Immigration issues have a real impact on their bottom line, because most of the time the people we’re talking about are highly valued and skilled professionals, who can’t easily be replaced in the marketplace.”
You see folks who have been educated by our schools, but then run out of visa options and have to leave.
Unfortunately, Im says, the current rules don’t make it easy for employers to bring in talented workers. The cap on visas issued to skilled workers is the biggest problem, since with only a few tens of thousands of visas available, companies are often unable to hire the people they need. “It’s extremely frustrating to me that we don’t have a better system for handling the immigration cases of professionals like that, whose fate is so important to local businesses,” Im says. That’s especially true, she adds, when the candidates in question are STEM graduates seeking to stay in Michigan after finishing their studies. “You see folks who have been educated by our schools, but then run out of visa options and have to leave,” she says. “We educate them, but then we say goodbye, and make them take their brainpower elsewhere.”
What’s needed, Im argues, are more flexible visa rules that reflect the actual needs of the labor marketplace. That might mean a flexible cap for skilled-worker visas, rather than the rigid system currently in place. Im also wants to see new visa programs to encourage foreign-born entrepreneurs to bring their creativity and capital to the United States. “We have lots of foreign entrepreneurs who want to start businesses, but can’t get the visas they need to do it,” she says. “We need more and better ways to allow these folks, who have so much promise, to start businesses and create jobs.”