U.S. Ignores Refugee Crisis At Its Own Border

The stories below are based off real client experiences. However, all names and specific details have been altered as a matter of privacy and confidentiality.

A humanitarian refugee crisis has engulfed much of Europe for several months. While the U.S. debates its role in the crisis, it continues to ignore the much closer humanitarian crisis south of its border. Last summer, hundreds of thousands of women and children came to the U.S. border seeking asylum from Central America. Like some European countries, many anti-immigrant groups called it an “invasion” and some even directly confronted the immigrants.

While the two crises share many similarities, they differ in one important way. The individuals in Europe fleeing violence mainly in the Middle East and Africa are considered refugees. The individuals fleeing violence in Central America are not. That designation means a world of difference. Refugees are subject to international protections provided by the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations. Although refugees often spend several years in refugee camps while they are processed, they are generally protected from the violence of their old countries.

On the other side, immigrants from Central America are not considered refugees. Although these brutally violent gangs have infiltrated every level of government, the U.S. Government has refused to recognize them as refugees. Despite calls from the United Nations for the U.S. to recognize the refugee crisis, the government continues to treat them as migrants. As such, they are subject to the restrictive asylum laws on the U.S. Although the governments in Central America are unable to protect its citizens from the violence, most people fleeing the violence do not qualify for asylum under U.S. law. Under the law, people fleeing general states of violence are not refugees. The law draws a line in the sand and few can cross it. This leaves immigrants from Central America in the U.S., like Madalyn and her son, with few options against deportation.

Madalyn lived in El Salvador with her 11 year old son, Marco. Marco loved to play soccer and play outside. Unfortunately, the soccer fields were a gathering spot for gang members also. These gang members recruit children even as young as Marco to commit crimes, including extortion and murder. Marco was befriended by these young gang members who planned to lure him into the gang with promises of money and power. These same gang members also harassed Madalyn and threatened her and her son with death if they interfered with their criminal organization. These were not empty threats. El Salvador is one of the deadliest countries in the U.S. Particularly, women and children are at risk of murder at the hands of the mostly male gangs.

Madalyn fled El Salvador. After making the dangerous trip through Mexico with her son, she came to the U.S. border seeking asylum. Although she is set for a trial on her asylum claim, she faces an uncertain future. If she loses, she and her children will be deported to El Salvador, where she will face even greater harm after deportation. Madalyn is one of thousands of stories of Central American refugees. Women and children continue to flee brutal violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras at incredible rates. The U.S. cannot continue to ignore this refugee crisis.


DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal advice. If you are in removal proceedings or need legal advice on your immigration case, please contact an immigration attorney.

An Immigration Attorney Abroad

Being an immigration attorney, one gets to meet people from all over the world. The lives of our clients provide a unique opportunity to be aware of world cultures and world events. Often the things that divide us and the things that uplift us are more shared than not. The desire to provide a safe, loving environment for our families, the need to be able to trust our governments, the hope of a better future for our children and the dream of calling a small part of the earth as our very own, all connects us in ways that we are often quick to overlook. And yet, when it comes to the immigration debate, we cut corners and allow the news media, the politicians and our own insecurities drive the narrative. One reason for this may be that many Americans never venture outside of the US. That really needs to change.

Traveling the world is a remarkable thing. Little else provides such prospective. These journeys provide the opportunity to understand that there is room for celebrating both assimilation as well as differences. An added, yet important, benefit is that American travelers are provided a glimpse into how other countries view the U.S. Understanding how the world views us is essential if we are ever going to get past our current state of affairs: a government that does not function, a media that does not inform, systems that do not value education, the elderly, the poor or our military vets. The residents of countries abroad all ask, “how long can they let this continue?”

Stepping out of the U.S., it becomes evident that there are countries where the right of the people and the work of the government seem more aligned. In those places the government works for the people and the people demand more of each other. While no country is perfect it is refreshing to see courtesy, respect and understanding from, individuals, corporations and the government itself.

There are immigrants in every country. Traveling abroad promotes an understanding that the dreams we have are really no different from one another. It also shows that there are a variety of immigration systems that may provide an answer to America’s broken immigration system. Systems that value cultural diversity while setting up an orderly and timely process that allows individuals to avoid reacting out of desperation. People, as a general rule, want to do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons. That need is in our global DNA.

Writing this from half way around the world, it seems clear that America has lost its way. Sitting in a nation where the headlines are more concerned about the well being of its people as opposed to the most recent Kardashian crisis, America has much to ponder.

Six things to make your visit to an immigration law office easier, less scary

 

Immigration law firms can be stressful, hopeful places. Filled with papers and files; all of which are searching for truth and justice. And yet, most people who find themselves in an immigration law office enter unsure and uncertain of what they will find. Here are 6 simple things that can help make the experience less scary. Continue reading “Six things to make your visit to an immigration law office easier, less scary”

LGBT Community Gains Acceptance in U.S. But Many Countries Lag Behind

The stories below are based off real client experiences. However, all names and specific details have been altered as a matter of privacy and confidentiality.

In June, the Supreme Court held that gay marriage is a legal right protected by the U.S. Constitution. This was the culmination of decades of changing attitudes in U.S. society toward the LGBT community. Although some people are still fighting against equality in the U.S., a solid majority of Americans believe in equal treatment toward the LGBT community. Unfortunately, many countries outside the U.S. have not made the same legal or cultural movements toward acceptance and equality. For example, in Mexico, some states and cities have passed legal protections for LGBT rights, but the cultural attitudes and discrimination toward the LGBT community have not changed, has evidenced by Patricia’s story.

Patricia was born in Mexico. She knew at a young age she was gay. Her family, especially her father, did not accept her true identity. She struggled for years trying to conform to societal expectations of how women should dress and act. No matter how hard she tried to wear dresses and act like a women, she never felt happy. As a young adult she finally found the courage to share her identity with others. She accepted her true identity and began dressing and acting in a way that made her happy. She began dating other women in public. Because of this, she became a target for violence and discrimination. She was continually harassed for her appearance and behavior. She had trouble finding work because of discrimination from bosses and employees. On one occasion, while she was at a house party, police arrested her because of a made-up complaint from a bigoted neighbor. On the way to the police station, the officers drove her to an empty field and beat her with their batons and kicked her until she became unconscious because of her identity, because she looked, spoke, dressed and acted like a gay women. She eventually fled for the U.S. to avoid the violence and discrimination.

Fortunately, Patricia had relief in the U.S. from being sent back to Mexico. She could apply for asylum or withholding of removal. Under these forms of relief, a person will be allowed to stay in the U.S. if they can prove they will be persecuted on account of their identity, including race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or in Patricia’s case, membership in a  particular social group. Ultimately, Patricia was granted withholding of removal based on her LGBT identity. In Mexico, she would be forced to conceal her identity or be a target for further violence and discrimination because of lingering societal and cultural discrimination and violence against the LGBT community. Sadly, in many countries Patricia’s story is a normal occurrence, not an exception. Many countries do not provide any legal protection or rights to members of the LGBT community. In some countries, particularly in Africa, Middle East and some parts of Asia, LGBT behavior is criminalized and subject to severe punishment.  People from these countries continue to hide their identity for fear of discrimination, harm or even death. Fortunately, the U.S. provides a way for these people to come to and remain in the U.S. where both the law and most of society will accept them for their true identity.


DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal advice. If you are in removal proceedings or need legal advice on your immigration case, please contact an immigration attorney.

How Immigration Became Hate Speech

This morning, two journalists were killed by a man who, reportedly, was angry about racial issues. In a moment, two young lives were cut short and a nation again reeled into stunned silence. But, this isn’t about gun laws or gun restrictions. That is left for another day. What this is about is the level of hate and hate speech that seems to be apparent these days. Honestly, it is heartbreaking.

Turn to any media outlet and what you hear is hate. Hate because of race, hate because of gender, hate because of sexual preference, hate because of religious beliefs and hate because of national origin. Hate has become the message no matter what the topic.

When tragedy strikes, communities rally, they rise in solidarity and give each other comfort. But then, it all goes back to being the same. Nothing changes. Hate speech continues to be spewed and the media continues to give it a stage. Are we not better than this?

As the focus of the nation shifts to the elections in 2016, candidates have taken to spreading hate not only for each other, but have also begun advocating a hatred toward one another. Divisive speech has become the norm. Why do we continue to allow this?

America is a unique place. It is great in its ability to stand as an example of people from everywhere living and thriving in harmony. But, this harmony is at risk. As hate speech gains traction, the fabric of America is at risk of being torn. Can we really allow this to happen?

Immigration has become the latest weapon of choice. Instead of celebrating our differences, the speech has become toxic, pitting one group of people against another. Those who are in leadership roles, or who want to be in leadership roles, have made it their calling to exploit the fears and insecurities of groups of people. But how is this leadership?

As the debate heats up over birthright citizenship and walls at the border, all that is gained is more divisive, hate speech. What are missing are real solutions to difficult, complex laws that often cause more heartache than people ever hear about or understand. Honest dialog that reasonably examines issues of citizenship, the long time delays of an overburdened immigration system and the backlogs that cause immigration cases to linger in immigration courts across the nation are often left with a cursory review. The often harsh reality of a system that provides limited to no relief for families, employers and those fleeing hostile lands is lost in the sound bites that take over the 24 hour news cycle. So how does this change?

The preamble of the Constitution begins, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Perhaps time has come to step back the hate speech and come together as a people to demand that our leaders be defined in their ability to bring us together, to encourage tranquility, and protect this and future generations. It is after all what the founding fathers had set out to do so long ago.

 

Immigration Courts in Kansas City, Nationally Ignore Best Interests of Citizen Children

The stories below are based off real client experiences. However, all names and specific details have been altered as a matter of privacy and confidentiality.

Whether they call it “anchor babies” or “birth tourism,” anti-immigrant groups are yet again attacking the right to U.S. citizenship by birth, which has been protected by the U.S. Constitution for almost 150 years. Earlier this month, conservative U.S. Senator David Vitter proposed an amendment to limit birthright citizenship to children of U.S. citizen or LPR parents.

Sen. Vitter and his followers are ignoring the interests of children who have no choice in where they are born, where they live and in to which family they are born. These children born to undocumented parents are already ignored under the unforgiving U.S. immigration legal system.

In family cases involving children, like adoption and custody, state courts have universally adopted a “best interests of the child” standard in making decisions that affect the child. This is not the case in immigration cases.

One of the most common forms of relief for undocumented parents is cancellation of removal. Under this relief, parents who are facing deportation may obtain permanent lawful status if, among other requirements, they can prove their children will suffer exceptional and extremely unusual hardship if they are deported.

Through its decisions, the immigration courts have interpreted this requirement strictly and ignored the best interests of the child. Unless the child has a learning or physical disability, the parent likely will not win the case. This has dramatic negative effects for hundreds of U.S. citizen children with good parents like John and Kelly

John and Kelly are undocumented parents of two U.S. citizen children, 5 and 10. Both children are healthy and well-behaved. They are active and do well academically. Their parents are very involved in their lives and raise their children under their strong Christian values.

John was recently arrested by immigration officials based on a twelve-year-old DUI and placed in removal proceedings. Under the current immigration system, John likely will not qualify for cancellation of removal. Under current immigration policy, their children are young and healthy and could more easily adjust to life in a new country if the family follows him to his home country, and if the children stay it is merely a parental choice. Unfortunately, these statements ignore the larger issues caused by the divide of a successful and tight-knit family.

In these cases, immigration courts do not look at the case from the perspective of the children to determine their best interests. Several scientific studies have shown that forcibly removing a parent like John from a cohesive family unit causes significant short-term and long-term emotional and physical hardship to the children. Unfortunately, immigration courts have not considered these studies or the children’s best interests. Until courts consider these interests, hundreds of children, who had no choice in where they were born or who their parents are, will face irreversible harm when their families are torn apart.


DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal advice. If you are in removal proceedings or need legal advice on your immigration case, please contact an immigration attorney.

Texas Judge’s Decision Causes Immediate Problems for Immigrants Nationwide

The stories below are based off real client experiences. However, all names and specific details have been altered as a matter of privacy and confidentiality.

Recently, a Texas federal judge issued a temporary injunction on President Obama’s executive action that would provide temporary status for thousands undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Justice has appealed the judge’s decision in hopes of overturning the injunction. For the time-being, however, the expanded DACA and DAPA programs are on hold until the Texas judge makes final ruling on the case.

I could write for pages about how the Texas judge’s ruling is legally flawed and wrong, but that is not the subject of this post. This is about the effect of the ruling on undocumented immigrants and their families.

The most immediate effect is that the immigrants who are eligible for the relief cannot apply for benefits until the injunction is overturned. These immigrants who have been in the U.S. for several years, have families and children in the U.S. and have no significant criminal history are forced to remain in the shadows instead of coming forward to receive status, a work permit and an identity.

The ruling has also had less noticeable effects on immigrants. As part of his executive actions, President Obama also announced changes to immigration enforcement priorities. As part of the priorities, immigrants without significant convictions are generally not an enforcement priority and should generally not be deported. The Texas judge’s ruling did not overturn these priorities. However, attorneys are noticing that immigration officers across the country are refusing to enforce these priorities due to the Texas decision. This is wrong and has immediate effects on immigrants.

Take for example, Mark. He is under an order of removal. He could be arrested and deported at any moment. He has been in the U.S. for 8 years. He has two U.S. citizen children. He has one non-significant misdemeanor conviction and no other criminal history. However, he is not eligible for any immigration relief other than DAPA.

He likely could apply for DAPA program, but that is on hold. He also qualifies as an enforcement priority. Under Obama’s new enforcement priorities, people like Mark generally should not be deported. However, some immigration officials are ignoring these priorities, placing Mark and other similarly situated immigrants in fear of deportation.

The Department of Homeland Security, the government agency in charge of immigration enforcement, stated that the new enforcement priorities are in place; however, immigration officers appear to have missed that message. Until they receive the message, Mark and other hard-working, law-abiding immigrants will be at risk of having their lives and families torn apart


DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal advice. If you are in removal proceedings or need legal advice on your immigration case, please contact an immigration attorney.

The Border Security Myth: A Kansas City Attorney’s Take

The stories below are based off real client experiences. However, all names and specific details have been altered as a matter of privacy and confidentiality.

Republican politicians continually state that the U.S. needs to secure the U.S.-Mexican border before Congress can pass any other immigration reforms. This statement may rile up conservative supporters but it does not have much basis in reality.

There are more border patrol agents and miles of fence at the border than ever before in U.S. history. Overall, apprehensions and deportations at the border are higher. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are effectively securing the border. This should not be a hurdle in comprehensive reform. In fact, further security measures without reforms may hurt the U.S. and immigrants alike.

The militarization of the border, without any meaningful immigration reform, has led to several unintended consequences. First, it has forced people attempting to enter the U.S. without authorization to resort to drastic and often life-threatening alternatives. These people are forced to trek through rough desert terrain to cross the border. Many others are forced to use smugglers who may have no concern for immigrants’ health or safety.

Additionally, due to the increased security and the danger of entering the U.S., many people are forced to remain in the U.S. rather than return to Mexico. It’s important to understand the motivations for Mexican and Central American migration to the U.S. The motivations are overwhelmingly economical or relate to a fear of their home country.  Migrants have families and few opportunities for employment. There only hope of providing for and protecting their family is to migrate to the U.S.

Take for example, Oscar. He lived in rural southern Mexico. His family owned a small batch of land for farming. The family barely grew enough crops to feed the family. There was rarely enough to sell. Oscar lived in a one room house with his wife and two children. The house had dirt floors, and his family had limited access to running water. He had nothing to support his family. He has little education because he was forced to help his family at the farm growing up. He could not find jobs elsewhere in Mexico because of his poor education and his status. He had no business connections and no transferable work skills. So he traveled to the U.S. Were he met a cousin, who helped find a job for him in the agricultural industry. Oscar sent money back to his family for support. He wanted to visit them, but he knew the dangers of crossing back to the U.S. and the likelihood of getting stuck in the same Mexican poverty as before. So he stayed. Eventually, his family joined him in the U.S. and stayed also.

The U.S. does not need more border security, it needs smarter border security and comprehensive reform. It needs to consider the motivations for migration, like Oscar’s, and encourage lawful immigration through expansion of temporary worker visa program and other programs. It also needs better training for its border agents.

Instead of actually addressing the real issues, Republicans in Congress recently introduced a border bill increasing the amount of fencing along the border and setting priority deadlines to increase security. The director of the Department of Homeland Security called these priorities “unworkable” and “not a serious effort at legislating border security.” Furthermore, we are about two weeks away from a potential DHS shutdown, which would force the agency charged with securing our borders to operate without sufficient funding. Congress is playing politics rather than debating the issues and passing comprehensive reform that would go a long way in resolving some of the most pressing immigration issues.


 

 

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal advice. If you are in removal proceedings or need legal advice on your immigration case, please contact an immigration attorney.

What a DHS shutdown could mean to immigrants; views from a Kansas City immigration attorney

Today, Senate democrats blocked passage of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending bill loaded with amendments meant to block implementation of President Obama’s proposed executive action. These executive actions include expanding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and a new deferred action program for parents of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident children (DAPA).

Congress has until the end of February to pass a budget. If not, the DHS will be out of congressional funding. Will this affect the agency? Not much, probably. Most DHS employees will still go to work, and the Department can likely still go forward with Obama’s executive action.

During the October 2013 government shutdown, about 85% of DHS employees continued going to work. Many DHS employees did not receive furloughs (or mandated vacations) because they performed “emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” If Congress does not pass a DHS budget before the end of February, these employees would still go to work; they just might not get paid for their work until Congress approves a budget.

Many other employees did not receive furloughs because there wages came from application fees instead of Congressional appropriations. This mainly included employees at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which receives and makes decisions on many types of immigration applications, including President Obama’s executive actions.

President Obama’s deferred action programs are fee-driven. These fees pay for employee wages and other agency costs. If Congress does not approve a budget, it likely will not stall the rollout of Obama’s executive action.

Assuming no delay, USCIS will start receiving applications for DAPA in mid- to late-May. That means come May, people like Mindy, a law-abiding mother of 2 young U.S. citizen children who came to the U.S. in 2007 to find a better life, can come out of the shadows to get work permission and temporary protection from deportation.

Mellouli, The Director’s Cut: How a Case About a Sock Found Its Way from Johnson County, Kansas to the Supreme Court

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Mellouli v. Holder. The case centered on important legal issues concerning what crimes make a lawful permanent resident deportable and how a court should make that determination based on the conviction records. These arguments have been written about and discussed extensively.  But, how did the case make it from a small Johnson County courtroom to the marbled halls of the US Supreme Court?

Not all cases that seek out Supreme Court review are selected; in fact, very few make it.  Often times the cases that make the cut have been deliberately and methodically nurtured for the journey.  In the Mellouli case, this process started very early on. Moones Mellouli was facing criminal charges brought on after he was stopped for a DUI.  While he was being booked into the jail, police found four Adderall pills he that were located in his sock. He retained the service of a criminal defense attorney to assist him.  The criminal defense attorney, mindful that non-citizens face very different consequences than citizens when it comes to criminal charges, insisted that Mr. Mellouli seek out the assistance of an immigration attorney.  This is when we got involved.

Mr. Mellouli had no other criminal history other than the charges he faced from the DUI arrest.  He was a green card holder with a great education.  He was a productive member of society and had deep roots to the United States.  Yet, one simple interaction with police had the potential of unraveling his whole life in the US; a possibility that, as time would reveal, became a reality.  Working with defense counsel, we worked to craft a plea agreement that was just and fair given the conduct and other mitigating factors.  The prosecutor agreed.  Mr. Mellouli was convicted with a single count of possession of paraphernalia, namely, his sock.  The offense is a misdemeanor under Kansas law.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), based on this conviction, still believed that Mellouli was subject to deportation. To be a deportable offense, the conviction must relate to a controlled substance listed in the federal list of controlled substances.  But, the documents in Mr. Mellouli’s criminal case did not identify the type of drug that was involved and since Kansas has some substances on its list of controlled substance that are not on the federal list, we argued that Mellouli could not be deported and he should be able to stay in the United States as a permanent resident.  The immigration Court did not agree.

We lost. But we had built a strong record and we appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals. We lost again. Undeterred, we appealed the case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Missouri. The Eighth Circuit once again sided with DHS in saying that deportation was proper for someone who was only convicted of possessing a sock so long as the sock had anything to do with a controlled substance.  We did not think these decisions were correct because it did not seem right that something so simple should carry banishment from the US as a consequence.  We also believed that given the specific language of Mr. Mellouli’s conviction, DHS had not met its requirements under the law. So, we kept pushing forward.

A lot of cases make it to circuit courts of appeal. Very few cases make it to the Supreme Court. Only 1 percent of petitions filed with the Supreme Court are accepted for oral argument. From June 30, 2011 and July 2, 2012, 7654 petitions were filed with the Supreme Court; only 66 were accepted. Sometimes in order to overcome the odds, it helps to have a bigger team.  We enlisted the help of the Center for New Americans, a nonprofit organization with the University of Minnesota. The Center helped bring together even more resources and talent.  Everyone worked hard to try and narrow the arguments to present it in the most compelling way possible.  Lots of people from around the nation gave opinions, helped edit the legal briefs and played devil’s advocate.  With so many people working together, we were hopeful that the Supreme Court could be convinced to hear the case.  In order for the Supreme Court to accept a case, 4 of the 9 justices must agree to hear the case. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and on January 14, 2015, after months of briefing, the case was orally argued.

Watching the arguments unfold in the highest court in the nation is pure legal theater.  The room was filled with attorneys, media, and spectators who sit awestruck at the realization of the journey that very few cases make.  Getting this case from the Kansas City Immigration Court to the Supreme Court was difficult. It took vision and skill (to identify the compelling facts and legal issues), humility (to accept multiple loses and to keep trying), and luck (in finding the right people with the right resources to get the case before the Supreme Court). While the outlook of the case’s outcome is positive, the fact that the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court after so many defeats is a victory on its own.