Law professor calls immigration system 'broken' -- Wayne State immigration reform lecture mirrors Obama administration's view

By Taryn Hartman

Legal News

Coming on the heels of a pertinent Nov. 13 address on immigration reform from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Wayne State University Law Professor Rachel Settlage gave her own lecture on the topic as the last event in a speaker series sponsored by the law school's new Program for International Legal Studies.

"What both sides agree on is the current system is broken," Settlage told a packed classroom Wednesday, Nov. 18. "It's broken and it needs to be fixed."

Settlage explained that the current family- and employment-based systems of immigrating into the United States -- which boasts the highest rate of immigration into the country than any other nation in the world -- are severely crippled by the limited number of visas that can be legally awarded each year, often numbering less than 10,000.

Her sentiments echo that of the current administration which earlier this month called for Congress to take up comprehensive immigration reform in early 2010. Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois will be overseeing the effort in the House and Senators Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham will spearhead the Senate initiative, according to a Nov. 14 Wall Street Journal article.

Settlage's lecture addressed a handful of myths surrounding the immigration debate and the approximately 12 million undocumented aliens -- 4 percent of the current population -- currently living and working in the United States. Among the misconceptions Settlage sought to refute were that undocumented persons take jobs from U.S. citizens, drive down wages and usurp the nation's public benefits.

Rather, Settlage said, the undocumented population has been shown to make little negative impact and in fact be a fiscal benefit to society by consuming goods and services, lowering consumer prices, and contributing and improving entrepreneurship and other benefits to their immediate communities. Settlage was quick to point out that undocumented individuals and their families simply are not and never have been eligible to access health care and other public benefits, and are in fact often exploited by employers through severely depressed wages.

Undocumented immigrants compose 5.4 percent of the nation's labor force and anywhere between 25 percent and 75 percent of all agricultural workers, Settlage said. In addition to taking low-skill jobs U.S. citizens simply don't want, she added, undocumented workers use "borrowed" or phony Social Security numbers to obtain employment and through payroll taxes annually contribute $8.5 billion to Social Security in benefits they will never benefit from.

New to Wayne State's faculty this fall, Settlage is an immigration law expert who has worked as an advisor on the topic for the Department of State and most recently taught an immigration rights clinic at the University of Baltimore's School of Law. She's launching a similar Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic at WSU in January (See "New Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic Announced" on front page).

The Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic brings Wayne's total roster of practical clinics to seven and joins similar immigration clinics at nearby University of Detroit Mercy and University of Michigan Law Schools. Settlage said Michigan State's law school is planning to start its own next fall, adding to the more than 50 such clinics at law schools around the nation.

"It's absolutely a growing field," Settlage said of immigration law. "Given the increasing numbers of people immigrating to the United States, this is an area of law that's not going away."

Settlage, whose career has taken her to Arizona in addition to Baltimore and Washington, D.C., said she's never worked in an area where the local community's need for immigration services has been met.

"The stakes in immigration cases, particularly asylum immigration cases, are so high. It's often a matter of life and death," Settlage said. "There's nothing better than to be able to say to a client, 'You're safe now.'"

Published: Thu, Dec 3, 2009