There's timing and there's timing. Glorily Lopez opened her immigration law practice in February 2001—seven months before the 9/11 attacks changed everything. "Many U.S. consulates shut down, travel was restricted, and many cases were delayed," she remembers.
Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Lopez went to Catholic prep school and graduated with honors. Her lawyer-father had attended St. John's in Minnesota and he encouraged her to accept a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where she began studies in 1991 at the age of 17. "I had never even seen snow before, so the blizzard on Oct. 31, 1991, was a shock for me."
She got her J.D. at Madison. Since her husband, a molecular scientist, was based in Madison, Lopez opened her own firm there, where she'd noticed a need for specialists in immigration law. "Given that I am in a university town, we have clients who are highly educated," she says. "We represent professors, researchers and students from the university. But there's also a growing Latino community here in Madison."
After 9/11, there were many changes in immigration policy—some welcome, some not—but the brunt of the problem, she says, can still be traced to the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
Lopez says current U.S. immigration statutes make it difficult for families to stay together because they don't provide enough ways for undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens to acquire residency visas themselves. "They either have to remain here undocumented—and obviously, with the advent of many immigration raids, that becomes quite difficult, and then essentially wait, perhaps for a comprehensive immigration bill to pass Congress—or, in the alternative, pursue an application for an immigrant visa through the American consulate."
It's tough for businesses as well. Under the current system, employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers are not only subject to higher civil monetary sanctions, but, in many instances, criminal prosecution. "The environment is fairly hostile right now, even for employers who want to do the right thing," she says.
Example: A company she represents can't find the people it needs in Wisconsin so it's looking abroad. The appropriate visas for professional workers are called H-1B visas, which employers can initially file for up to three years with a possible three-year extension. Congress used to have a higher cap for professional workers, but in recent years it has reverted to the base level: 65,000 per year. "We have had, essentially, blackout periods for the last three years because there are more petitions that are filed with the Department of Homeland Security"—Lopez estimates 300,000 last year alone—"than the cap allows. So we just got rejected. Not on the merits. Not on anything.
"These are workers that we want here. We want the scientists, the engineers. We want the individuals—many of them have graduated from Madison with a master's or Ph.D., or just bachelor's—and these companies that really need their services are not able to hire them."
She adds, "The United States was founded and built by immigrants, and their contributions have been essential to making it the great nation it is today."
But first they have to get in.