Long before President Donald Trump cracked down on immigrants as a centerpiece of his promise to “Make America Great Again,” immigrants had already made – and kept – America great. Many are our clients.
As the founder of an international immigration law firm based in Owings Mills, Maryland, I specialize in helping U.S. employers hire the foreign talent they need to make up for a shortage of American workers in many areas of expertise, particularly in science, technology, engineering math – the critical STEM fields.
During the past quarter-century, my firm and I have helped tens of thousands of immigrants come to America. They include educators, entrepreneurs, scientists, computer programmers, doctors, architects, and software engineers. Imagine what America would look like without them. Not nearly as great.
Foreign Exiles Seek Asylum
While many come to America from foreign universities, hospitals and private industry, others flee here from nations wracked by violence and political oppression. They include refugees and exiles seeking asylum. In escaping war and persecution, many are driven to succeed for the betterment of themselves, their families and America. Like other immigrants, though, Trump has slashed the flow of refugees to the United States, leaving many alone and at risk.
The New York Times, in an October 10, 2020 editorial, wrote: “Between 2016 and 2019, annual net immigration into the United States fell by almost half, to about 600,000 per year – a level not seen since the 1980s – according to an analysis by William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution,” a respected think tank. The Times quoted Frey as saying the decline “is clearly a result of Trump’s restrictive measures, including immigrant bans from selected countries, greater limits on refugees, and generating fear among other potential immigrant groups over this administration’s unwelcoming policies.”
Fact and Fiction
Trump wages war on immigrants, his signature issue, by rallying his predominately white base with false claims that foreign nationals are largely to blame for crime, loss of American jobs, and stagnant wage growth.
Trump peddles fear. Consider the facts. Immigrants have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans. They also create more jobs and businesses per capita, which helps to generate economic growth and boost wages.
While Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” he’s undermined it since the week he took office in January 2017 with an endless series of executive orders and policy changes that make it tougher for needed foreign workers to enter and stay in the United States.
Unified Response against the Relentless Attacks
With fellow immigration lawyers and other immigration advocates, we stand up and speak out. We go to court, file appeals, challenge the unjust denials of visa applications and petitions, and, perhaps most importantly, make the case that America, “a nation of immigrants,” needs immigrants.
We cite facts, such as:
- Forty-three percent of the Fortune 500 companies in 2017 were founded or co-founded by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant, according to a study by the Center for American Entrepreneurship. They include: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the son of a Cuban immigrant; Apple founder Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian migrant, and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, a Taiwanese immigrant.
- Between 2000 and 2019, immigrants received 36 of 95 of the Nobel Prizes won by Americans in chemistry, medicine, and physics, according to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy.
- Studies find, including ones cited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that immigrants helps create jobs and boost the wages of native-born workers.
- The United States has more immigrants than any other country, upwards of 40 million, about 20 percent of the world’s immigrant population, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, reported in August 2020.
Murthy Law Firm Fights Injustice
Since starting the Murthy Law Firm in 1994, it has grown from a one-person operation into a global powerhouse with about 100 lawyers and support personnel in the United States and India.
My staff and I confer one-on-one with clients. We also educate millions of people around the globe about U.S. immigration – laws, regulations, and policies – via our website, one of the most popular law-firm sites in the world.
Early on, I told immigrants and companies that employ them, “Trump is president, not king, and if he violates the law, we will take him to court and fight.” And that’s what we’ve done.
Client Fights Back
In 2018, Trump’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cut off a major funding source for ITSERVE Alliance, the nation’s largest association of information technology companies, with more than 1,000 corporate members, most headed by immigrants from India.
Without notice, USCIS switched its policy on what type of employers can participate in a federal STEM training programs for international students, no longer allowing ITSERVE members to contract them out to corporate clients.
Initially, ITSERVE declined to fight back. “We don’t want the new administration to get upset with us and retaliate,” an ITSERVE leader told me. “They could make things even worse for us.”
But as ITSERVE’S pro bono legal adviser, I said, “You’ve got to fight back. You’ve got to sue. You can’t sit there and take this. If you do, they will figure that next time they will do something even worse.”
ITSERVE ultimately sued, charging that USCIS’s new policy amounted to a legislative rule change that failed to go through the required rulemaking process. Before the court rendered a decision, USCIS reversed itself by eliminating language from their website and handing us a resounding victory. That emboldened ITSERVE to realize the importance of litigation against the U.S. federal government, a concept unheard of in most countries, to ensure that their rights would be protected.
Importance of Compliance
Later that year, two owners of a Texas-based software development company came to my office, fearing that USCIS might shut them down. Days earlier, USCIS agents showed up unannounced at their office and seized the records of more than three dozen foreign-born workers.
Agents quickly found that at least one employee was in non-compliance and were still combing through the records of others when the two owners entered my office.
“You have reason to be concerned,” I said. “You’re on the government’s radar screen. But don’t panic. Check your records. Make sure all your foreign workers have their paperwork in order. If there are problems, fix them now. It’s never too late to show good faith and to comply with all the multitude of rules and constant changes required under the law.”
They did what we told them, and we soon reached a deal with USCIS. It let the company stay in business and keep its foreign-born employees. But the firm had to update its records and pay a large fine.
The case prompted me to issue a warning to other companies with immigrant workers: “Make sure your records are updated. Livelihoods are a stake. So are lives.”
Help Immigrants Achieve ‘American Dream’
I came to the United States from India in 1986 to attend Harvard Law School. Like so many foreign nationals, I fell in love with this country – its people, freedom, and spirit – and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen and opened my own law firm, my “American Dream.”
Every immigrant’s story is different, but a common thread runs through them: we leave our homes and our hearth with hope and courage to experience a new opportunity and a new life in a new country. We do it because we are risk-takers, driven by a spirit of adventure, and encouraged by the confidence that our creativity and work ethic will earn us a place in our new homeland.
At my firm, we celebrate immigrants. We also celebrate U.S.-based companies that hire them. We salute their vision to find “the best and the brightest” from other lands and make their companies, communities, and country stronger.
Listen to Aron Finkelstein, my firm’s managing attorney, explain why he enjoys practicing immigration law and how it allows him to create a living legacy.
“When I’m dead and gone, there are going to be children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of immigrants who I helped come to the United States, and these children will all be living their own ‘American Dreams,'” Aron says.
“They will have no idea that a basis for them being here in the United States is an overweight Jewish attorney, me, who helped their parents and grandparents and great grandparents come to America.”
“I like to say that immigration law is the best law to practice,” he says. “You’re helping immigrants, you’re helping people, and you’re helping companies that need immigrants. And when these immigrants and companies do well, you’re helping the United States of America do well.”
Caring for Each File and Each Life
Aron’s words and passion help explain what I mean when I tell my staff: “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” That’s my mantra. Facts and knowledge are of no use in helping immigrants unless they are used with care and passion. You must understand a case from the client’s perspective. It’s their life.
Onslaught of Denials and Violations during the Trump Era
Trump upends countless lives in various ways, including his administration issuing countless denials of petitions for new and even renewals of H1B work visas for highly skilled foreign nationals. While the denial rate never topped 15 percent from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2016, it hit 32 percent in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019.
No new law or regulation prompted this spike. Rather, the Trump administration simply slowed the flow of immigrants into the United States by reinterpreting existing regulations and imposing its own draconian new standards.
Trump routinely makes his own rules. So, when Congress refused to authorize funds for him to build a wall along the U.S.’s southern border, he built his own wall, with his own rules. He didn’t build it with metal, concrete, and barbed wire. But instead, with executive orders and policy changes.
Compliant federal officers – including border guards, customs inspectors, and U.S. consulates – helped Trump construct and maintain his wall. And a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld portions of it.
From the frontlines of Trump’s war on immigrants, we still see his wall go up. We witness the pain and suffering, lost jobs, and missed opportunities. We see and hear the shattering of “American Dreams.”
Ripple Effects at Airports, U.S. Consulates Abroad and RFEs
Some customs inspectors at international U.S. airports refuse entry to returning foreign visitors, falsely claiming that their papers are not in order and forcing them to return to their homeland. We routinely help such immigrants appeal and return back safely to America.
Simultaneously, under a new quota system, federal immigration court judges are required to push to finalize cases quickly. Businesses, hospitals, and universities struggle to fill jobs with highly skilled and educated foreign workers who they need to compete and survive.
Foreign-owned companies in the United States must jump through an increasing number of federal regulatory hoops. Consequently, some businesses reduce, if not eliminate, reliance on foreign nationals. Others shut down and return to their homelands. “I don’t want this abuse,” company executives tell me. “I can’t afford it.”
U.S. consulates overseas implement policies favored by Trump – even if courts rule against it. The embassies say they enforce a “policy” backed by the administration, not a “regulation” struck down by the courts. In such cases, we sue on behalf of our clients, and often win. But many can’t afford to sue. The new “policy” stops them.
USCIS began using what had been routine “requests for evidence,” known as “RFE’s,” as a weapon. They send a letter asking for specific “evidence” about an immigrant seeking a visa extension – like proof of education, homeland, and job. But then reject the extension because of something it didn’t even initially seek – like proof of salary.
Future with a Glimmer of Hope
I believe the lives of immigrants will improve once Trump is out of office. Many international students and foreign-born workers agree and tough it out. Others give up and return to their native lands. It’s a shame. They’re good people. But many feel unwanted and threatened.
Clearly, the U.S. immigration system is broken. It’s been broken long before Trump became president and made it worse. It must be fixed. I don’t have all the answers. No one does. But I have a suggestion that I guarantee would create jobs and help America compete in the increasingly high-tech world. I say allow more foreign-born professionals into America to make up for the lack of native-born ones.
Since 2004, the annual number of H1B visas for new hires has been capped at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 for foreign nationals with an advanced degree from an American university. In recent years, even after the pandemic, demand for such visas has far exceeded supply.
If a company, hospital, or university can’t find a qualified U.S. citizen for a job, let them hire an eligible foreign national – provided they prove these foreign nationals are needed and they pay the prevailing wage.
Allowing more immigrants would help make – and keep – America great.
Sheela Murthy, an immigrant from India, is the CEO and founder of her own “American Dream,” The Murthy Law Firm. It began in 1994 as a one-person operation in Owings Mills, Maryland, and is now an international juggernaut with a staff of more than 100 and offices in the United States and India. She is also co-founder, with her husband, Vasant Nayak, of the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, created after the 9/11 attacks to help the disadvantaged, particularly in the United States and India.
Editor’s Note: Ms. Murthy wrote this article with Tom Ferraro, a former longtime Washington reporter turned freelance writer. They are now writing her autobiography, “Made (it) in America: Immigrant Lawyer and ‘The American Dream.’”
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