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The Wall" Builds More Problems Than It Stops

January 5, 2007

As 2007 begins and Congress works to throw every possible impediment in the way of real immigration reform, I find myself pondering the creation of "The Wall." For those who haven't followed the national debate on immigration as avidly as I have, the one piece of legislation actually enacted during the past year provides for construction of a 700-mile-long barrier along our southern border.

Not much of a regular television viewer or political activist, I became riveted by the widespread, seemingly grass-roots demonstrations against "The Wall" by entire communities across the nation. Now, I am trying to reconcile the passionate activity of these recently politicized people with the passage of the mean-spirited, pointless legislation that will result in "The Wall."

Although I never could compare my feelings to the emotional turmoil one would experience over the loss of a son, I keep thinking of the transformation of Cindy Sheehan.

Sheehan said that when she lost her son in Iraq, something inside her broke. She was galvanized, and there was no turning back. She became a person who is not always so nice anymore. She's willing to camp out in Texas and in front of the White House in the pouring rain, for days on end. I can't help but feel that I know what she means.

When the in-house counsel of a long-standing client e-mailed recently to ask whether it bothered me, as it did him, that so many "illegals" live in this country - collecting welfare, clogging our hospitals and overcrowding our schools, while his company cannot hire the talent it needs because of the absurd limit on legal immigration - well, something inside me snapped.

Don't get me wrong - I spend much of my life advocating on behalf of employers for a greater ability to hire talent. But I'm not participating in the great immigration divide. I will not support "The Wall."

As my law partners whispered in worried tones about whether this was going to be good for business, I entered a heated, several-day exchange with my client. It went something like this: Let's get one thing straight. Those who are here illegally are here for one reason: jobs. Unlike the trained professionals for whom we can obtain work visas (at least before the numbers run out), there are no suitable work visas to allow these individuals to enter our country legally and work in nonprofessional, "unskilled" positions. In other words, there is no way for them to come here legally to do the work we need them to do.

As anyone who has tried to navigate the quagmire that is our immigration system knows, thousands of dollars will be expended, you'll be old and gray, and your infant children will be having infant children by the time the system provides your experienced nanny with any type of legal status. And that's if the case actually works out.

What about some real immigration reform? For a start, we'll have to be honest with ourselves. It doesn't take much to know that the whole state, if not the whole country - and certainly many of our lives - would fall apart without the help of these "lesser" skilled workers. They come for jobs, and who gives them jobs? We do. And we all benefit from the services, the lower cost of goods and the more-affordable lifestyle they enable us to have.

Does it come at a cost? Of course. But are we to expect that they will come here, work at below-minimum-wage jobs and never have health issues? Should they not seek to educate their children?

We don't need a wall. The immigration statute already contains civil and criminal penalties for individuals and companies that employ unauthorized workers. But then, that could affect us intelligent, educated, sophisticated people adversely.

Lucky for me, the in-house counsel took our exchange rather well. He claims that he can handle direct communication. Time will tell.

As for the rest of you, consider yourselves forewarned: Don't expect me to listen politely while you go on at length about this country's "immigration problem." Friends and fellow professionals, you need to make sure you don't follow social conversations about how large a burden "illegals" are with discreet telephone calls to my office about that essential person in your life who happens to lack legal work authorization.

"Illegal," "undocumented," "under the table" - I don't want to speak that language. Much as I'd like to, I can't help your nanny/gardener/cook/domestic worker/health-care aide who is like a family member/salt of the earth/extremely hardworking/so reliable. It's not going to help that cost is no object.

I am truly sorry, but, like Sheehan, I'm not very patient anymore. Instead of an intelligent explanation of our archaic system or a short lecture about a statutory scheme that places more value on the software engineer than on the woman who works tirelessly to help you raise your children from infancy to adulthood, I'm going to have to ask your position on "The Wall."

Then, after I tell you that nothing really can be done - repeating a conversation I've had countless times during my career - and you've told me how you feel about "The Wall," I'll be ready to give you some good advice: Don't look the other way anymore. Don't avert your eyes when your contractor brings his "team" to remove debris from your home remodeling project, or when the cleaning crew starts vacuuming your office before you leave at night.

Don't look away when the busboy clears your plate at your favorite local restaurant, or when the gardener shows up with a tree to replace the one that blew down in a storm last night. And, by all means, don't look away when that nurse's aide gingerly lifts your elderly father out of his bath.

Then, go ahead - you be the first one. Lay that brick on "The Wall."

Mary Jane Weaver practices business immigration law in San Francisco with Weaver, Schlenger & Mazel.

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