Born in San Juan, Texas, to a migrant worker from Mexico, Homero Lopez Jr. grew up moving around the country as his mother found work on farms and in restaurants, hotels, and meatpacking facilities. He sometimes worked beside her, harvesting crops like potatoes, beets, and onions. Occasionally, a small theater troupe would come and perform “know your rights” skits at farms, explaining things like landlord-tenant contracts and other legal issues. “Seeing the impact that had on the field workers — the impact that it had on me — inspired me to go to law school,” says Lopez. Today, Lopez is the managing attorney of Immigration and Refugee Services for the Catholic Charities-Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO). There he manages a staff of 15 that work on some 800 cases at any given time, providing the very kinds of services that motivated him to become a litigator years ago. “Most of the immigrants I work with just want some sort of work permit that would allow them to go through the proper channels, even if it’s not legal status,” he explains. “Ultimately, they just want to be able to work and contribute to the American economy legally.”
We’re educating these students and then they’re just gone, even though a lot of them actually want to stay and contribute to our economy . . . Rather than allowing them to stay and solve an existing problem for us, our legislators are just sending them back.
Though the majority of his budget goes toward cases involving unaccompanied children, Lopez and his staff also assist immigrant victims of violent crimes, file petitions to help keep families together and help with naturalization cases. He says most of the undocumented, adult, male immigrants he meets work in the local construction industry, a sector that has had significant workforce needs since Hurricane Katrina. “So much of New Orleans needed to be rebuilt, and these immigrants went there to do that work,” says Lopez, noting that many workers have children in the local school systems. “Even now we’re going through a construction boom, so if those people were deported you’d end up with a lot of delays and uncompleted jobs.”
The New Orleans restaurant, tourism and hospitality industries, the crawfish farms, and others would also be left with gaping holes should the foreign-born population be forced out of the workforce. And, since all documented immigrants and more than half of undocumented workers pay income taxes, government coffers would also take a painful hit. “Most of those workers will get an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) number so that they can pay taxes and do all that stuff above the table even if they don’t have documents,” he says. “They have the mindset that their future is in America so they think of taking care of those things as a way of preparing for that. It’s ‘How can I help my family and my community?’ ”
As a lawyer who’s worked on hundreds of cases, Lopez also sees how immigration policy prevents the U.S. economy from benefitting from immigrant labor. The current waiting list for entry is so long that productive workers either get too discouraged to apply for citizenship or age out of their prime working years while waiting. “Say you have two brothers, and one is a U.S. citizen,” explains Lopez. “He has to be 21 before he can petition for his brother who lives abroad. And depending on what country they’re from, the wait is a minimum of 13 years and can be more than 20 years. So if I’m 21, and I petition for my brother who is 18, we’re talking about someone who is coming to the U.S. when he’s almost 40. Not only is that bad for family immigration because we’re keeping them apart for that long period of time, but it’s bad for our economy. Because instead of bringing in people who are in their prime working years who could be even more productive contributors to our economy, we’re bringing in these older people.”
In addition, undocumented immigrants can’t get drivers licenses in Louisiana, meaning they’re unable to secure many of the jobs that would give them spending power to reinvest in local businesses. Lopez says the system also perpetuates feelings of fear and distrust, which keeps many workers hidden in the shadows. “It’s really hard to find work when you’re undocumented,” he says, pointing out that the same is true for foreign students who come to the U.S. to study on temporary visas but aren’t given a clear path to stay after graduation. “We’re educating these students and then they’re just gone, even though a lot of them actually want to stay and contribute to our economy. We’re talking about skilled workers who are qualified for jobs in industries that already have significant workforce shortages. Rather than allowing them to stay and solve an existing problem for us, our legislators are just sending them back.”