Most of us don’t have to go that far back to find an immigrant ancestor in our family tree. This is one of the key points Access to Justice Fellow Jean Sifleet makes when she opens the talks she gives to business leaders at Rotary Clubs around the state.
Jean gives these talks as part of the Immigrant Family Community Education Program run by her Partner Organization, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI). She hopes to give business owners a better idea of the struggles facing many foreign-born workers, who often deal with a very convoluted immigration system.
Immigrants make up a large percentage of those working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-based fields in the United States. Many also have manual labor jobs in hotels, restaurants, factories, and farms. They play an important role in the economy of Massachusetts, where one in six people are foreign-born.
“I’m trying to paint the picture that there are immigrants all around us and our economy benefits from their contributions,” Jean says.
Jean has worked in corporate law for over forty years now, first at large tech companies and later in private practice. She helps small tech start-ups with licensing and has written books and given talks focused on navigating the legal aspects of the business world.
Over the course of her career, Jean has interacted with many foreign-born tech workers who find it difficult to have their voices heard in the rough-and-tumble, demanding work culture inherent to many large American corporations.
As she started winding down her practice in preparation to retire this June, Jean decided to take a course on English as a second language. She knew she wanted to have an active retirement and hoped to work more in-depth with foreign-born workers, helping them with necessary language skills for corporate environments.
During this time, Jean did more research into immigration policy and was disturbed by what she found.
“I came to understand that we have this very convoluted system that excludes a lot of people that want to contribute to our country,” she says. “Many of them are educated here; they come here as students and we don’t make it very easy for them to stay.”
She asked herself what she could do and got the answer when a colleague sent her an article about the Access to Justice Fellows Program. She was paired with MLRI after telling Program Director Mia Friedman about her interest in immigration and working towards systemic change.
Since then, Jean has presented her informational talk at numerous Rotary Clubs. In addition to explaining the economic importance of immigration, she wants people to understand how the U.S. immigration system is flawed and what changes would benefit everyone. She says the two main problems are the severe limit on H1-B visas, which allow companies to sponsor workers, and the fact that five different federal agencies coordinate the immigration system, complicating matters for those trying to remain in the country legally.
“I really do believe that if people are informed, they make better decisions. It took women a long time to get a place at the table and to get treated with credibility, and it’s taken black people and gay and lesbian people a long time, but there has been a lot of positive change and I think that we need to see that kind of positive change for the immigrant community,” she says.
Like many Fellows, Jean has plans to continue her work with her partner organization after her Fellowship comes to an end in June. She wants to expand her outreach to those outside of the business community, including people who are undocumented, and believes that education is the key to challenging the aggressive rhetoric and stigma that surrounds immigration.
“We all want an immigration system that works, meets the needs of our economy, and treats people fairly,” she says. “The current system is in need of major reform. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, education is a step in the right direction.”