Archive | Legal education RSS feed for this section

BR Has a New Lawyer!

17 Dec

Adi

We have waited just over three months for this day, where we can introduce Adi Nuñez as an attorney at Benach Ragland!  Although Adi has been with us since September, Adi was sworn in as a member of the bar of the State of Maryland today and now has all the rights, privileges and obligations of being a licensed attorney.  We welcome Adi into this profession that we love and know that Adi will use her powers to benefit our clients, their families and communities for years to come.IMG_1537

This is not to say that she has not already used those powers.  Behind the scenes, Adi has poured her heart and soul into some of our most significant cases, such as Dree Collopy’s recent victory in a gang-based asylum claim for a woman and her son detained at the federal gulag in Artesia, NM.  She also was there for the great jamon and wine event last week to celebrate the holidays at BR.

A Californian of Mexican heritage, Adi joins an office that represents much of Latin America- Cuba (Andres), Colombia (Sandra), Honduras (Liana), and Peru (Mariela).  If Cubans played soccer (excuse me, futbol), we could have a World Cup.  Adi moved east to attend Catholic University for law school.  While there, she was a Student Attorney aHoliday luncht the Immigration Clinic taught by Dree Collopy.  She made quite an impression on her professor who scooped her right up after her graduation.

While Adi’s academic career included a couple of unfortunate detours working for the government on immigration enforcement issues, we do not believe that it was anything that a few months of winning cases for people won’t fix.  Also, some of her mother’s Mexican food would help too.

Adi has the care, passion and intellect to represent immigrants and their families well.  We expect many more great things from her as she grows into her career and congratulate her on this important milestone.

 

FOBR Olsi Vrapi Tries to Represent a Child in Artesia, New Mexico

21 Jul

kob ice facility artessia

Olsi Vrapi is a Friend of Benach Ragland who practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He recently found himself on the front line of the battle of how to handle the major influx of refugee children at the Southern Border.  In this chilling blogpost entitled “The Artesia Experience,” Olsi describes his experience visiting his client in the new facility in Artesia, New Mexico where the government is detaining Central American children and families.  His conclusion is brutally honest:

My impression of the Artesia makeshift detention center is that it is a due process travesty.  Is it really coincidence that a detention center was set up overnight in the middle of nowhere where the closest immigration lawyer or non-profit (which by the way can’t provide direct representation) is 3+ hours away?  In the few weeks it has been in operation, there have been no non-profits doing legal orientation programs, there are no non-profits that provide direct representation to those detained there and asylum interviews and hearings are happening so fast and are so short that even the most diligent detainees can’t get counsel fast enough to be advised before they are interviewed or are given any meaningful opportunity to tell their stories.  It appears the government is paying lip service to due process and just going through the statutory and regulatory requirements as fast as possible so they can give a semblance of compliance while the airplane to central America is warming its engines in nearby Roswell.  This is the same as a child being asked to clean his room, and he stuffs everything under the bed to “comply” with the command and ends up making it worse, except in our cases it’s not a matter of putting dirty laundry in the hamper, it’s women and children that can get killed if returned home.  As a father of three small children, I can’t help the kids’ analogies.

To make matters worse, Congress is using the crisis as an attempt to roll back well-established asylum protections.  Yesterday, Dree Collopy wrote about the horrendous legislation being proposed by Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that would undermine critical protections for refugees and asylum-seekers.  As bad as the current system is, Congress can make it worse.  The Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition has a good summary of the legislation and provides a quick link to contact Congress.

Thanks to Olsi for representing families in Artesia and sharing their story with the world.

We will keep you informed about pro bono opportunities and donation opportunities as this crisis continues to unfold.

 

Catholic University Law Students Develop Novel Legal Argument that is Gaining Traction in the Courts

8 Jul

This post was written by Adilene Nunez and Francisco Lopez, law students at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.

 

Meeting our client and gaining his trust

In the fall of 2013, a man sat in an office at Catholic Charities awaiting our arrival. Neither of us had ever advocated on behalf of a client, so we were both nervous. Although our professors trained us in our clinic about how to interview a client and how to gather the facts and evidence to build a strong case, we were not sure what to expect from our client.

We walked into the office where our client, Joe[1], was waiting. We spoke with him about our Immigration Litigation Clinic, explained our roles, and began the process of getting to know our client. We listened to his story and asked him questions. He was concerned, however, with our abilities to represent him. He didn’t say it, but it was notable in his face. Joe was reserved and had few things to say at this initial meeting. He did not smile. When we asked him the reason for his visit to Catholic Charities, Joe responded that in his quest to become a lawful permanent resident, he had been defrauded by a notario. Immediately, we both understood why Joe was apprehensive, and we recognized that we would have to work to gain his trust.

stop notario fraud

            Over the next few months, we had extensive meetings with Joe, constantly called him with questions or requests for documents, and we made sure that he was always aware of what we were doing and what the next steps would be. Gathering facts and getting the client to open up and trust us was a difficult process because Joe fled his native Guatemala during the civil war and he had never told anyone such private, personal, and painful details. However, Joe fled his native country over thirty years ago, so at times it was difficult for Joe to remember details of the trip that placed him in deportation proceedings. It was our compassion and diligence that, in the end, led Joe to say to us, “Yo confió en el trabajo que están haciendo,I trust in the work you are doing, as he smiled at us.

Keeping the case on the docket

On its face, Joe’s case appeared to be a straight forward adjustment of status case. He was a Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) beneficiary,[2] a model resident, and hard working individual. However, as we continued to research the issues in our case, like advance parole and admission, we realized that our biggest struggle was going to be convincing the immigration judge to keep the case on her docket. That was because, statutorily, someone who returns to the United States on a grant of parole, generally, cannot adjust status in front of an immigration judge.[3] We wanted to keep the case in front of the immigration judge because Joe’s case had been pending in immigration court for almost thirty years, he had been deceived and defrauded by a notario, and if the judge chose to send the case to USCIS for adjudication, we would not be able to see the case through until the end as the representatives Joe trusted.

We spent about five months conducting extensive research and we had several meetings with our supervisors to work on strategy and to craft creative legal arguments. There were times when we felt extremely overwhelmed from our research because it seemed that we were dealing with a novel issue. Joe’s facts were complicated and involved two eras of immigration law: present day and pre-IIRAIRA immigration law.

We needed to prove that Joe had already been admitted, so he would not be designated an arriving noncitizen.[4] Being classified as an arriving noncitizen in immigration court leaves limited options for individuals in removal proceedings.[5] Therefore, an arriving noncitizen classification should not be conceded too easily. However, Joe was a TPS beneficiary, a status that we hoped we could use to our advantage in proving Joe’s statutory eligibility for adjustment of status. We wanted to argue that when Joe was granted TPS he was inspected and admitted into the United States, as this would allow Joe to adjust his status in front of the immigration judge. Admittedly, arguing that a grant of TPS is an admission was going to be a challenge as we had more negative than favorable case precedent on the matter.[6] The case that was most favorable, Flores v. USCIS,[7] was not binding; it was merely persuasive authority arising outside of our circuit. The plain language of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Code of Federal Regulations, and case precedent formed our argument in Joe’s favor.

Additionally, with the help of our professors, and after several individual moot hearings, we composed two briefs, one was the brief in support of Joe’s adjustment application, and the second was a supplemental brief where we argued that Joe’s grant of TPS was an inspection and admission. We planned the supplemental brief as a last resort and developed persuasive oral arguments for our individual hearing before the immigration judge.

briefs

Joe was very cooperative and maintained a positive attitude throughout this process, even after we explained the possibility that the immigration judge might not be able to exercise jurisdiction over his case. He said that he had faith in us and in the work that we had done, and that he could only hope for the best. Joe was different from the person we met in the fall. He smiled and felt comfortable communicating with us. He went from stoic to wanting to make us laugh. We were glad to see him happy.

Finding justice for Joe

When Joe’s individual hearing date arrived in late April, we were confident that we had done everything possible to prepare for Joe’s case. Our goal was to convince the immigration judge that both the regulation and case law supported our position that she could exercise jurisdiction over Joe’s case. Joe appeared confident about offering his testimony and communicating his story to the immigration judge. However, things did not go as planned. The immigration judge couldn’t move beyond the charging document. Since Joe’s case had been pending for about thirty years, his charging document was an Order to Show Cause, and since Joe had most recently returned to the country on a grant of advance parole the immigration judge believed that an Order to Show Cause wasn’t the proper charging document.

After a lengthy discussion with Joe, our supervisors, and DHS counsel, we all agreed that termination of the proceedings was the best option. So while we were unable to tell Joe’s story that day and give the many reasons why he deserves to be granted permanent residency, he now seeks adjustment of status before USCIS without the procedural encumbrances of deportation proceedings. Despite the unfinished nature of Joe’s case that day, Joe received closure because, by terminating deportation proceedings, we removed the impediment that precluded him from adjusting his status before USCIS for all of those years. It was not justice denied for Joe; it is merely justice delayed for Joe and his family.

Balt Imm Ct

Setting our own precedent

While we did not achieve the result we wanted that day in court, we were very proud of our work. As student attorneys, we were novices when it came to complex immigration issues, but we did not allow this to discourage us. The challenges we encountered with finding positive binding precedent did not change our position that our client deserved to become a lawful permanent resident. We persisted in finding an answer for our client.

We wrote a persuasive supplemental brief using various legal authorities. Despite the fact that the immigration judge could not accept jurisdiction, she complimented us on our work. We wanted others to benefit from our hard work, so we shared a redacted copy of Joe’s brief with the American Immigration Council, an organization that was litigating the issue of whether TPS was an inspection admission. A few weeks after Joe’s individual hearing in April, we saw that the American Immigration Council had developed arguments similar to our innovative arguments that TPS may constitute an inspection and admission. In Ramirez v. Dougherty,[8] Ramirez a TPS beneficiary from El Salvador, was seeking to adjust his status. Ramirez argued that he should be granted LPR status based on his TPS status. It was reassuring for us to see that the very same arguments we made in our brief were compelling enough to succeed in a different circuit.

circuits

It showed us that with the guidance of our brilliant professors, we were capable of dissecting the complicated immigration statute to develop strong, persuasive analysis. It also was a valuable lesson learned that when the law doesn’t seem to be on your client’s side, you can develop creative legal arguments to change it.

The toughest part was saying goodbye

Although Joe’s case was riddled with complications and complexities, the toughest part wasn’t getting creative with the regulations and case law. The toughest part of this entire process was saying goodbye to our client after the individual hearing. We got to know Joe not just as a client, but as a person, as someone for whom we were confident we could get justice. Joe got to know us and wished us success in our future careers as attorneys. We got to know his wife and his children. We learned about his dedication to his family. We spent time with Joe and his family at their home during our witness preparation sessions. We grew to care about Joe as both a client and as a friend. And best of all, Joe was able to trust an attorney through this process. He had been so terribly hurt by the notario that we were both pleasantly surprised when Joe finally opened up and put his trust in us. On our last phone call with Joe as his student attorneys, he thanked us for working with him. We told our client, and friend, that the honor was ours. This was truly one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in our professional careers.

[1]Name and other identifying information have been changed.

[2] Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a humanitarian benefit found under Section 244 of the Act. The Department of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS because conditions temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely or if a country cannot handle the return of its nationals. The Attorney General may designate a country for TPS if the country has an ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, or if there are other extraordinary conditions preventing a noncitizen from returning to the country. See INA § 244(b)(1).

[3] A parolee is considered an arriving noncitizen under 8 C.F.R. § 1001.1(q). An arriving noncitizen is an applicant for admission who is coming or attempts to come to the United States at a port-of-entry.

[4] There are three classifications in removal proceedings: (1) an arriving noncitizen, (2) a noncitizen present in the United States who has not been admitted or paroled, or (3) a noncitizen who has previously been admitted, but is now deportable. See generally INA § 240(c).

[5] Matter of Silitonga, 25 I&N Dec. 89 (BIA 2009) (immigration judge has no jurisdiction to adjudicate an adjustment of status application for an arriving noncitizen unless the noncitizen has been placed in removal proceedings after returning to the United States on advance parole to pursue a previous filed application); Matter of Oseiwusu, 22 I&N Dec. 19 (BIA 1988) (arriving noncitizens are generally ineligible for bond);

[6] Matter of Sosa Ventura, 25 I&N Dec. (BIA 2010) (TPS does not create an admission); see also Bracamontes v. Holder, 675 F.3d 380, 386 (4th Cir. 2012) (recognizing that adjustment of status is not an admission for purposes of a waiver of a criminal ground of inadmissibility under Section 212(h) of the Act); but see Flores v. USCIS, 718 F.3d 548 (6th Cir. 2013) (arguing plain language in the context of section 244 of the Act and the broader context of the statute as a whole show Congressional intent that TPS beneficiaries can adjust under section 245 of the Act).

[7] 718 F.3d 548 (6th Cir. 2013).

[8] C13-1236Z, 2014 WL 2439819 (W.D. Wash. May 30, 2014)

 

 

BR “Stars” at American Immigration Lawyers Association Conference

26 Jun

Panoramic_Boston

The Benach Ragland crew just returned from the annual conference of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Boston, Massachusetts.  The annual meeting is the largest gathering of immigration lawyers and provides an opportunity for lawyers to learn from each other and improve their services to their clients.  This year, Benach Ragland attorneys Dree Collopy and Andres Benach, served on the conference faculty.  On Friday, Dree spoke on a panel that encouraged lawyers to think about issues in removal proceedings that go beyond the availability of relief entitled “Challenges and Strategies Beyond Relief.”  On Saturday morning, Andres served as a “Star” on the “Litigating with the Stars” panel, which challenged lawyers in the audience to think through common (and uncommon) scenarios and share their strategy.  The “stars” then critiqued the answers.  It was, indeed, a pretty sharp group of lawyers, as the stars gave out lots of “9s” and “10s.”

AILA also asked Andres to serve a third year as a member of the amicus curiae committee, the committee that decides which cases AILA will support with amicus briefs and prepares briefs on behalf of the organization.  In 2013-14, the committee submitted sixty briefs.  Dree was chosen again to serve as the Chair of the AILA asylum committee.  Thomas Ragland will continue to serve on the Federal Court Section Steering Committee.

The highlight of the conference was Saturday evening, when AILA gave its 2014 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyer Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Immigration and Nationality Law.  In presenting her with this award, AILA cited Dree’s full caseload at Benach Ragland, as well as her leadership of the Catholic University Law School Immigration Clinic and her stewardship of the AILA National Asylum Committee.  Lastly, AILA noted that DrDree2ee is writing the upcoming edition of AILA’s Asylum Primer, a practical how-to for anyone seeking to represent an asylum seeker.  AILA subsequently published Dree’s speech accepting her award on its Leadership Blog.  Dree cited the humanitarian crisis on the border, the lack of due process, and the failure of the political branches to address the serious policy issue of immigration:

We are now faced with a humanitarian crisis at our borders.  CBP and ICE officers are using excessive force, inhumane detention conditions, and “no process” removals. We are faced with immigration courts fighting against insufficient resources, overcrowded dockets and cabined legal discretion. And we are faced with a renewed assault on our asylum system by Congress and the agencies themselves.

Yet, no actions are taken by those in power to fix our system. Instead we have a Congress that points fingers and strikes a pose in Capitol Hill hearings and an Administration which, on the back of an immigration reform-focused campaign, has taken to putting Band-Aids on gashes rather than treating the underlying wounds.

Until we have leaders who are going to work together to solve real problems that affect real people, American businesses, and separated families, it is up to us. It is for these reasons that this award is only the beginning of my journey.

After the awards ceremony, BR and many FOBRs headed out for a night of dancing, before getting back to the work that we knew awaited us.

 

GUEST BLOG: Gender-Based Asylum Victory in Virginia by the George Washington University Law School Immigration Clinic

15 Apr

This post was written by Sydney Barron, a law student at George Washington University Law School and a member of the school’s Immigration Clinic, under the direction of Professor Alberto Benitez.  Benach Ragland periodically offers this space to law students and non-profit organizations to discuss their immigration cases.  If you are a law school professor or a non-profit organization that wishes to tell the story of one of your immigration cases, please write us at acbenach@benachragland.com.

 

On March 11, 2014, my client, Julia[1] won the asylum that she requested over a decade ago. Julia fled horrific domestic violence in her home country, Guatemala, and came to the United States in 2002. Unfortunately, Julia was not able to bring her children with her when she fled. After she entered the United States, the George Washington Immigration Clinic helped her file her asylum claim. Julia had to live with uncertainty for over a decade as her case wound its way through the immigration system. By the time Julia was finally granted asylum twelve years after fleeing her abuser, she had appeared before three different immigration judges, and worked with twenty different student-attorneys from the GW Immigration Clinic.

Sydney Barron Photo

GWU Law Student Sydney Barron

Julia filed for asylum in 2003. There was insufficient time for all of her testimony and cross-examination at her first individual merits hearing in 2004, so she had an additional individual merits hearing scheduled. The next hearing was not held until 2006 because the immigration court was so busy at the time.

When Julia first filed for asylum, the law of asylum for victims of domestic violence was far from favorable. At that time, the immigration courts were waiting for regulatory guidance on the issue of granting asylum to victims of domestic violence, but were hesitant to grant asylum while such guidance remained pending. For this reason, the immigration judge administratively closed Julia‘s case in 2006. This situation provided only temporary protection, and her case could be reopened at any time. Additionally, even though Julia could remain in the United States while her case was administratively closed, she could not bring her children here unless she was granted asylum.

A year later in 2007, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) requested that the case be reopened. In June 2009, the immigration judge issued a written decision finding that Julia was credible and had suffered harm rising to the level of past persecution, but there was no “nexus” between the harm she suffered and her membership in a particular social group. The immigration judge therefore denied Julia‘s asylum claim.

The GW Immigration Clinic assisted Julia in appealing her case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”). Before Julia‘s appeal was decided by the BIA, the law on asylum for victims of domestic violence shifted and became more favorable. The most well-known case on the eligibility of victims of domestic violence for asylum is Matter of R-A-. In Matter of R-A-, a Guatemalan woman suffered terrible abuse from her husband.[2] Fourteen years after R-A- applied for asylum, in December 2009, an immigration judge granted R-A-’s request for asylum.[3] Another central case regarding asylum for victims of domestic violence, Matter of L-R, ended in 2010 with a grant of asylum.[4] In both Matter of R-A- and Matter of L-R-, DHS submitted briefs describing the circumstances that they considered sufficient for a domestic violence victim to be eligible for asylum.[5] Given these two historic asylum grants, a prior student-attorney at the GW Immigration Clinic submitted a Motion to Remand Julia‘s case with the BIA.

When I first met Julia, she had not yet heard back from the BIA about the Motion to Remand. During my first semester in the GW Immigration Clinic, the BIA remanded Julia’s case to the Arlington Immigration Court. My first appearance in immigration court was for Julia‘s master calendar hearing. The GW Immigration Clinic Director, Professor Alberto Benitez, and my other supervisor, Mr. Jonathan Bialosky, prepared me to ask for a grant of asylum at this hearing. They explained that this was an unlikely outcome, and was extremely unlikely without DHS’s support. However, if I were able to convince DHS to agree to a grant, the immigration judge might grant Julia asylum given the prior immigration judge’s findings on credibility and the violence Julia suffered.

On the day of the master calendar hearing, the DHS trial attorney had not yet received Julia‘s file from the BIA, and could not support a grant. Luckily, the immigration judge recognized that Julia had already been waiting for over a decade, and scheduled the merits hearing for March 11, 2014. This was a huge relief to Julia, and myself, since some cases are scheduled up to two years from the master calendar hearing date.

In preparation for the individual hearing, I met with Julia multiple times a week. Her family members had alerted her to continued threats made by her abuser, including threats to beat, rape, and kill her. I submitted affidavits from Julia and her family about these threats.   I also submitted evidence from a psychiatrist, which supported Julia‘s testimony, and multiple articles about Guatemala and its institutionalized acceptance of domestic violence.

Before the individual merits hearing with the immigration judge, the GW Immigration Clinic held a moot hearing with Julia. Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky explained that I should not have a set of questions written down, because they had seen student-attorneys become dependent on a list of questions, ignoring what their client was actually saying. I wrote out the main issues that I wanted to get Julia to testify about, and practiced asking non-leading questions with other student-attorneys.  On the day of the moot hearing, I realized the difficulty of an actual direct examination, especially the difficulty of asking non-leading questions to get Julia to provide necessary details. Additionally, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky asked the student-attorney playing the role of the trial attorney to try to surprise and rattle me by objecting to my evidence and submitting new evidence during the moot. The moot hearing taught me the importance of carefully listening to the client’s testimony and asking sufficient follow-up questions to ensure the client mentions all relevant details. It also taught me the importance of projecting confidence in my questions and responses, especially when unexpected issues arise.

The day before the hearing, I called the trial attorney who was assigned to Julia‘s case. I left her a message asking if she had received my pre-trial filing, and offering to answer any questions she might have. That afternoon the trial attorney returned my call while I was in class, and while I was able to excuse myself to an empty room, I did not have any of my notes with me. My lack of notes initially worried me; however, once the trial attorney started asking me questions about the case, I realized that the months of preparation had hammered all of the facts into my head, and I could easily discuss the case without any notes.   We discussed the procedural history of the case and the evidence that Julia’s abuser continued to threaten her. After answering all of the trial attorney’s questions, I felt confident that the trial attorney appreciated the grave danger that Julia would face if she were forced to return to Guatemala.

On the day of Julia’s individual merits hearing, Professor Benitez, Mr. Bialosky, and many of the other student-attorneys who came to support Julia were present in the courtroom. Immediately before the hearing, the trial attorney informed me that she would not be opposing a grant of asylum. Julia was extremely excited, but I explained that nothing was certain until the immigration judge granted her asylum. The immigration judge requested that I do a short direct examination of Julia, and after my direct examination the trial attorney did a short cross-examination. After Julia returned to her seat, the immigration judge gave his oral decision granting Julia asylum. To the surprise of everyone in the courtroom, Julia asked the judge if she could hug him. The judge explained that he could not hug her in person, but that he would “hug” her from where he was. Both Julia and the immigration judge hugged the air in front of them in a very touching moment. Julia also hugged the trial attorney after the hearing was over. Professor Benitez told me later that it was the first time that he had ever seen a client ask to hug the immigration judge or the trial attorney.

I am grateful to the GW Immigration Clinic for the opportunity to assist Julia in her search for safety. I am grateful to my supervisors, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky, who guided me through the process, set up moot hearings, and provided feedback on my pre-trial filing and hearing preparation. I am grateful to all of the other student-attorneys for their help throughout the year, providing feedback and helping to prepare Julia for cross-examination. Finally, I am grateful to Julia, an inspiring woman who persevered with immense strength. The opportunity to help protect her from further abuse and finally bring her a sense of peace and closure was an amazing gift.

 

[1] My client’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

[2] Matter of R-A-, 22 I&N Dec. 906 (BIA 1999), vacated, 22 I&N Dec. 906 (A.G. 2001), remanded, 23 I&N Dec. 694 (A.G. 2005), remanded, 24 I&N Dec. 629 (A.G. 2008).

[3] Lisa Mendel-Hirsa, Recent Landmark Victories in the On-Going Struggle for U.S. Immigration Law to Recognize and Fully Protect Women’s Human Rights, Empire Justice Center (Nov. 19, 2010), http://www.empirejustice.org/issue-areas/domestic-violence/battered-immigrants/articles/domestic-violence-and.html#.U0Ac3fldVHI.

[4] Id.

[5] Department of Homeland Security’s Position on Respondent’s Eligibility for Relief,

Matter of R-A-, 22 I. & N. Dec. 906 (Feb. 19, 2004) (File No. A 73 753 922); Department of Homeland Security’s Supplemental Brief, Matter of [L-R-, redacted] (Apr. 13, 2009).

Guest Blog: NOTHING IS PERFECT: TWO CLIENTS, TWO STUDENT ATTORNEYS AND THE IMMIGRATION SYSTEM THAT BINDS THEM

9 Dec

This article was prepared by the George Washington Law School Immigration Clinic and was written by  GW Law Professor Alberto Benitez (second from left) and Immigration Clinic Alumni Cleveland Fairchild (fifth from left), Binta Mamadou (seventh from left), and Rebekah Niblock (fourth from left).

rsz_0196-l

One of the most common sound bites to emerge from the ongoing immigration debate is that the immigration system is somehow “broken.” I have directed the George Washington Law School Immigration Clinic since 1996, and I do not share this view. The reality is that most critics have never set foot in an immigration court or a detention center.

The immigration system is not broken. The system has flaws and there is room for improvement, but it works well for most people in most cases. The student-attorneys who I supervise are all in their third year of law school and come from different walks of life. Despite their differences, the students share a common objective of wanting to help people and be a part of an immigration system that saves lives and reunites families.

A Great Big Hug

A great big hug exchanged between a student-attorney and her client’s two children exemplifies the immigration system working as it should. Earlier in the day, the student-attorney accompanied her client to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Office to figure out what was going on with the client’s case. The client had recently come to the United States with her two children to flee gang-related violence.  The client found herself in a new country with a different language and swept into an immigration system that she did not understand.

As the student-attorney stood in line waiting to speak to an ICE official, the client stood trembling with her two children at her side. The client began to pray and perform the holy trinity in Spanish. After waiting for some time, the student-attorney asked to speak directly with the ICE officer managing the client’s case. The ICE official agreed to meet with the student-attorney and informed her that the client was in removal proceedings and would be receiving a court date shortly. The client was utterly confused and she did not understand the conversation until the student-attorney translated the information into Spanish. Even though the client learned that she was in removal proceedings, she felt a sense of relief because she now had answers and knew exactly what was going on in her case. When the student-attorney and the client parted, the client’s children reached up and gave the student-attorney a great big hug. While trips to the ICE Field Office are understandably terrifying for immigrants, news to the clients that they will have their day in court is proof that the system works.

She Fell to Her Knees

As the woman fell to her knees outside the courtroom following her hearing, I could tell that the student-attorney was caught off-guard. The woman was in tears, but these were tears of joy. After more than two years of uncertainties, countless meetings, and medical and psychological evaluations, she could now sigh in relief. At that point, she knew that she would never have to return to the country responsible for the disappearances and deaths of several family members and where she had suffered for expressing unpopular political views.

I observed the student-attorney’s reaction. I could tell that she maintained her composure because lawyers are taught to be stoic, particularly in front of their clients. In those few minutes, I recalled the student once telling me that she had dreamed about the ICE attorney who she had to face during the trial. I remembered how hard the student-attorney worked on behalf of the client and the emotional roller coaster that she endured. Her personal commitment to the case was extraordinary-she even gave the client a suit to wear to court! Naturally, she questioned the strength of the case and whether the client would be granted asylum even though the client’s claim was compelling.

On the day of the trial, the student-attorney went to court prepared to advocate for her client. After both sides made their arguments, there was a long period of silence while the immigration judge made notes and flipped through the evidence. Eventually, he looked up and announced his ruling.

That afternoon was a victory, but not just for the client or the student-attorney. It was a victory for the immigration system. It was evidence that the system works.

Keep in Mind What the Immigration Laws Are Supposed To Do

In considering what it is that we want to fix, we should remember what our immigration laws were written to accomplish. Lost in the talk of immigration reform is the fact that the current U.S. system is the world’s best at reuniting separated families, allowing foreigners to invest in the economy, and bringing talented students from around the world to our universities. The system is good at providing persecuted refugees with a chance to resettle in the U.S. and establish a better future. Many countries have smaller populations, smaller borders, and less demand for visas; yet, they have settled on having immigration systems that are hopelessly complicated and inefficient. It is my desire that any upcoming reform focus primarily on the day-to-day activities that an immigration system must necessarily accomplish. If the overwhelming focus is on having a system that effectively keeps people out, we might end up with a system that does not do much of anything at all. To me, that sounds broken.