At a Chautauqua-style forum in Chagrin Falls, experts discussed the tensions raised by immigration issues–and why immigration reform is badly needed.


By Aaron Davis


America has changed remarkably since the 1960s, but our immigration system remains much the same–a collection of policies and laws designed for a different era.

That was a key message delivered at a recent forum in Chagrin Falls, where experts emphasized the need for immigration reform.

“In America in the ’60s, if you owned a hardware store here in Chagrin Falls, your biggest competitor was the person across the street,” immigration attorney David Leopold said to the audience gathered in the sanctuary of The Federated Church. “Now, if you’re in hardware, your biggest competitor may be someone in Paris, or in Brussels, or somewhere else.”

Leopold sounded tired of explaining it, or tired of repeating it.  But he went on to add, “We are a global economy, but we are living under an immigration law designed for America in the 1960s.”

America’s immigration system is broken, he said. The sooner we fix it, the sooner we will stop hurting business and stop tearing apart families with mean-spirited deportations.

The Chautauqua-in-Chagrin series, sponsored by Chagrin Arts, tackled the controversial topic of immigration July 11. About 50 people attended the forum at the landmark church.

The panel, moderated by Global Cleveland President Joe Cimperman, included two Clevelanders intimately familiar with immigration rules and realities: Leopold and Judge Dan Polster.  Polster is a federal judge for the U.S. District Court who often presides over naturalization ceremonies. He also worked as a visiting judge in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a little over 40 miles from the Mexican border, sentencing mostly individuals involved in illegal border crossings.

Judge Polster opened his remarks by noting that, while immigration today presents new complexities, the fears and anxieties that immigrants raise are quite familiar.

“The tension between liberty and security is as old as our country,” he said.  “When we are in crisis, when we are afraid, the pendulum swings towards security.  When we feel safe, the pendulum swings toward liberty.”

Leopold believes this tension hangs like a cloud over the nation’s leaders. He focused on the Civil Immigration Enforcement Priorities, which the Homeland Security Act requires the president to set.  In layman’s terms, these priorities decide who we deport.

According to Leopold, President Obama set the priorities in this order: criminals, national security risks, and recent border crossings.  The Obama administration gave exemptions to immigrants raising U.S. citizen children, immigrants who have not committed crimes, and immigrants who are working.

Leopold described the priorities of the new administration as “Deport anybody you can get your hands on.”

He told the story of one of his clients, Jesus Lara Lopez, an undocumented immigrant who came to America 16 years ago and lived and worked in nearby Willard. He and his wife owned a home and were raising four American-born children. Safe under the policies of the Obama administration, Lara was seized and deported back to Mexico under President Trump’s enforcement priorities.

“So when you hear General Kelley, the Secretary of Homeland Security, tell you they’re going after the bad hombres, which is what the president said they would do,” Leopold said in frustration.  “I don’t know how gently I can put this: It’s fake news, it’s not true, it’s a lie.”

Even in Cleveland, a city with a rich immigrant history, the debate is contentious.

Polster acknowledged this history in his opening statement.  He pointed out to that Ellis Island, the entrance point for many 19th and 20th century immigrants, has a picture of Cleveland from around the time the city was the fifth largest in the country. It teemed with immigrants.

“We had a million people, and two out of three Clevelanders were either an immigrant or a first generation American,” he said.

Now, Cleveland has just fewer than 400,000 residents and stands as the 48th largest city in the United States, although its immigrant heritage remains.

“We are a city of immigrants, that’s what built us,” Polster said, describing a lasting impact.  “Immigrants are the most courageous, entrepreneurial people on the planet.”

Joe Cimperman said his family is steeped in that immigrant past.

“Full disclosure: I was raised speaking English as a second language,” he said with the smile. “My mom was born in Slovenia and, because she was a Slovenian woman and my father didn’t talk, I mostly spoke Slovenian.”

The audience laughed.

Cimperman said the complexities of immigration shade the issue in plenty of colors other than black and white.  He described cleaning out his grandparents’ home, a house they had owned since 1905. On his father’s side, both grandparents were from Slovenia, and he described them as meticulous record-keepers.

“They kept receipts from the time of the Great Depression, they kept all of my uncle’s military papers, all the postcards,” he said.  “Miraculously, the papers that we couldn’t find from when they had emigrated here in the first decade of the 1900s was their immigration papers.”

Why they came, what they fled, he does not know. He only knows that their immigration story is in some ways similar and in some ways different from the story of Lara Lopez—as every journey is different.

That is why, Leopold said, the nation’s immigration policies need to be sensible and flexible.

“We have an immigration law that is rigid,” Leopold said. “It is unforgiving and–the way that it acts now—it is mean spirited.”