Kathleen Walker

When it comes to immigration law, Kathleen Campbell Walker is considered by many to be the go-to lawyer in Texas, and it’s clear that she loves her job.

Walker, a shareholder with Cox Smith Matthews law firm in El Paso, has an interest in immigration that borders on geeky. She has a sharp wit and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

Most recently, Walker was named chair of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, succeeding outgoing chair Chuck Harre. She’s the first woman to hold the position since businesswoman Patty Holland Branch was chair two decades ago.

Walker has testified before Congress numerous times, and she contributed to the visa section of the 9/11 Commission report. In 2007, she was national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

She served as incoming chair of the Greater Chamber and as chair of the chamber’s government relations division.

Walker heads the chamber board during a turbulent time for economic development in El Paso.

City leaders are once again changing how economic development is done in El Paso, and the 114-year-old chamber, among the oldest in Texas, is working to find its place in the reorganization.

The Greater Chamber was heavily involved in business recruitment up until 2004 when that role was passed to the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp., or REDCo.

REDCo was not as successful at recruiting companies as hoped, and now that role has been passed to the brand new Borderplex Alliance, which aims to develop the economy of the region in three states and two nations.

Walker, 52, grew up in South Texas in a little town called Portland near Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico.

Her dream was to go into academia and work abroad, learning new languages and cultures. Walker was nominated for the Rhodes Scholarship by Texas Tech University, competed for it and lost.

“I had to figure out how to support myself and fell into law,” she says.

She graduated from law school and began practicing in 1985. A year later, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 into law – the last time Congress enacted sweeping immigration reform.

Walker discovered she loved immigration law and has become internationally recognized for her experience in business and family-based immigration, consular processing, admissibility and immigration security issues.

“You can really fight for justice as an immigration lawyer and feel like you’re doing something,” she says.

As Congress debates a new immigration bill, Walker has a lot to say on the issue.

Last year, she was named the “go-to” immigration lawyer by Texas Lawyer magazine. She has been listed in the Best Lawyers in America publication in the immigration and nationality law category since it was created two decades ago.

Walker sat down with El Paso Inc. in her law office overlooking a changing Downtown and talked about the new immigration bill, the economic development upheaval in El Paso and the importance of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce.

Q: Last month, four Republicans and four Democrats in Congress filed an immigration bill to tighten border security and provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. What are the basics of the bill?

It’s 844 pages long, and we have a team of people in the American Immigration Lawyers Association working on sections. If this thing ever gets beyond just an introductory bill, it’s going to contain this pathway to legalization for certain people who meet certain criteria and pay a fee, among other things.

There’s a component that tries to fix dysfunction on the business side of the house, improving our economic opportunities through immigration. There is a part that tries to address future flow, meaning that if we have a need for a workforce in an area, we are going to have a way to bring in necessary workers.

That future flow element was not around in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It created this situation where employers couldn’t find who they needed, so they ended up utilizing undocumented workers. On top of that, it didn’t fund enforcement enough.

Q: Some Republicans argue this latest bill is amnesty.

The scarlet letter. My retort to the amnesty argument is we are losing our position globally, as far as being competitive for talent, while we wait to fix the other albatross, which is the undocumented worker problem.

I’m not willing to throw away our future just to figure out the right political soft spot for the undocumented worker issue. We need to grow up, move forward and take the hard hits that you will in any immigration reform proposal.

Does the bill send a message to people to come here illegally and somehow, eventually, we will succumb as a nation and create some sort of path for them? That to me is not the message this bill is delivering.

You’re paying a hefty penalty and waiting a really, really, really long time before you might acquire citizenship.

Q: Is this the big immigration fix we’ve been waiting for?

Nothing’s perfect, and the perfect is the enemy of the good. But am I willing to even paint this as good? I will paint it with good intentions. How about that?

Q: That sounds like some pretty low praise.

Nobody is going to like all portions of it. Is it the fix? It is definitely an attempt to be the big fix – there is no question about it. It really does refocus on how we can help ourselves economically using immigration.

Q: So what are some parts of the bill you like and some you don’t like?

On the positive, it reduces backlogs for people who have been waiting in line for a long time to immigrate legally. It also addresses the undocumented population to a degree. That it creates a legal path for agricultural workers is a big deal.

We may get more CBP officers, which is positive because we obviously need more officers at our ports.

Some bad things. From an employer perspective, I’m going to have to use E-Verify. What it means is more time that I have to devote trying to figure out how to work this program. Also, some of the penalties are going to increase.

The immigration law is still going to be complex. We are still not even close to the ‘keep it simple stupid’ principle.

Secretary Janet Napolitano will have to come up with a Southwest border strategy as well as a fencing strategy within 180 days of the bill becoming effective. She is going to get money to use the National Guard to build fencing all around the southern border and put in all of the fun things like the drones and the sensors. I think, as El Pasoans, we would find that to be offensive.

Q: You’re referring to the requirement that the secretary develop a plan that would stop 90 percent of border crossings in certain high-risk areas?

The problem is we don’t know how many people enter the U.S. illegally – never have. We don’t use sophisticated mechanisms to track the “got-aways,” so it’s a guess. To say that we have to reach a certain attainment level tied to a factor that we don’t know, creates great uncertainty in my mind.

Q: I know border security is important to you, so I take it you’re not saying we shouldn’t work to secure the border.

That’s asinine. I want accountable border security metrics.

Q: Meaning?

I don’t want smoke and mirrors. If I’m trying to achieve security, I want certain objectives. I want measurables and I want oversight by relevant committees. Right now, Senate and House committees still have turf wars over who is responsible for what.

Q: A group of U.S. business leaders and mayors called the Partnership for a New American Economy, which includes some El Paso heavy hitters, argue immigration is ultimately an economic issue. Are we really framing this issue all wrong by focusing on amnesty or national security?

It is an economic issue. The companies that are the companies of the future, the creators of new jobs, they compete for global talent.

In the United States right now we train talent that goes elsewhere and competes against us. Shooting yourself in the foot is the technical term for that. We should be the ones that have the best and the brightest instead exporting talent.

The intersection of immigration lawyers and business is moving people globally to meet business needs. On the compliance side, it’s trying to create a level playing field so businesses compete with documented workers.

As it stands right now, if I am able to increase my profit margin by hiring undocumented workers, then I’m caught and the undocumented worker just goes across the street and competes against me, that is a ridiculous business environment to operate in.

Q: Even at colleges here you have some students who come to the U.S. on a student visa, graduate, then take their business idea elsewhere because of the difficulty navigating the immigration system.

Another good thing about the bill is it creates a start-up visa, which gives people who come here as treaty traders and treaty investors the ability to seek permanent resident status through that investment. Believe it or not, we really don’t have that now.

Q: There’s talk in Congress of delaying the bill because of questions raised by the Boston bombing? What are you hearing? Could this stall the bill?

It’s going to take a lot of compromise to get this bill through. The earliest possible date we might have a bill that could be signed by the president is probably end of September – maybe. Certainly the noise and the buzz right now are not very positive.

The Boston bombing, I can’t even begin to express how horrific that tragedy was. Could our immigration laws have figured out that some number of years hence that somebody would be turned into a radical Islamist believer?

That’s a conundrum that is very different from trying to be globally competitive and have a rational immigration system. I think we are smart enough to figure out the difference between the two.

Right now, one of the primary reasons that we’re serious about the discussion and eight people have actually worked so long to come up with this really long complicated bill, which I can’t imagine is somebody’s idea of a good time, is the loss by the Republicans of the election and in such an extreme way.

Will people try to derail it? Yes. But you can see that the “gang of eight” tried to create some balance.

Q: Immigration to the U.S. slowed considerably during the Great Recession. Has that changed?

In the H-1B visa category for people who have at least a bachelor’s degree and are going into jobs that require that, the cap was reached within the first five days last month.

Companies are starting to really need foreign workers again and paying the extra money – over three grand in filing fees to hire these people.

Q: What are your thoughts on the new Borderplex Alliance, formed by the recent merger of REDCo and the Paso del Norte Group, which aims to develop the economy in three states and two nations?

Anything that is going to improve the quality of life and business in this region, we’re for. The question is: How do we complement one another and avoid replication? How are they going to develop their services and where are they going for funding?

They’re being, as they have to be, aggressive in seeking funding right now.

They’re going to focus on regional development, and have used the Houston Partnership and Oklahoma City as models. But I think their challenge in expanding that scope is going to be more intense than anybody in Oklahoma City or Houston ever dealt with.

Q: By the nature of…?

Different interests. Certainly the state of New Mexico is going to compete with the state of Texas and the state of Chihuahua is going to compete with Texas.

Right now, the chamber tries to work regionally to increase the strength of our argument concerning the military, and it makes total sense for us to coordinate our argument. But when we get into the weeds about a job in El Paso is the same in Juárez or Las Cruces, that argument is a bit harder to make.

Q: With all the changes in economic development in El Paso, does the chamber remain relevant? How do you ensure it’s not left behind?

I don’t have any doubt that the chamber remains relevant. This chamber’s been around for more than 100 years. It’s got an amazing history. It even played a role in the creation of the state of New Mexico – cool stuff.

You are not going to continue to exist unless you’re relevant, you provide a return on investment and you have vision to go forward.

Many years ago, the chamber also used to be responsible for economic development. The responsibility for business recruitment was given to REDCo and now the Borderplex Alliance.

Well, once people get to the area, who is going to help them develop their business, provide them with educational resources and to work with the city and county to improve the business environment? All of those are chamber avenues.

The Greater Chamber of Commerce also has a very important network with its role in the Metro 8 Chambers of Commerce – all the larger chambers in Texas. We also work extensively with the U.S. Chamber, which has helped our region on issues such as border security, funding and infrastructure needs.

Q: What were the chamber’s greatest achievements this year?

We had the intercity visit to Oklahoma City to help our membership learn more about the quality of life programs there and how they can be effective in drawing investment into the city. That really helped the business community make a decision on our quality of life bonds.

We continue to do advocacy at the local, state and national level. We did the study on the economic impact of Fort Bliss funded by the Hunt Family Foundation. We also worked on the public-private partnership efforts for infrastructure at our ports of entry.

Q: And the chamber has gotten much more involved in education issues following the cheating scandal at El Paso Independent School District.

Education and workforce, there’s a whole village of people working on that. We just finished having the trustee forum for the EPISD school district.

Q: Some chambers get very involved in school board races, endorsing candidates and such. Will the chamber here do that?

In Dallas, they created a PAC, which gets very involved in supporting various people running for trustee positions on school boards. We discussed whether or not we wanted to do that, but we haven’t moved forward with anything so far.

It’s devastating, the impact of corruption in this community. Maybe we need to work with the city and county on having some sort of business certification program, teaching best practices. El Paso needs to learn a lesson from this and rise above and beyond it.

Q: How many members does the chamber have?

It’s around 1,800 right now. Where does that sit in comparison to previous years? We’re doing all right at retention, but we’re not doing as well as we should regarding new members.

Q: How can the chamber bring in new members?

A rising tide floats all boats, so it’s really important for the quality of life here to be improved to attract more business. That’s something we saw in Oklahoma City, it’s something we see in Tucson and it’s what we’ll see in Seattle – our next intercity trip.

We have to survey our current members and find out what has been useful to them and what has not. Would they like to have a speaker’s bureau, for example? We’ve got to make your business environment better and make it easier for you to conduct business.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.