Jacksonville Bar Association President Michelle Bedoya Barnett said she was looking for a keynote speaker who could bring a specific potential to the JBA’s annual Law Day meeting May 5 at the Omni Jacksonville Hotel.
“I wanted to find somebody who could speak on issues that are important today in America,” Barnett said.
Her choice was Ira Kurzban, a well-known civil rights and immigration attorney and a founding partner with Kurzban Kurzban Tetzeli & Pratt in Miami.
A graduate of Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley, Kurzban received an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and was the recipient in 2003-04 of the Wasserstein Fellowship at Harvard University Law School.
He is a founding board member of Immigrants’ List, a political action committee focused on immigration issues as well as a founder of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
In 1982, Kurzban received the first Tobias Simon Pro Bono Award from the Supreme Court of Florida.
He published “Kurzban’s Immigration Law Sourcebook” in 1990. The 490-page first edition was based on notes Kurzban used while teaching immigration law. Now in its 17th edition, the book has grown to more than 2,600 pages.
Kurzban provided insight into his specialized practice area as well as background on the current state of immigration in the U.S.
“Few areas of law are more opaque, more confusing and certainly more outright confounding than immigration law,” Kurzban said.
His father was an immigrant who came to America at the age of 12. With a fifth-grade education, he made a living as a commercial painter and raised four sons – a doctor, an electrical engineer and two lawyers, Kurzban said.
Kurzban said that immigration has become a political issue and compared current headlines to U.S. history.
In 1966, the U.S. government brought 260,000 refugees from Cuba into the U.S.
“No one suggested we had a crisis at our border,” Kurzban said.
Since 1959, the U.S. has allowed more than 1 million refugees from Cuba to enter the country and provided them with financial assistance, housing and jobs.
Cubans helped make South Florida and Miami an economic engine and the gateway to America for many people, Kurzban said.
He described the immigration system as broken and advocates for reform.
About 430,000 people are waiting to be interviewed to be lawfully admitted into the U.S.
“The backlog is astounding,” Kurzban said.
Immigration law has what he called “bizarre features,” such as mandatory detention of immigrants even if they are not considered a flight risk.
Kurzban said the U.S spends more than $4 billion a year incarcerating immigrants and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has more people in custody than the federal Bureau of Prisons.
“It’s hard to believe anyone would think this is a sensible system,” Kurzban said.
“We need a new immigration court system to replace the antiquated system we have today.”
Putting immigration into a perspective related to the coronavirus pandemic, Kurzban said 56% of life science research professionals in America are foreign-born, along with 28% of physicians, 35% of home health care aides ad 15% of registered nurses.
“The founders of Moderna, Zoom and Instacart are foreign-born,” he said.
“We need to recognize the fact that immigrants have made enormous contributions to our society. On Law Day, we should celebrate their contributions. We must return to the values that made the U.S. the most sought-after country for immigration,” Kurzban said.