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A World In Motion

Stephen Legomsky focuses his career on the complexities and the humanity of immigration law
Washington University School of Law Magazine January 2001

Immigration law has historically swung like a pendulum, pushed in part by public fears and hopes. When the economy is strong, immigration law is generous, when conditions are more stressful, restrictions on immigration grow. But even in the aftermath of the September 11 disaster, Stephen Legomsky, Charles F. Nagel Professor of International and Comparative Law, and Director of the Institute for Global Legal Studies, remains firmly upbeat about the benefits of immigration. September 11 has, however, influenced his thinking on the need to take precautions.

“There are 30 million visitors entering the United States every year on one type of visa or another,” says Legomsky, an expert in immigration law. “Unless we change our entire economy, culture and spirit of openness it’s hard to imagine being able to do serious screening. However, we do need to commit more resources to consular offices abroad, so they can do serious background checks when issuing visas, and we need to be better at intelligence sharing.

“Any time of national trauma, especially a transformative event, we need to be vigilant against creeping xenophobia,” adds Legomsky. “Some measures won’t accomplish anything and will cause real harm, such as placing a moratorium on student visas, which has been suggested. This would be devastating to an enormous number of students who want to come here to further their education.”

Legomsky’s ability to grasp both the complex legal ramifications of immigration and its many human implications has helped him forge a successful and satisfying career. In the world of immigration law, Legomsky is part Captain Kirk and part Dr. Spock. His Captain Kirk side embraces the very human facet of immigration law. His Dr. Spock side relishes the “incredibly interesting and complicated” aspects of immigration law, which delve also into economics, political theory, sociology, democracy, history and ethnography.

Maria Frankowska, professor emerita of law at SIU-Carbondale and visiting professor of law at SLU, describes Legomsky as “a person with a great mind and a great heart. His mind is really unique and creative; he does very sophisticated legal analysis, but he also has the warmest heart you can imagine and a sensitivity to the human condition that is unmatched.”

While Legomsky’s perspective may not yet be intergalactic, it is strongly international. Legomsky has been a leader in his commitment to international legal studies and education at the School of Law. His directorship (which he will resign in 2002) of the Institute for Global Legal Studies is just one measure of that leadership. He also has been asked by numerous agencies around the world for guidance on immigration issues.

For example, he recently helped the government of Germany examine that country’s immigration system. Germany has historically given immigration preference to those people of German descent. Now the government is considering a system of quotas similar to the U.S.

“In the U.S. we think of ourselves as a country of immigrants. While Germany does not think of itself that way, in fact both countries have about the same percentage of foreign-born inhabitants,” says Legomsky.

Since the mid 1960s the U.S. has had a system of quotas that does not take national origin into account. Instead the quotas consider, among other things, re-uniting certain family members and special job skills. In addition, a lottery system strives to increase the number of people admitted from countries that have low immigration numbers. Legomsky calls this approach “a decent way to do it. Immigration quotas force countries to determine their priorities. That is what immigration is all about in the end, is determining priorities.”

Legomsky also has worked to harmonize asylum laws in the European Union. While the union is keen on abolishing internal frontiers, it can’t do that until there are roughly similar procedures and rules for all EU countries. In the field of immigration those rules involve — among many other things — political asylum. There is, notes Legomsky, a difference of opinion among EU members about whether a person qualifies for asylum if the persecutors are not members of a government. This has major implications for victims of domestic violence. In France and Germany, for example, victims of domestic violence (typically women) wouldn’t qualify since they are not being persecuted by the government. In other countries, like England, if the government is not making a reasonable effort to protect the victim, that person would qualify for asylum. Legomsky has worked to resolve those differences, though the disagreements are deep and strong.

Dual citizenship, another “hot issue,” is something else Legomsky has worked on recently. He was one of six Americans and six Europeans who participated in a project commissioned by the German Marshall Fund. The number of dual nationals is surging, says Legomsky. With increased international migration, there are increasing numbers of mixed marriages. In addition, people often view citizenship very emotionally and it’s a hard step to renounce one citizenship to take another. Recognizing this, many countries are relaxing constraints on dual nationality. This raises all kinds of conundrums, such as, when someone commits a crime in one country and then goes to their other country of citizenship, they can often not be extradited. In other cases, if both countries have mandatory military service, there is the question of which country gets “first dibs.”

Legomsky revels in these kinds of thorny questions.

“Immigration is an issue that will only become more complex,” says Legomsky. “As long as transportation and communication remain so easy and affordable, we will always have groups of populations moving.”

One of Legomsky’s most consuming projects right now is editing the third edition of his immigration casebook, Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy, which is coming out in December. The casebook is currently used in 127 law schools across the country. This casebook has a very problem-oriented approach. The casebook provides simulation exercises where students can engage in “lawyering” in the classroom. Students can also take the role of a politician to understand the forces that shape immigration law. Other sections examine the ethics and philosophy of immigration law and illustrate how immigration law is also a social policy instrument important in shaping the future of America. In addition, because Legomsky has such a vast knowledge of other countries’ immigration laws, there are questions comparing solutions adopted in other countries and sections that discuss the pros and cons of each solution.

“Stephen is very good at seeing different aspects of an issue. He allows students to ventilate thoughts about different things,” says Frankowska. “His book engages the students very much. It is every teacher’s dream. No matter how bad you are, Stephen’s book makes you look good.”

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