State Bar's International Law Section took a deep dive into immigration policy, history


Members of the International Law Section panel on immigration are, left to right: Rachel Settlage of Wayne State Law School’s Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic; Robert (Bob) M. Birach, American Immigration Law Association Dept. of Labor Liaison; Dorothy H. Basmaji, Murray Law Group, Michigan; Ret.U.S. Immigration Judge Elizabeth A. Hacker; and moderator Debra Auerbach Clephane, also of Murray Law Group, current chair of the International Law Section Council.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Part of what is fascinating about the State Bar of Michigan (SBM) annual conference is the profusion of practice section meetings.

Because there is so much variation from section to section, the offerings sometimes feel like a smorgasbord of activity. In addition to holding business meetings and introducing new officers, most sections have topical panels or speakers covering a wide array of subjects.

The International Law Section’s “Face of Immigration Under a New Administration” panel was a significant draw, but at the exact same time, the Arts, Communications, Entertainment and Sports (ACES) Section covered “Street Art and Property Rights;” the American Indian Law Section also had a panel on what to expect from the current administration; the Labor and Employment Law Section offered practical tips for lawyers featuring Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kurtis T. Wilder; the Appellate Practice Section presented on “Rethinking Appellate Briefing in he Digital Age;” and the Military and Veterans Law Section heard from James Redford of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency and Col. John Wojcik of the Michigan National Guard — among several other section meetings and informational tracks.

It makes for a rich set of choices, although for the most part section members take in whatever their section is offering.

The International Law Section’s update was crowded and the material was extensive.

SBM’s International Law Section promotes the highest qualify of practice through providing members with educational programs, building a diverse membership and engaging the members with networking and mentoring opportunities; and promoting awareness of international law issues in the state’s legal, business, and legislative communities.

The incoming chair of the Section, Debra Auerbach Clephane, also served as panel moderator. Clephane is a share-holder in the Immigration Department of Murray Law Group in Bingham Farms, who advises both U.S. and non-U.S. employers on employing foreign nationals in the United States.

She introduced the first speaker, former Immigrations Judge Elizabeth Hacker, as a “sister by choice,” noting that Hacker had also been a chair of the American Immigrant Lawyers Association (AILA).

Hacker, a wise and humorous presenter, started by saying, “I know many of you do not practice the type of immigration law I did but focus on  business law, and some of you are extremely experienced in the business immigration side of the law. Today I want
to speak to you as an ordinary citizen – and as a judge, but the opinions I express today are solely my own, reached  over my 33 years of exposure and practice.

“ I want to talk about the policies of immigration law but to do so, I need to talk about the history of the country and tie these laws to their historical context. They have always been strongly influenced by the views of the period – often sexist, racist, discriminatory and gender-biased.”

Judge Hacker noted that immigration was relatively free and open prior to the Immigration Act of 1882, which barred Chinese workers as well as “idiots, lunatics, convicts and persons likely to become a public charge.” These laws required federal enforcement, which originally fell under the Department of the Treasury. She noted that most of the employees in 1893 were assigned to Ellis Island, where there was also a large presence of aid societies to help the immigrants.

The National Origins Act of 1924 continued discrimination against Asians, and added immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. As the judge and others pointed out, the impetus behind such changes was, as a rule though not always, U.S. citizens feeling threatened economically.

Judge Hacker noted that laws did not always discourage entry of immigrants, pointing to the Bracero program of 1942, which encouraged migrant farmworkers to enter during the absences caused by World War II.

In the 1960s, additional legislation made matters more complicated.  The National Origins Act was repealed, but instead Congress put the preference-based system in place.

As far as the present day, Judge Hacker said, “History suggests that when public opinion sours on immigration policy, it becomes more restrictive. Now that process seems to be getting under way.”

Attorney Bob Birach humorously answered the question, “How do you get into immigration law?” with “By accident.” He said that when he started  his career, a distant cousin was advertising his immigration law skills on a Yugoslav television channel —unbeknownst to him, since he did not speak the language. “I got a case dismissed in Wayne County court, and I’ll start my fortieth year in November,” he said.

He cautioned that current case law requires very careful consideration for a client pleading guilty to a lesser charge, because it can still result in deportation. Since many of the attorneys present were business lawyers, he suggested that if a company’s immigrant employee runs into any legal trouble, it is important to call in an immigration attorney because the law is very complex.

Clephane’s colleague at Murray Law Group, Dorothy Basmaji, talked about border issues.

Then Rachel Settlage, Director of the Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic at Wayne State Law School,  looked at the flip side of the coin introduced by Birach: non-citizen victims of crimes. Among many important cautions, she noted that in terms of domestic violence by an American citizen on a spouse who is a non-citizen, that spouse may not return to their country of origin without a petition sponsored by the citizen. “It’s just an additional too in the abuser’s pocket,” she noted, although there are remedies.

Settlage supplied a chart listing the acts which provide relief for non-citizen crime victims and a path to citizenship on their own. These include the Violence Against Women Act protections, the Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa, and other types of visas (U and T visas) that can protect victims of human trafficking, for example.

She also delineated the difference between refugees and asylees, an entirely different area of immigration with different legal repercussions. Both are groups who fear for their lives or safety based on persecution in their countries of nationality, but those seeking asylum apply to be allowed to stay in the country and, after vetting, become permanent residents, whereas refugees are those who flee to a neutral country and are relocated to the host country by the United Nations after official U.N. recognition as refugees.