I lost a great friend this weekend, Steve Fischel, but America lost a patriot. Stunned and tearful as the news of his passing spread, I walked aimlessly through the Vancouver Convention Center last Saturday afternoon, realizing in awe how many AILA members likewise cherished a close friendship with him.
Steve and I were to share an EB-5 panel last Wednesday, but he never made it. A passenger on his flight took ill and the plane was diverted. His last emails to me were classic Steve. He wrote to be sure we both were ready so that we would give our audience good value. In reply I’d emailed him my portion of the presentation on best practices in EB-5 risk management, ironically entitled: “Stress Relief and Blissful Sleep.” He replied by email: “Thanks. This is helpful. Look forward to see you. S”
I never saw Steve at the AILA conference, but learned right away that he had been felled by a ruptured aortic aneurysm as he sat chatting with friends.
My loss, even when amplified by the heartfelt grief of so many of Steve’s friends in AILA and his colleagues in government, does not tell the full story of America’s loss of this marvelous fallen patriot. Steve served honorably and well in the State Department for 31-plus years, but we in AILA first came to know him in 1981 as he articulated eloquently the Department’s positions on a host of immigration issues. Unlike so many of the current crop of government officials who administer and enforce the immigration laws, Steve appreciated and respected immigration lawyers. He saw us not as adversaries but as participants in a legal process that brought profound blessings to America. Steve, like other officals of his era (Cornelius “Dick” Scully at State, and Jackie Bednarz and Larry Weinig at INS — all thankfully still alive), believed that his job was to help lawyers, newcomers and veterans alike, understand the immigration law and the government’s interpretations. He never had an axe to grind; his approach was always to achieve the correct legal answer and the just result.
To be sure, we didn’t always agree, especially on consular nonreviewability, but I never walked away from an exchange with Steve feeling that he’d denied me a fair hearing or a thoughtful response. With a twinkle in his eye, a wide smile and a deadpan, comedic retort, Steve could joust with the best of us.
He made a great, positive impact on immigration law, helping to craft the NAFTA TN provisions, improving the J-1 waiver process, and reconciling the conflicting E-1 and E-2 interpretations of INS and State, to name but a few. And then he retired from State, the deserving recipient of awards aplenty, and crossed the aisle to practice immigration law, always with success and gusto. The American Immigration Law Foundation, which he served as a member of the Board of Trustees, awarded him its Distinguished Public Service Award in March 2006. The video of his acceptance speech will bring a tear or several to your eyes but it’s worth watching.
Although most Americans and millions of immigrants to our country may never have known Steve, his impact on their lives, the benefits he helped confer, the American Dreams fulfilled with his aid, will be remembered sadly and proudly by all of the many close friends who mourn his passing.
Although your life was cut short, you can now enjoy stress relief and blissful sleep. May you know, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that you lived life successfully indeed:
“Those are a success who have lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who have gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of children, who have filled their niche and accomplished their task, who leave the world better than they found it, whether by a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of the earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best they had.”