Author Archive

Looking Back and Looking Forward

shutterstock_336606005In 2013, there was great momentum for immigration reform. The Senate had already passed its immigration bill, and pressure was being put to bear on the House to do the same. There was a sense of hope and great support for immigration reform nationwide. Pro-immigration reform blog posts and opinion pieces linked a viable immigration system to the U.S. remaining on top in innovation and pleas for immigration reform from major sectors of our economy, like the agriculture, travel and hospitality, and tech industries, were heard loud and clear. Economic giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Coca-Cola, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and so many more, came out in vocal support of immigration reform. Even many conservative religious organizations stood behind immigration reform as the right thing to do. Poll after poll showed that the majority of Americans favored comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. And yet, the House failed to deliver.

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Preparing for Battle

PrintIn the days following the opening of the Artesia detention center, I remember reading in awe on Facebook about the lawyers that were driving out and banging on the gates, demanding to be let in, insisting these mothers and children be allowed access to counsel. I followed, in the news, through social media, and via updates from friends, the developments as attorneys took over these cases and won. I listened to the stories of those who flew out to help. In the back of my mind, I wished I could be part of it all –but I had a demanding job, a daughter who was not yet a year old at the time, and countless other reasons, or so I told myself, that made putting my life on pause and getting on a plane to fly to the middle of the New Mexico desert impossible.

Time passed. The Artesia detention center shut down. But then the detention center in Karnes City, TX, opened, and then one in Dilley, TX, opened soon after. Dilley had a planned total capacity of 2,400 beds. This was more than 12 times larger than the Berks facility in Pennsylvania, which had been the only one in existence before Artesia and holds fewer than 200 individuals. The idea of the federal government incarcerating thousands of mothers and children at a time was inconceivable, but it was happening.

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At Long Last, Volunteering at Dilley

PrintIt was a trip nearly eight months in the making, my sojourn to Dilley. As Chapter Chair in summer 2014, I heard the requests for volunteers and donations. I focused on getting the word out and supporting members who volunteered. As a business and family immigration lawyer with little asylum law experience and no Spanish language fluency, I thought “how could I help?” But at last year’s AILA Annual Conference, I heard from several colleagues that those two seemingly insurmountable issues shouldn’t stop me from doing just that — helping.  So I made the decision to go, and though I felt nervous, finding a few AILA buddies to join me helped to alleviate my worries.

Sure, my preparations required a bit more logistical wrangling than some. First, I had to identify a translator for the designated week. I remembered that Nick, my running buddy’s son, speaks Spanish.  He was a recent college graduate, so I thought that he may have some time between taking the LSAT and heading to Argentina on a Fulbright Scholarship. He reviewed the materials on CARA and agreed to join me. Thus, all the pieces were in place. The final step was finding the time, but now it was a reality. I was still anxious but committed. I had to bone up on asylum law and procedures and spend some time familiarizing myself with the CARA database. I had to buy plane tickets and make reservations. And I had to reorganize my life so that it could be put on hold while I spent a week helping families.

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H.R. 4731 Does Anything but Restore Integrity

shutterstock_120251062On Wednesday, at a time when we are facing a global refugee crisis, H.R. 4731, “The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act” passed out of committee in the House of Representatives with a vote of 18-9. Unfortunately, this bill does anything but restore integrity. I suppose it depends on how one defines “integrity,” but according to the dictionary, integrity is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” Can anyone defend what is honest or morally upright about a bill that would:

• Reduce U.S. resettlement to 60,000 refugees per year at a time when there are 60 million people displaced from their homes, 20 million of whom are refugees (more than any time since World War II);
• Negatively impact the treatment of refugees worldwide, as the world looks to the United States for leadership in this area;
• Openly discriminate against Muslim refugees (when more than 750 religious leaders and faith-based organizations have urged Congress to oppose such discriminatory legislation);
• Construct additional barriers to integration and family reunification, continuing and compounding the trauma that refugees have suffered already from losing their homes, communities, and loved ones; and
• Allow state and local governments to actively violate anti-discrimination laws and create forbidden zones for refugees.

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How the Years Add Up

shutterstock_384301372Imagine coming to the United States to seek asylum and having to wait four years just for an interview to decide whether you get to move forward with your claim. Four years. In most jurisdictions, asylum applicants are having to do just that: wait years for an interview, when before 2013, asylum applicants were able to obtain a decision on their petitions typically within four months. If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) refers asylees’ cases to immigration court, their wait time is likely to extend for an additional two to three years. In the Los Angeles asylum office alone, there may be as many as 30,000 cases in the backlog. Nationally, close to 100,000 cases may be awaiting USCIS adjudications.

Once USCIS grants asylum status, if the immediate family of the asylee is overseas, he/she may file a petition so that the family may follow and join him/her in the United States. Currently this process may take up to six months. In theory then, it may take up to eight years for a separated family to be reunified. For gay applicants, the situation is even worse.

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Students and Professors Fight for Families at Karnes Detention Center

shutterstock_110919002Two weeks ago, six law students from the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic visited Karnes Detention Center.  The students were Kate Chapman (3L), Ivonne Escobar (2L), Hellieth Pedroza Guzman (2L), Nekka Morah (2L), Medjine Desrosiers-Douyon (LLM), Mathilda El Hachem (LLM).  Supervising the students were the immigration clinic professors, myself, Geoffrey A. Hoffman, clinical associate professor and director of the clinic, and Janet Beck, visiting clinical assistant professor. In addition, Professor Ann Webb from the Graduate School of Social Work at UH assisted us, as well as her students. Over the course of three days, the students saw more than 35 families, helping them with a range of issues, including credible fear interview (CFI) preparation, immigration judge (IJ) reviews, and in some cases helping with declarations to support possible requests for reconsideration (RFRs) after negative CFIs and/or an IJ review. The visit was organized by Janet Beck and set up by RAICES, one of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project partners based in San Antonio, and the law firm of Akin Gump, who have done great work coordinating efforts to meet the legal needs of these women.

Below is a reflection from one of our students, Kate Chapman (3L), who shares her experiences helping women and children at the detention center:

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#0087

shutterstock_279204821The Artesia Family Residential Center was thrown together in late June 2014 in the dark of night and in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Before the pro bono attorneys knew who or what was there, the first plane had already flown South, returning refugees who were streamlined through a farce of a legal process, and summarily denied relief.

Once the pro bono lawyers began to arrive at Artesia and fight back on behalf of the women and children, they registered and gave client numbers to the detained families in a shared database – key to an organized flow of legal representation. When I was in Artesia in August 2014, I met Anna*, Client #0087 for calendar year 2014.

Anna was raised in a small hamlet in Guatemala without electricity, roads, schools or running water. She was orphaned at age ten, and endured untold physical abuse at the hands of her maternal uncle. She never went to school, and spoke only a dialect known as Acateco, a language spoken by maybe 50,000 people in the world. At sixteen, as she was taking her uncle lunch as he worked the fields, she was raped by a stranger. Once her uncle became aware of her rape and subsequent pregnancy, he welcomed the rapist to live in their shared home to legitimize their relationship, as he felt the unwanted pregnancy brought shame to the household. Anna’s grandmother protected Anna as much as a grandmother could, and when she came across the rapist trying to strangle Anna, the grandmother kicked the rapist out.

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Benefits of Volunteering Go Beyond the Client

shutterstock_272360927I spend most of my days steeped in PERM filings, H-1Bs and other thorny employment-based conundrums. I don’t speak Spanish. The number of asylum cases I have handled can be counted on one hand. I have rarely represented clients in Immigration Court. And yet, last year, I offered to help the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project remotely, if an opportunity arose. I didn’t expect the immediate reply of, “Here you go! The brief is due in a week!”

A week later, I was informed that a four-year-old girl was dancing around the CARA attorneys’ evening meeting singing the theme song from Frozen, grateful for the opportunity to remain safe in this country as a result of my one week of concerted effort. How was I able to do this? The incredible mentorship and support of two local immigration attorneys, Kim Hunter and Malee Ketelsen-Renner, made it possible for my efforts to change the lives of a mother and daughter in detention. I could urge everyone to volunteer because it is the humane and ethical obligation of any expert in immigration law. However, this volunteer experience was valuable for reasons well beyond the warm fuzzies that I continue to feel, nearly a year later

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What Asylum Law is About

shutterstock_272600546I’m an asylum lawyer.  Every day I fight for victims of persecution and torture from all over the world.  I listen to their stories and I give them a voice.  Perhaps some of the most compelling and most amazing stories of survival have been those of women – women from the Middle East fleeing the threat of honor killings and the complete abdication of their rights, women from Africa and the Middle East fleeing tribal practices that mutilate their bodies, women from Eastern Europe and East Asia fleeing forced prostitution and sex trafficking, and women from Central America fleeing domestic violence and their positions as the property of their male family members – all harm meant to relegate and maintain women as second class citizens in their societies…all harm that is permitted and even encouraged by their governments.

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Frustrations with H-1B Processing Delays Exacerbated by USCIS Stonewalling

shutterstock_154341992AILA members and their clients are well aware of the lengthening processing times for several product lines at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) service centers.  However, most pronounced is the extraordinary expansion of processing times for H-1B extensions at both the California and Vermont Service Centers.  AILA has brought concerns regarding the delays in processing to the attention of USCIS in several different forums over the past several months.

We pointed out that according to the posted processing times, on September 30, 2015, the California Service Center was processing routine H-1B extensions that were filed on or before June 2, 2015.  Several months later, the November 30, 2015, report indicated that the processing date moved only 11 days – to June 13, 2015. Those who have tried to inquire with the National Customer Service Center regarding cases pending beyond the normal processing times have learned that the date has not moved significantly beyond June 13, 2015, in the 2 months since November 30, 2015.

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