Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 11, 2019

Immigration policy shift gives Lester a national voice

Expert advice sought in military citizenship issue

Part of Martin Lester’s practice as an immigration attorney involves fighting for people’s rights to live lawfully in the U.S. So when national media outlets began contacting him to speak about a policy change that could leave the children of some members of the U.S. military stranded overseas, he was eager to join the discussion.

The conversation began when Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, announced a change effective this month that would make it more difficult for some children born to U.S. service members stationed abroad to obtain U.S. citizenship.

Lester explained the impact of the change to The Washington Post: “Children born overseas to U.S. parents can usually automatically claim citizenship as long as their parents lived in the United States for five years, including for two years after they turned 14.”

In the past, federal immigration officials made exceptions for military members and government employees who did not meet that standard because they had left the U.S. to serve their country overseas, Lester told the newspaper.

“The new rule creates second-class citizenship for those parents who left before the five-year mark to serve the United States aboard. I don’t understand how changing this policy makes America safer by telling its servicemen and women that it’s going to make it harder for their children to be Americans.”

Lester entered the discussion when Caitlin Dickson from Yahoo News asked the American Immigration Lawyers Association if someone would be willing to talk with her about the policy change.

As chair of the committee for AILA’s Military Assistance Program, which connects service members who need help with immigration issues with attorneys who provide it free of charge, Lester fielded Dickson’s request.

When word spread on Twitter that Lester would answer questions, his small practice in Hixson was inundated with calls from The New York Times, The Associated Press, Bloomberg and others.

“It drew a lot of attention because of the impact on military families,” Lester explains. “If even one baby can’t obtain citizenship because of this policy, it’s a bad policy.”

Lester’s media tour culminated with an appearance on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” Cuccinelli was on the same broadcast.

“It was good to have a lot of interest in this issue,” Lester adds. “The last thing we want is a government policy that makes it harder for the children of men and women in uniform to be U.S. citizens.”

Lester didn’t become an immigration attorney to appear on television or be quoted in print. Rather, his experiences serving clients in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, which has a large number of international residents, kindled his interest in immigration law.

Lester’s interest has developed into a passion, and today he devotes nearly all of his practice to immigration issues.

“Immigration law is complex, so you need to be either all in or you should leave it alone,” he says.

A Yale-educated attorney, Lester also volunteers time beyond his work and his legal expertise to nonprofits that assist people battling immigration issues. This includes the AILA as well as Bridge Refugee Services, where he’s serving as board chair.

“The more people we help with their immigration issues, the better it is for the country in general and Chattanooga, in particular,” Lester says. “My wife and I love this city. It has an entrepreneurial spirit and an attitude of growth. It also has a community that wants to move to the next level.

“And we think every time we give somebody the ability to live and work here lawfully, we add to that. Our clients create jobs, start businesses and buy houses.”

Lester says his welcoming stance on immigration stems from his belief in what he calls the American experiment, which he describes as the process of creating a society that could “bring in people from various parts of the world and mold it into something better and stronger.”

“I’m not saying this country is perfect, but there’s a reason why people leave their homes to come here,” he adds.

Lester has filled a mental filing cabinet with stories of people he’s helped with an immigration issue, either through his practice or his work with the AILA. Many of the latter were service members who live in the U.S. but still needed assistance.

“I worked with a young airman who needed help obtaining a green card for his spouse. They had met overseas while he was on a mission trip for his church before joining the Air Force,” Lester recalls.

“We were able to help him with that, and then he received orders for Italy. So, it then turned into expediting her citizenship so she could go with him.”

Lester was successful, and the couple are now living in Italy. Stories like this, he says, make practicing immigration law worth the fight.

“Although the practice of immigration law has become more difficult and stressful over the past few years, it’s still gratifying when you have an opportunity to make noticeable, positive differences in people’s lives,” he points out.

“Whether we’re assisting military members, or people who walk in off the street, or businesses with foreign workers, it’s all about helping people bring their talents to the United States and live here lawfully.”

Lester’s mental filing cabinet also contains stories about clients who have not yet achieved a happy ending. A current asylum case is weighing especially heavy on his mind as it winds through the appeals process.

The case involves a family seeking refuge in the U.S. to avoid violence in their home country, Lester says.

“They faced extreme violence in their country from criminal elements. The husband had been physically assaulted and robbed, and they felt like they were going to be killed if they didn’t leave,” Lester explains.

Lester tried the case before a judge at the Memphis Immigration Court. While the judge found that the husband and wife were telling the truth, he ruled against their plea for asylum since they were unable to prove why the violence was directed against them.

“Under U.S. asylum law, it’s typically not enough to show that your home country is dangerous; you have to prove that things are directed against you and why,” Lester says. “If the judge feels you haven’t done that, he’s going to rule against you.”

Despite the fierce blow in the first round of the fight, Lester is not giving up on the family. “We know the day might come when the judge orders them to leave the U.S., and I can’t imagine what it’s like not just for them but for the thousands of others who are here not because they thought they could get a better job but because they knew if they didn’t leave their home, they were going to die.”

Lester says losses like this hurt because he’s working with people he knows and cares about. “You know their family members and children; you know their history and what led them to come to the United States; and you know about the danger they face if they have to leave.”

Lester has traced his family’s history to immigrants. His great-grandparents, Martin and Rose, left Eastern Europe with few possessions or money in the early 1900s and arrived in the U.S. through Ellis Island. Martin was a tailor who later worked in a grocery store, and Rose labored as a domestic servant and was an excellent baker, Lester says.

Mapping out his family’s history through the years, Lester says his grandmother went to college and became a science teacher, which allowed his dad to go to medical school and become a doctor, which enabled him to go to law school and become an attorney.

“Most immigration attorneys recognize their part in the greater American story and how their work opens a world of opportunity not just for the families they help but for our country,” Lester says. “Who knows what those people will become?”

Lester knows one attorney with a client who will be impacted when the policy change goes into effect Oct. 29. But even in the face of the difficulties he says service members will experience, Lester says he believes a solution will be found.

He’s especially hopeful that Congress will produce legislation that changes the associated statute. “It would be a simple fix,” he says.

In the meantime, Lester is warning anyone who will listen about the possible consequences of the change being enforced. “Worst-case scenario, a military service member is deployed overseas, potentially to a dangerous place, whose child is not going to have the protection of a U.S. passport,” he says. “And that child might be living where it’s dangerous to be the child of a U.S. military member, or that service member might then be transferred back to the United States and have difficulty bringing their son or daughter with them.”

Applying for the child’s immigration through the normal process could take a year or more, Lester adds. During that time, the service member might have to find someone to care for the child in another country, and will have to live with the worry about whether their child is safe.

History suggests Lester might end up slipping a story with a better ending into his mental filing cabinet.

“There have been periods in our country’s history when issues with immigration have been as bad or worse than they are now. But those periods were followed by periods where things were better,” he says. “So, I know things are going to get better in the immigration world, not just because I’m an optimist but because I’m a student of history.

“What we’re going through now will not last. So, when you’re discouraged and it seems like the government keeps coming up with new and creative ways to change the rules and mess you up, remember – things will improve.”