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Two immigration lawyers recommend fixes to what they say is a broken system

Ken Schmitt didn't set out to be an immigration lawyer.

He got involved, however, when he started his own practice and knew people who were graduating from American schools and wanted to stay and work as professionals. Then, the majority of his clients had a minimum of a bachelor's degree and were offered jobs, but that only made up about 20 percent of his practice for a while.

As his immigration law work deepened, however, he found a clear market for family- and marriage-based immigration law work, but he mostly stuck with what he calls "clean cases," meaning people who didn't have overstay their visas or have any criminal background.

To work with cases that were more complicated, Schmitt recruited Gustavo Arango.

Originally from Colombia, Arango worked with a nonprofit in Texas on family-based cases that were too complicated or expensive for private lawyers, often involving overstay or criminal backgrounds.

Here, Arango found a different community from those in Texas where Latino communities have lived for generations, including many new arrivals, both documented and undocumented.

Now, members of the Latino community make up the majority of the two lawyers' clients.

"The immigrant community in St. Louis, particularly the Latino immigrant community, I think is probably way under-reported," Schmitt says.

Unlike the Bosnians or Vietnamese, who came here as refugees with an immigration status that eventually led to legal permanent residency through green (or permanent resident) cards, many Latinos in St. Louis are undocumented, Schmitt says, and therefore under the radar.

Schmitt and Arango's job is to help their clients navigate the immigration system, something they've both been doing for a while.

They still find the waters quite murky.

Many people who are here undocumented didn't come here illegally, Schmitt says; they overstayed their visas. He doesn't think that's the general perception among most Americans, however.

And if you are here undocumented, regardless of how you came, "there are very few" ways, Schmitt says, to stay legally.

Until 1996, he says, a section of the immigration act basically allowed people who overstayed their stay by more than a year to pay a $1,000 fine if they had a pathway for being here legally, such as being married to a U.S. citizen. They could pay the fine, adjust and move on.

"They took that away," Schmitt says.

Now, if you accrue 180 days of unlawful presence and leave on your own, you're barred for three years, and for 10 years if you're here undocumented for one year.

"The thinking in Congress was this is going to be a get-tough attitude and it will keep people from coming in illegally and it will keep people from overstaying," Schmitt says. "Just the opposite happened."

Anecdotally, the practice of many migrant workers, primarily from Latin America, was to come here illegally, work and go back home, but when they realized that wasn't going to be possible anymore, Schmitt says, they just stayed and they brought their families over.

"You can trace the big jump of undocumented people in the United States to right after that time."

Since 2000, the federal government has more than doubled the budget for border patrol and border patrol agents, he says.

"We're removing more people than ever," Schmitt says, but maybe only 30 percent of the people coming in each year undocumented are being deported.

Essentially, Schmitt says, they're losing the battle.

The immigration system is broken, Schmitt says, and he has several thoughts on how to fix it.

"We have to deal with the people who are already here," he says. "And we have to give them a reason to come out of the shadows."

Schmitt would like to see a system that helps undocumented people transfer into legal status, not with asylum or with the promise of automatic citizenship, but a slow process that requires that people show they're paying taxes and following laws.

He also thinks a temporary or guest worker system for American businesses needs to be recognized.

Schmitt thinks the number of visas available for families and businesses should be increased and that is should be easier for people to get through the system. An easier, more transparent system, he believes, would make enforcement easier as well.

If officials really knew who was coming in, then it would be easier to keep the bad guys out.

Every community has criminals, Arango says. But in St. Louis, as a whole, the Latino community he works with, regardless of their status, aren't bad people

"They are very much a hard-working people who are here to get a better life for them, their families," Arango says. "They're not taking anything from anyone. Nothing is given to them. They work very hard."

Those people want to be a part of this country, Schmitt adds, and share American values. To him, that's not a threat, but an opportunity.

Part 1

While immigration causes controversy, two lawyers say most Americans don't know how it really works

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Kristen Hare

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