“Nothing in immigration is straightforward,” says Martin “Marty” Lester, an immigration lawyer in the Florida panhandle. For example, you’d think that a person who serves in the U.S. military would have an easy time getting citizenship; after all, that person has put his or her life on the line for this country. But that’s not always the case.
Nothing in immigration is straightforward.
An estimated 65,000 members of the U.S. armed forces are immigrants, but none are guaranteed citizenship for their service. Under current law, immigrants can enlist if they have permanent residency status or are qualifying legal aliens with skills considered vital to the national interest. But they can still be deported after they’ve served if they haven’t completed the process of applying for U.S. citizenship. Lester is a member of the AILA Military Assistance Program, a collaboration between the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the U.S. military Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), which gives free counsel to active-duty service members and their families to help them with their immigration status. He says the government loses financially when it deports immigrant veterans, first by spending money for the deportation process, then by missing out on the work and training these veterans would bring to the economy.
“The regulations that we have to use are not only outdated, but don’t really correspond to the needs of businesses,” Lester says. “There is a huge economic cost involved, both in terms of their lost productivity from the work they would otherwise be doing, and also from the money that the government has to invest in trying to remove them from the country.” Immigrants provide myriad benefits when they buy houses and cars, start businesses, and pay taxes and into social security. “All of that is lost when the government tries to remove them,” he says.
It doesn’t benefit the economic development of the country to tell the best and the brightest […] that they aren’t welcome to do business here.
Consider, too, that foreign-born workers are often twice as likely as U.S.-born workers to found a business — making them excellent job creators for Americans. More than 5.9 million people in the United States are employed at private, immigrant-owned companies. And as of 2014, business income earned by foreign-born entrepreneurs topped $65.5 billion. In Florida, more than 33 percent of entrepreneurs are immigrants despite accounting for just 20 percent of the population.
Lester’s firm has three branches — one in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and two in Tennessee — and serves everyone from immigrant entrepreneurs to individuals seeking legal status for their families or spouses. Occasionally, Lester represents businesses that need to hire international employees, or those looking to transfer existing employees to the United States. Yet regardless of the situation, the cases are typically complicated. For some employers, there are specific — and often expensive — job advertising requirements that delay the hiring process. These regulations “don’t correspond to the way people do business anymore,” he says. “Nobody finds high-skilled employees through the newspaper. It really inhibits the ability of people to start and grow businesses.”
Immigration policy also works against U.S. business interests when it comes to how it treats high-skilled international students, who receive exceptional training at U.S. universities but are then forced to return to their home countries, Lester says. “It doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t benefit the economic development of the country to tell the best and the brightest, the best-trained people in the world, that they aren’t welcome to do business here,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder if the current immigration system can really be reformed, or if it would be better to scrap it and write a new one.”