TCS Daily

My Story: An Anecdotal Argument for Immigration Reform

By Ilya Shapiro - October 19, 2005 12:00 AM

I began writing for TCS in January 2004, with two articles commenting on President Bush's proposed immigration reform. The first argued that the plan, which would create a sort of "guest worker" program for unskilled laborers, went both too far and not far enough.

The second sketched out a vision of what a more complete reform -- starting with a fundamental rethink of the goals behind America's famously incoherent immigration policy -- might look like. I framed the discussion thus:

"First we have to decide what the purpose of immigration is in this brave new world where both economies and terrorists are "globalized." Is it to maintain a young, dynamic population in the face of aging Baby Boomers, declining birth rates, and unsustainable Social Security obligations? Is it to take in the world's tired, poor, and oppressed such that America can remain the land of opportunity and fulfill its manifest destiny as a shining city upon a troubled hill? Is it to fill gaps in the labor market, whether they present a lack of software engineers or gardeners or nannies?"

To these big-picture considerations I would add concerns over maintaining homeland security and respect for the rule of law -- the need to maintain the legitimacy of the legal system by enforcing the laws on the books and the need to distinguish between "real" immigrants and people entering the country to perpetuate gang violence, sexual slavery, drug cartels, and terrorism.

Unfortunately, my burning interest in this policy area is not purely academic. Like Sting, you see, I'm a legal alien, currently on an H-1B professional visa sponsored by and tied to the law firm where I work. Though I have lived in the United States for over a decade -- and though I have sworn four oaths to uphold the Constitution, and worked for a senator, a federal judge, and a presidential campaign -- I am no closer to gaining permanent residence ("a green card"), let alone citizenship, than when I started.

The reason I'm so bluntly revealing my immigration status, and the reason I'm about to violate one of journalism's oldest and most important tenets (don't make yourself the story), is the hope that perhaps my auto-anecdote will help move the ball on an issue that is so hugely important to the future of America -- the country that I have loved since before I even lived here. And so I beg your indulgence.

My parents are both from Moscow and environs. My paternal grandfather, a trail-blazing doctor who spoke five languages and ran an army hospital, was arrested by the Cheka in 1942 -- when my Dad was six -- never to be heard from again. Due to his foreign training (and likely because he was Jewish), he had been declared an enemy of the people -- though of course he was "rehabilitated" (posthumously) under Khrushchev. Most of my paternal grandfather's family had earlier been killed when the Germans overran Poland and Belarus. My Dad and his mother, meanwhile, were exiled to a medium-sized town in western Siberia, and my Dad was not able to return to Moscow until he started university.

My maternal grandfather was a decorated tank commander during World War Two, and helped take Berlin. Most of my maternal grandmother's family perished during the siege of Leningrad (or in combat). My Mom was a brilliant student, eventually earning a PhD in chemical engineering, but she was denied various opportunities throughout her schooling and pre-immigration career because her father was also Jewish.

My Dad had wanted to immigrate even before he met my Mom. Soon after I was born, Mom finally relented, concluding that they would have to leave the U.S.S.R. for my sake. My parents applied for an exit visa, having to quit their jobs at that point and live off meager savings, and selling the vast library they had built up over the years. The visa came through in 1981 -- part of Brezhnev's policy of allowing Jews leave for Israel to release some of the pressure being brought by the human rights movement -- and we left in June of that year.

After passing Red Cross health inspection in Vienna, my family was settled by a refugee organization in a suburb of Rome while awaiting permission to immigrate to the West (my parents never had any intention of going to Israel). Canada gave us entry visas and we arrived in Toronto on October 26, 1981 -- a date that has always been, understandably, a big holiday at my house.

About a year later, my parents found jobs in a small town (pop. 12,000 at the time) about 100 miles northeast of Toronto (think central Michigan or Minnesota). I grew up an only child, a happy kid who loved sports and reading, who dreamed of fulfilling high expectations and taking advantage of this freedom for which his parents had begun life anew.

When I was thirteen, I published a letter in Time; I found it strange that my classmates had little idea of world affairs beyond a general awareness of the Gulf War and memories of footage from the fall of the Berlin Wall. I found it stranger still that those with a political bent preferred Canada's "peace, order, and good government" to the United States' "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness."

Due to my fervent anti-communism, I naturally looked to the U.S. as a beacon for the free world, the place where rule of law flourished. In middle school, I pledged allegiance to the Star-Spangled Banner every morning at my locker, and, to this day, my childhood bedroom sports framed copies of the Founding Documents amid the posters, pennants, and trophies.

Appropriately, my political awakening occurred in an American history class, at the hands of an old curmudgeon who exemplified the idiosyncratic style I later hoped to emulate. "There have only been three true conservatives in history," Neil McLean would pronounce, "Disraeli, my father, and myself."

I had long been fascinated with American civics and the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and thus resolved to gain U.S. citizenship and become involved in the legal and political life of this country. I also resolved, thanks to my high school's service requirement, and after a close reading of de Tocqueville, always to contribute to the civil society of my community.

When I came to college, I was proud of my achievements, grateful for the opportunity to advance, and motivated to use my potential to gain more knowledge than I could imagine. In my upperclass years, while majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, I studied economics, history, and politics. Thanks to "Woody-Woo" and its alumni, I embarked on a series of adventures that profoundly affected my worldview.

I interned on Capitol Hill, where the then-unknown (but already congenial) Senator Bill Frist provided me an insider's view of government. On my first trip outside North America, I spent five months in Argentina, studying Latin America's social transformations, ingesting fĂștbol culture, discovering one of the most environmentally diverse countries on Earth. The next summer saw another Washington stint and a new side of the policy process, working at a market-oriented think tank while on a fellowship organized by the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies (and funded by the Koch Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the biggest company you've never heard of).

Then came the most rewarding part of my academic career, a senior thesis comparing constitutionalism in Russia and Argentina. My conclusion, briefly stated, ran as follows: With different pasts and different futures, the (then-)convergence of the constitutional paths of Russia and Argentina appears to be an aberration. Russia has serious flaws in the design of its political institutions, with excessive presidential power and subordination of the judiciary. Argentina faces serious challenges in preventing its political institutions from being subsumed by personal and party rivalries. Both require solutions that demonstrate sound legal principles and a profound understanding of each country's particular circumstances -- a lesson not inapplicable to our present remaking of the Middle East.

All was not a bed of roses during my college years, however, as various family issues put a strain on my emotions. Then came a shock that pushed all those aside, the return of the liver cancer that had afflicted my mother when I was in high school, and her subsequent death during my junior year.

After college, I deferred law school and secured a summer position at the United Nations Center for International Crime Prevention in Vienna, where I worked on transnational organized crime issues. Then I completed a master's in international relations, while working for a Member of Parliament in London and completing a thesis on the post-Cold War transformation of the Olympic movement, a part of which formed the basis for this piece.

Immediately prior to law school, I spent a month on military historian Victor Davis Hanson's fruit and nut farm in California's Central Valley, rising early to earn my keep and then reading and discussing classical history and political philosophy. My American Dream had turned to the Jeffersonian ideal of the gentleman farmer.

Then came law school, summer jobs with firms in New York and DC, and the wonderful one-of-a-kind year I spent in Jackson, Mississippi (and traveling around the Deep South) while clerking for a Fifth Circuit judge. Then I moved to Washington, volunteered for three months on the policy staff of Bush-Cheney '04 -- including watching over early polls in Broward County, Florida, the infamous vortex of 2000. Soon after the election I started at my current post, where I practice international litigation and antitrust.

Through it all, my love for America, her people and ideals, has only grown. And yet.

And yet there is no way to become a permanent resident without a spouse or employer acting as a sponsor (or without winning the "green card lottery," for which neither Canadians nor Russians -- were I to reacquire that passport and avoid being sent to Chechnya -- are eligible). Unlike every other immigrant-accepting country, the United States makes no provision for "independent immigration." That is, the executive and legislative branches have not established a set of criteria by which immigration workers can evaluate would-be immigrants -- no "points system" like the one that enabled my engineer parents to come to Canada.

While I am hugely grateful for the opportunity to live and work in America (and in our nation's capital), I am not presently able to use the wonderful education and skills I have been given for the higher purpose that has long directed my path: the service of my country. I cannot work in the State or Defense Departments, in the challenging and critical Justice Department jobs for which I am otherwise qualified, in Executive Office positions, or in any other legal or policy-making posts for which I have prepared my whole life. I cannot even "put my money where my mouth is" (in terms of my support of our engagement in Iraq) by serving in the military JAG Corps -- or even enlisting as a simple infantryman.

I have lived my entire adult life in the U.S. All my friends, my network, all the things that make a life, are here (except my Dad, my only relative, who's retired and still in Toronto). I am willing to sign any number of loyalty oaths and submit to the most detailed background check. I will gladly renounce my Canadian citizenship -- any of you bitter Blue Staters still up for a trade? -- if that's what it takes.

And it is still not enough.

But this column has been (more than) enough about me; however unique my particular case may or may not be, the United States is losing out on a host of social contributions by maintaining its current immigration (non-)policy, while creating incentives for fraud and illegality of every kind. We have all heard about the effect that new security requirements have had on foreign students in America's institutions of higher learning. Quite apart from that -- and many of those changes are quite rational -- America is losing out on the best, most competent, idealistic people that globalization offers.

In the words of perhaps the most famous immigrant public servant:

"[O]ne thing I learned about America is that if you work hard and if you play by the rules, this country is truly open to you. You can achieve anything. ... In this country, it doesn't make any difference where you were born. It doesn't make any difference who your parents were. ... America gave me opportunities, and my immigrant dreams came true. I want other people to get the same chances I did, the same opportunities. And I believe they can. That's why I believe in this country."

To make the Governator's words a reality, something must be done. Not for my sake; for the country's.

In the meantime, if any cute single girls with American passports are reading this, drop me a line.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatches from Purple America" column argued that Europeans just don't get it.


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