The stories of his four immigrant grandparents made their mark on Ryan Stark Lilienthal, a Princeton attorney specializing in immigration law. His maternal grandparents fled Germany in 1936; his paternal grandparents left Austria in 1938. Some of his family members, European Jews, could not get visas.
As a young lawyer Lilienthal was already immersed in immigration advocacy when he read through some old family letters from relatives unable to get out of Europe during World War II. “Nothing can be done. Thus we must wait,” read one letter. Their fate — more on that later — continues to inspire Lilienthal’s work on behalf of immigrants.
Lilienthal will participate in a MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce forum entitled “Immigration Reform = Talent, Jobs, and Growth, How Will It Benefit Your Business,” on Thursday, December 12, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott, 100 College Road East. www.midjerseychamber.org. Other participants are Dominick Mondi, executive director of the Nursery & Landscape Association; Anthony “Skip” Cimino, CEO of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton; Samia Bahsoun, CEO of S2 Associates International; and Qudsia Jafree, policy and advocacy manager at YWCA USA.
The chamber event is designed to inform the business community of the advantages of immigration reform (see Interchange column on page 4). “Businesses are shackled by a dysfunctional immigration system,” Lilienthal says. The forum will address how renovations to the immigration policy are possible and needed, and how those improvements will attract and retain people from around the world who will bring ideas, creativity, and innovation to the market.
“We can’t get to the future without making changes to the immigration system,” Lilienthal says. “The system is self-defeating. It impacts individuals, but also businesses.” According to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, there are 11 million undocumented people in the United States. Lilienthal says a reformed immigration policy would benefit business throughout the country. In New Jersey, the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, known as the STEM industries, have been experiencing shortage of skilled workers for some time. Lilienthal believes improvements to immigration law should attract talent. Similarly, he predicts, reform will stabilize blue collar work as well.
Lilienthal acknowledges the anti-immigrant sentiment that exists among some Americans. “Do you want to live in a country that people don’t want to come to?” he says. “I don’t. It’s a special place to live where people want to be.”
Lilienthal believes the xenophobic aspects of immigration policy are not only irrational, but harmful. “We push immigrants into the shadows and then blame them for conducting their lives in the shadows,” he says. But if immigration policy were reformed, immigrants would pay taxes and buy homes, thus contributing to the economy, he says.
“We have a tortured history with immigration,” Lilienthal says. One of the more tortured milestones came in 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal to hire or recruit illegal immigrants, but left the immigration system without a viable non-immigrant visa program. The law failed to recognize the country’s future needs in areas like construction, maintenance, elder and child care, and food service.
In 1993 the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center created an environment that was all about putting up walls, Lilienthal says. Former president George W. Bush and former Mexican president Vincente Fox had been discussing immigration reform in 2001, but the issue fell by the wayside after the September 11 terrorist attacks. “Border protection was our only concern and we stopped thinking about this constructively,” Lilienthal says. The result, he says, was that low-skilled immigrants could only get in to the U.S. illegally.
Lilienthal agrees security is important, but says it must not trump all other considerations. “Are we properly protected?” is not the only question, he says.
But Lilienthal sees signs that the country’s mood is shifting. Bipartisan support for legislative changes has been growing, especially within the state, where Republican governor Chris Christie is working to pass the New Jersey Tuition Equality Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants the chance to pay the same in-state tuition rate as other New Jersey students. Under the current system, children brought to the country illegally may attend public schools through high school, but without proof of citizenship, face out-of-state tuition fees at public colleges. Tuition at some of the state’s colleges is nearly double for out-of-state students. “If we didn’t have immigrants in New Jersey, our population would decrease, and that’s not good for anybody,” Lilienthal says.
Lilienthal argues that better laws could help unleash the potential of all those workers. “Rather than putting a ceiling on their efforts, perhaps they’ll be motivated to do good things. This is right and humane, but also smart for New Jersey and business,” Lilienthal says.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), is also a supporter of immigration reform, and has had some success winning over Republicans. Jeff Chiesa, former state attorney general, and Gov. Christie’s appointee to Frank Lautenberg’s vacant U.S. Senate seat, had stated publicly that border security was a top concern, but voted in favor of two procedural motions to advance immigration reform legislation on a federal level.
The immigration reform discussion in the Senate is properly known as Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, which was introduced by Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and is co-sponsored by seven other members of a bipartisan group of senators. It was voted out of committee in May and the Senate passed the bill in June. It goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
The bill would make it possible for many undocumented immigrants to become legal citizens if they meet eligibility requirements; it proposes the addition up to 40,000 new border patrol agents, and creates additional visas and green cards for students with STEM degrees from American institutions; and it makes allowances for non-immigrant workers, and offers protection from visa fraud.
Lilienthal grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where his father is a retired consultant and his mother was a genetic counselor. He is married and has three children, ages 13, 11, and 4. They live in Princeton, where Lilienthal’s firm is located. He received his bachelor’s in religion from Tufts University in 1991. Lilienthal says he would have minored in art if the school offered it: he is an accomplished painter and describes his style as “representational with some expressionism. I like to capture the character.”
His wife, Rachel, is also a lawyer, at Stark & Stark, the firm founded by her family. She specializes in business law.
Lilienthal received his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1997, where he was a member of the Brooklyn Law Review. He currently chairs the immigration and employment task force of Einstein’s Alley; co-chairs the immigration task force of the American Jewish Committee-New Jersey region; co-chairs the media/advocacy committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association-New Jersey chapter; and serves on the advisory board of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF). He is also a member of the Princeton Future and is a former councilman of Princeton Borough.
Lilienthal has applied that legal training to the cause of helping immigrants partially because of the effect immigration law has had on his own family history.
In the 1920s Congress began passing legislation with a goal of preserving the existing ethnic mix in the United States; notably the Immigration Act of 1924 signed by President Calvin Coolidge, which restricted Southern and Eastern Europeans, many of them Jews looking to escape hostility in their homelands. The immigration laws in the 1920s used quotas to determine how many people from any country could enter the U.S., based on the heritage of the existing population.
Lilienthal’s relatives, waiting for visas in the 1930s, suffered badly in Europe as a direct result of the American immigration laws of the day. “My father’s grandmother’s family was almost completely wiped out,” Lilienthal says. They died in the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. Lilienthal’s maternal grandmother paid to get her uncle and his family out of Germany. “We have the ledger page to show the refund,” Lilienthal says.
His grandmother’s uncle, Theodor Israel, his wife and son, were first arrested in November, 1938, on Kristallnacht, a pogram against Jews in Germany and Austria, in which many Jewish-owned stores, buildings, homes, schools, hospitals, and temples were ransacked and had their windows smashed. Nearly 100 Jews were killed, and 30,000 were arrested and taken to concentration camps. The Israel family was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, and were later deported to Piaski Ghetto in Poland, and then were killed at the nearby Majdanek concentration camp.
“I was particularly close to my grandmother, and she was close to her uncle, so I felt a connection to this loss,” says Lilienthal.