Immigration Attorney Highlights Legal Problems

August 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Priscilla Labovitz has spent 33 years as an immigration attorney, helping immigrants navigate a wide range of legal hurdles. Those include getting green cards and temporary visas, earnings naturalization and seeking asylum here in the U.S.

Priscilla Labovitz, welcome.

PRISCILLA LABOVITZ, Attorney for Legal Immigrants: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it difficult to come live in the United States legally?

PRISCILLA LABOVITZ: Oh, it is very, very difficult. It is not a question of showing up or putting your name on a list. The law requires either that you are sponsored by an employer who cannot fill a position that you are qualified for and there’s no American in the area to fill; or you have to be of extraordinary ability, whether it’s in the arts or business or science; or you can have a close family member petition for you, but that would have to be a legal permanent resident or U.S. citizen, spouse, parent or adult child, in some cases a brother or sister, but that takes 20, 30 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s talk about somebody who is trying to stay in the country legally when there’s no complicating factors like political problems or criminal record. They’ve done their paperwork. It seems to be in order. What are some of the bottle necks in the system?

PRISCILLA LABOVITZ: Let’s take as an example an American citizen wants to bring his sister to the United States. And let’s say the sister was born in the Philippines.

He would file a petition for his sister, and it would be approved in some months by the immigration service. And then she would languish on a waiting list until they reached the date when her case was filed. They are currently doing cases that were filed in 1994.

So that means, if she’s here, she’s illegal all that time. If she’s not here, she’s remaining in the Philippines unable even to visit — because after all, she might stay — until her number is reached.

Number of years

Priscilla Labovitz
Immigration Lawyer
Compared to the numbers of people who wish to come to the United States, there are a very small number of positions available.

RAY SUAREZ: So in the current debates about immigration, when somebody on Capitol Hill talks about the legal system, talks about getting in line and doing it the right way, we're talking about people who filed to come in 12 years ago?

PRISCILLA LABOVITZ: Yes, more than 12 years ago in many cases. Yes, and it's not as if you can just get in line. This is not a situation like a dry cleaner where you just get in the line and they serve the next one.

Compared to the numbers of people who wish to come to the United States, there are a very small number of positions available. And if you don't know anybody here, if you don't have a family member or an organization that wants you, either to employ you as a auto mechanic or as a software engineer, then there's no way you can get in that line.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there people who you've consulted with who, at the end of it, you just tell them, "I think you're going to have to go back home"?

PRISCILLA LABOVITZ: I've had to tell people that they either would have to go back home, or they can, if they stay, they take their chances of being apprehended and deported, or that they can play the numbers and perhaps not get picked up.

But on the other hand, they won't be able to work legally. They won't be able to get a Social Security number. They won't be able to leave the United States and go home and visit. Even if Mom dies or is dying, if you go, you don't get back in. With barriers to entry into the United States so high, anybody who gets here is less likely to leave.

Specific cases

Priscilla Labovitz
Immigration Lawyer
I wish that people would look at these as real human beings or imagine them as real human beings as opposed to people of a certain appearance or different language who are "invading" our country.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any cases that sort of stick in your mind even after years?

PRISCILLA LABOVITZ: Well, a lot of cases stick in my mind after years because it's been a lot of years. I think some of the most difficult are the people who really don't have any link to permanent residents in the United States.

Currently, I have a client who is a young woman my own daughter's age, born in the Caribbean to parents from two different countries, kidnapped by her father, brought to the United States, raised here, father left. She's left with the father's common-law wife, is raised by her, and graduates from high school, a star in high school, a wonderful, talented young woman.

And she can't say in the United States. There's nobody to petition for her. She has no immediate relatives in the United States. She hasn't done anything wrong. The immigration service will even say it's a sympathetic case but that their hands are tied.

RAY SUAREZ: As you watch, as you listen to the debates on Capitol Hill about illegal immigration and how this country should respond, what do you think is missing, both in the content and in the tone? What are you waiting to hear that you haven't heard yet?

PRISCILLA LABOVITZ: Well, I would like to see people think about those who are trying to come into the United States as like their own grandparents.

I know my great-grandparents came to the United States. I have no idea whether they were legal when they came. I know they didn't speak English. I know they lived within their own little community.

And I'm very grateful that they did, because I know they did what immigrants now do, which is delay gratification, show a lot of initiative, a willingness to sacrifice, and a work ethic that some people think is endangered in the United States.

And I wish that people would look at these as real human beings or imagine them as real human beings as opposed to people of a certain appearance or different language who are "invading" our country, because nobody has invaded this country since immigrants from Europe came and conquered the Indians.

RAY SUAREZ: Priscilla Labovitz, thanks a lot.