Profile in Brief: Legal Lecturer

By Mike Scott

Legal News

One of the major issues that is holding back the U.S. economy is a broken immigration system, according to a nationally renowned immigration lawyer who spoke on the issue April 28 in West Bloomfield.

Detroit-area native David Wolfe Leopold spoke on "U.S. Immigration: History of Our Broken System and How to Fix It," at the Jewish Community Center as part of the 2011 Shirley Harris Lecture Series. The free public seminar focused on why Leopold feels that immigration policies in the United States should be changed in a way that allows for a positive impact.

"Immigration as an issue really permeates virtually every part of legal discourse and impacts all of us," Leopold said in advance of the seminar. "There is a misconception that immigrants are sucking the lifeblood out of the American economic system. That is simply not true."

Leopold is an immigration lawyer and litigator, who is the managing partner of David Wolfe Leopold and Associates in Cleveland. But he is familiar with this region, having grown up in Huntington Woods and graduated from Berkley High School and the University of Michigan.

Statistics furnished by national organizations strongly support the notion that providing a pathway to help immigrants become legal residents in the U.S. is advisable, Leopold said. He quoted studies from the Immigration Policy Center that indicated U.S. gross domestic product would rise by more than $1 billion per year while increasing the wages of the average American-born worker over a 10-year span.

Those same studies suggested that providing a pathway to legal immigration also could increase the number of jobs for all Americans by more than 1 million over the same decade, Leopold said.

"I think what the message we see is that the economic benefits are positively impacted for all residents," Leopold said.

Legal immigration is a positive for local economies, according to statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center and the Perryman Group, a third-party economic and financial analyst firm in Texas. According to those statistics, about 1.3 percent of Michigan residents are undocumented aliens. Removing those individuals would result in a decrease of $3.8 billion in economic activity and more than 20,000 jobs, Leopold said.

Having a set of immigration restrictions therefore would adversely impact schools, taxes and more, he said. The issue is that there is no system in place that meets the immigration needs of both incoming aliens to this country and existing Americans. But there are certain jobs where the skills of immigrants and their willingness to work for lower wages are critical to the economic balance, Leopold said.

"We have to consider the needs of our businesses, and you have industries like home health care, farming, construction and others where these people would fill necessary jobs," Leopold said. "Many of the health care jobs, in particular, will only see demand increases because of the aging Baby Boomer population."

There are other sectors where a shortage of workers can be addressed through a more streamlined immigration policy, Leopold said. He highlighted nursing as an area where the U.S. Department of Labor has consistently indicated a shortage exists. But there is currently a low quota of new immigrants allowed in the country so it can be difficult to find people to staff some of these jobs, he added.

The addition of immigrants also can help increase tax revenue in the country, Leopold said. While he feels most immigrants pay a certain amount of taxes (such as sales tax and some income tax), adding these immigrants to payrolls will help further support the Social Security system and ensure a higher contribution to federal and state income taxes.

With all that said, Leopold does advocate that immigrants learn English and go through rigorous background checks before coming to the country.

"We need to register them and bring them out of the shadows," Leopold said. "It is well accepted that they ought to find a good pathway to legal citizenship."

There is a role for immigration lawyers to help promote the importance of changing the country's immigration process, Leopold said. One is to help identify fair and legal ways for a business to hire illegal workers in a way that doesn't negatively impact Americans in their ability to earn a fair living.

"What we have to be aware of is that we live in a global economy and our immigration system needs to reflect that because we're competing with China and other countries," Leopold said. "You see the European Union creating visas for high-tech professions because they want to bring those talented people to their countries.

"I wish I could say this is self-serving, but the reality is this is about making America stronger and keeping us competitive in this marketplace."

There are other ways that immigration lawyers are actively helping to spearhead the effort, Leopold said. As a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, he hopes that attorneys will seek to improve what he terms is a "dysfunctional" law. But he also wants to make sure that the law is enforced in a way that is fair to everyone.

"We want to protect wages (as does the Department of Labor) and working conditions, and to use deferred action and/or prosecutorial discretion," Leopold said. "As a group of lawyers, we can help inform Congress what does and doesn't work."

Published: Wed, May 4, 2011