Lisa Johnson-Firth – founder and principal attorney at Immigrants First, an immigration and human rights law firm, and adjunct law professor at Georgetown University – believes that helping foreign nationals achieve their American dream is the best way for all of us to fulfill our dream of being a prosperous country and world power. “Immigrants are entrepreneurial,” she says. “They start their own businesses – ones that are necessary – and they work multiple jobs.” In Prince William County, where Johnson-Firth lives, roughly 21 percent of the county’s population was born outside the United States. She says the restaurant, hotel, and agriculture industries, among others, would be “devastated” without these immigrants. “I’m not sure who would do some of that work if they weren’t doing it.”
It’s really important to let these people be able to stay here, united with their families, and contribute to the economy.
Since immigrants began moving to the area in the early nineties, her firm has helped “several thousand clients” navigate all stages of the immigration process. In that time, she has seen the broken system up close. In 2007, the state passed harsh immigration laws. This spurred an “exodus of hardworking individuals and families,” she says. “This was just about the time the economy was crashing,” she says, explaining that the ordinance, which was later modified, resulted in “racial profiling and arresting immigrants left, right, and center.” Prince William County suffered much more than surrounding areas like Arlington and Fairfax during the economic downturn of 2008, she says. And while she’s hesitant to attribute all of her county’s bad luck to ill-conceived immigration policies, she says the foreclosure rate was so high during that time, because the harsh immigration laws compelled many families to pick up and leave.
“Immigration law tends to be more of a sledgehammer approach than a scalpel approach,” says Johnson-Firth. She believes it’s fair to target certain criminal aliens, but says the excess of charges that can cause someone to be deported are too broad.
“Do I want to to see everyone deported? No,” says Johnson-Firth. “I think it’s really important to let these people be able to stay here, united with their families, and contribute to the economy. It would be a net loss to the United States to deport everyone who’s undocumented here.”