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BR Clients of the Month- January 2015

5 Jan

Irma and Kenny

At a time of year when we honor togetherness and fresh starts, we are comforted to know that Benach Ragland clients, Kira and her four-year-old son Ricky, have finally been granted asylum and are reunited with their husband/father, Andre, here in the United States.*  This family of faith was tornapart by targeted and systematic violence at the hands of the M-18 gang, the de facto government in Guatemala, all because they preached about peace and encouraged non-violence in their community – in the eyes of the M-18, a message of disloyalty and dissidence that needed to be eradicated.

In 2010, Kira and Andre, a deacon in the local church and the M-18’s main target, decided that he should flee in an attempt to save the family and protect their unborn son Ricky.  They believed and hoped that Andre was the gang’s only target; they were wrong.  Immediately following Andre’s escape to the United States, the gang began its relentless pursuit and persecution of Kira and their son because the gang believes that families breed disloyalty.  They threatened her with rape and murder, restrained her and beat her face bloody on multiple occasions, threatened to cut her unborn son out of her belly, threatened to kidnap Ricky after he was born, and grabbed and held Ricky at knifepoint on multiple occasions.  The gang made their reasons clear: Andre, a man of faith who preaches his message of peace and non-violence against their way of life, is their enemy who must be targeted and punished for his disloyalty and dissidence.  Since Andre was no longer available to target and punish, Kira and their young son Ricky would be his proxy.  By harming them, the M-18 could continue to harm Andre and punish him for his message of peace and non-violence – his disloyalty and dissidence.  Kira went to the police twice, begging for help, but they turned her away, refusing to provide meaningful protection.  After first escaping to her sister’s home, the gang pursued and found Kira there, held her four-year-old son Ricky at knifepoint, and threatened them again.  With no place to hide, Kira and Ricky fled to the United States in search of safety.

After four years filled with horrific and nearly daily violence, followed by a harrowing journey to the United States, Kira and Ricky sought help from a U.S. immigration ofIMG_1537ficer to beg for protection.  Instead of help, these refugees were among the first to be detained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico, a makeshift detention facility in the middle of the desert, hidden out of sight and out of mind as the Obama Administration sanctioned a series of procedures meant to deport them as quickly as possible right back to the danger from which they had fled.  But the arrival of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s pro bono project halted the deportation of Kira, Ricky, and the hundreds of other mothers and children detained in Artesia.  Benach Ragland Partner Dree Collopy spent a week volunteering in Artesia to provide pro bono legal services to women and children.  While there, she met Kira and Ricky and was inspired by their courage and strength.  She took their case pro bono, demanding compliance with U.S. and international law and due process on their behalf.

Ricky's additions to Dree's notes.

Ricky’s additions to Dree’s notes.

After five months of detention in inhumane conditions, two lengthy bond hearings, one status hearing, three hearings on the merits of their asylum claim, generous donations to secure an expert witness, Dree’s several trips to Denver and Artesia, and hundreds of pro bono hours by Benach Ragland and the volunteer AILA attorneys on the ground in Artesia, Kira and Ricky have been granted asylum and released from detention.  They are finally safe and have been reunited with Andre in the United States.  2015 is going to be a good year.

Court of Appeals Limits Mandatory Detention

9 Oct

Detention

On October 6, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued a decision in Castañeda v. Souza that greatly limits the ability of Immigration & Customs Enforcement to subject individuals to mandatory detention during their removal proceedings.  In Castañeda, the First Circuit interpreted the not very confusing language “when the alien is released” and rejected the Board of Immigration Appeals’ formulation, articulated in Matter of Rojas that the “when released” means “any time after release.  The First Circuit determined that the Board got that wrong and concluded that “when released” means “at the time the individual is released” rather than “any time after release not matter how many days, weeks, months or years later.”  Amazingly, two other circuit courts, the Third and the Fourth, have already upheld the Board’s decision.  Thus, the First Circuit’s decision creates a “circuit split” that may result in the Supreme Court resolving the two differing interpretations.

The Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) allows Immigration & Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) to detain someone without any right to release on bond if they are removable for having been convicted of certain offenses.  This “mandatory detention” causes certain individuals to be held in detention for the duration of their removal proceedings.  They are not entitled to an individualized determination as to whether they present a danger to the community or are not likely to appear for removal proceedings.  The section of the INA that allows for mandatory detention states that DHS “shall take into custody” certain foreign nationals who are deportable on specific criminal grounds “when the alien is released” from criminal custody.  Stewart

For years, individuals have challenged their mandatory detention by arguing that they were not taken into custody “when released,” but weeks or even years later.  By filing actions for habeas corpus in U.S. District Court, individuals obtained decisions from courts nationwide ordering DHS to give the detainee an individualized bond hearing where issues of dangerousness or flight risk could be assessed by an independent judge.   The overwhelming majority of district courts to consider the “when released” language concluded that the Immigration & Nationality Act only subjected those who were taken into custody within a reasonable period of time from criminal custody to mandatory detention.  Courts concluded that mandatory detention did not apply to those who ICE apprehended long after their release from custody and those individuals must be given an individualized bond hearing.  Over the past few years, the government has appealed some of these district court decisions.  The first decision from a Court of Appeals occurred here in the 4th Circuit.  In Hosh v. Lucero, the government appealed a district court’s order that DHS provide Mr. Hosh with a bond hearing in light of the three year gap between his release from criminal custody and his apprehension and detention by ICE.  The 4th Circuit reversed the decision of the district court determining that the Board of Immigration Appeals’ interpretation of the “when released” language was reasonable and not plainly in opposition to the INA and therefore, was entitled to the court’s deference.  About a year after Hosh, the Third Circuit reached the same conclusion in Sylvain v. Attorney General.  Thus, although several district courts across the country rejected the Board’s interpretation, the two circuit courts that considered the question deferred to the Board.

FirstIn Castañeda, the First Circuit determined that the “when released” language did not permit the government to subject an individual to mandatory detention when she was taken into custody ten years after her release from criminal custody.  The First Circuit did not require complete immediacy and stated that ICE’s apprehension must occur within a reasonable period of time after release from criminal custody.  The Court noted the arbitrary nature of mandatory detention and why it offends due process when it is undertaken long after a person completes their criminal sentence:

Despite its years long delay in bringing removal proceedings after the petitioner’s release from custody, the government has offered no explanation for either the delay or the eventual decision to prosecute in these individual cases or for that matter, in the other cases where individuals have been detained years after release.  Indeed, when the district court ordered that the petitioners be given bond hearings, the government actually viewed them as neither dangerous nor likely to flee.  Castañeda was even released on her own recognizance (i.e., without a monetary bond) and before her bond hearing even took place.

Mandatory detention of individuals such as the petitioners appears arbitrary on its face.  We are left to wonder whether the petitioner’s sudden arrest and detention is not to “facilitate deportation, or to protect against risk of flight or dangerousness, but to incarcerate for other reasons,” which would offend due process.

The decision in Castañeda creates a circuit split between the 1st Circuit and the 3rd and 4th Circuits.  When federal law is different in different parts of the country, there is a strong incentive for the Supreme Court to step in.  However, the Supreme Court can only step in if the government chooses to appeal.  We will be watching to see what the Department of Justice does.

In each of these circuit court cases, Benach Ragland has submitted amicus (“friend of the court” ) briefs on behalf of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and will continue to do so as long as the issue is litigated.

ICE Called Him a Terrorist. We Said He’s Not. We Won.

9 Sep

Ragland and Hamid

Our Client of the Month for September 2014 is Abdul Hamid. On July 31, 2014, Mr. Hamid walked out of the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia and tasted freedom for the first time in more than 15 months. Stewart, an immigration detention center brought to you by the friendly folks at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), is straight out of George Orwell. Along with the high fences and rolls of concertina wire are guards in crisp blue uniforms and inspirational posters on the walls lauding the CCA’s role in “serving America’s detention needs” and “leading the way in quality correctional care.” Not making this up. But call it “detention” or “custody” or “quality correctional care” all you want. The grim reality is that this place is a prison, situated in a truly godforsaken corner of Georgia more than a 3-hour drive from Atlanta, just far enough to make it very tough for lawyers or family members to visit on a regular basis. Stewart issues color-coded jumpsuits to its residents – red being reserved for the most dangerous inmates, violent offenders, and gang members. Mr. Hamid, a soft-spoken 61-year-old Pakistani gentleman who has lived with his family in the United States for the past 14 years, was made to wear red.Stewart

Mr. Hamid has never been arrested, charged, or convicted of any crime – in the U.S. or elsewhere. He fled Pakistan in 2000 to escape extortion and death threats from a group of thugs associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami political party. When he appeared before an Immigration Judge (IJ) in Atlanta in April 2013, Mr. Hamid applied for permanent residence – a green card – based on an approved visa petition filed by his adult U.S. citizen son. But then his case took an unusual turn. The lawyer representing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) argued that Mr. Hamid’s actions in Pakistan in 1998-99, when he was assailed by representatives of Jamaat-e-Islami and forced on threat of death to pay a “jaga tax,” amounted to material support for terrorism – rendering him ineligible for a green card, deportable from the U.S. with no relief, and subject to mandatory detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to DHS, certain “evidence” (obtained primarily through internet searches) demonstrated a link between Jamaat-e-Islami – a fundamentalist political party in Pakistan – and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen – a militant group fighting to establish an independent Islamic state in Kashmir, India. The IJ agreed, ordered Mr. Hamid deported, and ICE agents immediately took him into custody and transported him from the court to his new digs at the Stewart Detention Center. Mr. Hamid and his family were stunned and distraught, unsure what had happened or how to correct such a grievous error.

Within days, Mr. Hamid’s son, Nadeem Sheikh, drove from Atlanta to Washington, DC to consult with Thomas Ragland about how to overcome the IJ’s decision and secure his father’s release. Ragland took the case and immediately began preparing an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The appeal contended that the IJ had committed a number of errors, including finding that the evidence presented by DHS established a “subgroup” relationship between Jamaat-e-Islami (the political party) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (the terrorist group). We argued that DHS and the IJ had failed to distinguish between the various different organizations that exist under the Jamaat-e-Islami banner – in Pakistan, in India, in Bangladesh, and in Sri Lanka – or to recognize that these disparate groups operate independently of one another. We argued further that even if the evidence did establish a subgroup relationship, Mr. Hamid fell within the “knowledge” exception to the material support bar – because he did not know, and should not reasonably have known, that money he paid under duress to the Jamaat-e-Islami thugs in Lahore, Pakistan might be used to support violent activities by an entirely different group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, in Kashmir, India. A few days before Halloween 2013, and more than six months after Mr. Hamid began his tenure at Stewart, the BIA agreed and remanded the case to the Atlanta Immigration Court for further proceedings.

In the months that followed, Ragland traveled to Atlanta for half a dozen more hearings in Mr. Hamid’s case. The proceedings were repeatedly delayed by confusion over which IJ should be assigned, by the disqualification of two successive court-appointed Urdu interpreters, by a federal government shutdown, and by a system-wide crash of the Immigration Court’s computer system. Meanwhile, Mr. Hamid stoically endured his imprisonment and the indignity of being transported from Lumpkin to Atlanta in chains and leg irons, being handcuffed throughout his court hearings, and being repeatedly vilified by DHS counsel as an untruthful witness and a supporter of terrorism. Mr. Hamid’s entire family – his wife, his sons and daughters and their families, his grandchildren – attended each and every hearing to demonstrate their tireless support and unwavering belief in his innocence of the government’s charges.

In addition to extensive background research, numerous written briefs, and hours of in-court testimony, we deployed a secret weapon that proved crucial to our defense of Mr. Hamid. Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Husain Haqqani, is husain_haqqaniamong the world’s foremost authorities on the politics, history, and economy of Pakistan. He has advised four presidents, held various high-level posts over a long and distinguished diplomatic career, and recently authored a best-selling book entitled Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding. More importantly, he is a long-time client of Benach Ragland. Ambassador Haqqani volunteered to serve as an expert witness in Mr. Hamid’s case, free of charge, authored a lengthy written opinion and flew to Atlanta to testify in Immigration Court. In off-the-record comments after the hearing, the IJ remarked that he was “very impressed” by our expert, and the DHS attorney griped that we had brought in a “million dollar witness.” Faced with great injustice and overwhelming odds, good lawyers must do what it takes to win the day.

Ultimately, the IJ was persuaded by our arguments and evidence, rejected the government’s contentions, and ruled in Mr. Hamid’s favor. Reversing his prior ruling, he found that the evidence failed to demonstrate a subgroup relationship between Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. After 15 months in prison, thousands of dollars in legal fees, and the traumatizing prospect of being deported to a country he had fled in fear for his life, Mr. Hamid was granted permanent residence and allowed to return home to his family. Justice delayed, but not denied. Our heartfelt congratulations to a very deserving client.

Victory! BIA finds Domestic Violence Victims May Qualify for Asylum

27 Aug

U.S. Agents Take Undocumented Immigrants Into Custody Near Tex-Mex Border

In a major victory for immigrants, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled yesterday that women who are unable to leave domestic violence caused by their husbands may qualify as a particular social group for asylum purposes.  This decision brings to an end a lengthy period of uncertainty regarding the viability of claims to asylum by women fleeing domestic violence.  The Board’s decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I.&N. Dec. 388 (BIA 2014), establishing clear and controlling law to the nation’s immigration judge that victims of domestic violence can qualify for asylum.  While the law has been moving in this direction for quite some time, there was still a lack of Board precedent obligating immigration judges nationwide to follow it.  While progressive judges cobbled together legal authority from circuit court cases and unpublished decisions, recalcitrant judges used the lack of directing precedent to deny domestic violence claims.  The Board’s decisions removes any uncertainty that victims of domestic violence can obtain asylum in the U.S. due to the domestic violence they suffered in their home country.  The decision could not be more timely as the influx of women and children on the Southern border being detained in Artesia, New Mexico has shone a spotlight on the ability of victims of domestic violence to seek protection under U.S. asylum law.  The decision gives these applicants a potent new weapon and undermines the administration’s ability to remove them with barely a semblance of due process.

The decision is the result of nearly two decades of litigation on the topic of victims’ of domestic violence eligibility for asylum.  This issue has been pushed for all that time by Karen Musalo of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California at Hastings, who conceived the legal basis for the asylum claim and saw through a terrible BIA precedent called Matter of R-A-, which, in the BIA’s first analysis, denied asylum eligibility to victims of domestic violence.  R-A- eventually got settled with Rodi Alvarado being granted asylum but without a precedent decision.  That precedent decision came down yesterday.

In yesterday’s decision, the BIA squarely held that ” ‘married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship’ can constitute a cognizable particular social group that forms the basis of a claim for asylum or withholding of removal.”  The Board considered a case where a married woman suffered atrocious abuse at the hands of her husband, who tried to leave the relationship, and who was rebuffed by the police when she sought help.  The BIA considered the development of case law on particular social groups, the facts of the case, and the social context in which domestic violence occurs and determined that the social group of “married Guatemalan women who are unable to leave their relationship” can support a claim to asylum.

Of course, the individual facts and social context of the case are extremely important.  However, the decision gives strong support to the thousands of women fleeing domestic violence by coming to the U.S. and provides hope that there is an alternative to the violence and degradation they experienced in their home countries.

GUEST BLOG: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Maryland Closes Gap with Federal Law to Expand Courts’ Jurisdiction. By Michelle Mendez

25 Aug

This blog post was written by FOBR Michelle Mendez, Senior Managing Attorney at Immigrant Legal Service of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.MM

 

On April 8, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law Chapter 96, which, through a small, technical fix that closes a gap between state and federal law, expands the jurisdiction of an equity court to include custody or guardianship of an immigrant child pursuant to a motion for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) factual findings. 2014Md. Laws, Chap. 96. The law expands the jurisdiction of the court by defining a child for the purposes of SIJS factual finding determinations in guardianship or custody proceedings as an unmarried individual who is not yet 21 years of age thus aligning the definition of child with the federal definition. The idea for this change in law arose from the experience of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington Immigration Legal Services staff as they continued to encounter youth with harrowing life situations that rendered them SIJS eligible but who were already 18 years old. This law goes into effect October 1, 2014, but some judges have already begun accepting cases of those who have already reached the age of 18.

 

md_fi

What is SIJS?

There are few groups more vulnerable than immigrant children who are SIJS-eligible. As we have seen with the recent surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America, many have arrived in the United States fleeing APphoto_Immigration Obamaa combination of violence, threats, natural disasters, human trafficking, child labor, and abuse, neglect, and abandonment from their families. Though SIJS-eligible, without competent counsel to guide them through the complexity of this family law and immigration law hybrid relief, these children face the constant threat of deportation and without legal status, access to student loans and work authorization, they face significant barriers to becoming stable, productive members of society. That is why it is imperative that we as attorneys know and understand SIJS.

A Special Immigrant Juvenile is an immigrant child who has been declared dependent on a juvenile court because a state court judge has determined that (1) his or her reunification with one or both parents is not viable due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment and (2) it is not in the best interest of the child to be returned to his or her home country. A juvenile court is defined as “a court located in the United States having jurisdiction under State law to make judicial determinations about the custody and care of juveniles,” and can include a juvenile court, family court, probate court, county court at law, or child welfare court. SIJS is the only area of immigration law that incorporates the best interest of the child principle to take into account the special needs of abused, abandoned, or neglected immigrant children. When introducing SIJS back in 1990, Congress designated this task to state juvenile court judges because federal immigration authorities are not equipped to determine the best interests of children. State juvenile judges do not make immigration determinations and instead only determine if the facts required for SIJS are present in a case; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has sole authority to grant SIJS status via the approval of Form I-360 Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, subject to extensive background and biometrics checks.

SIJS factual findings are issued in state courts in accordance with foster care, guardianship, delinquency, adoption, or sole custody proceedings, meaning that the request for SIJS factual findings must accompany one of these types of filings. Submitting only a motion for factual findings for SIJS will not vest the state court with jurisdiction. Dependency on a juvenile court does not require state intervention; a judge may commit a minor to the care of a private individual through a guardianship or sole custody determination, which was clarified by William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. A finding for SIJS purposes does not require formal termination of parental rights or a determination that reunification will never be possible, but Special Immigrant Juveniles are ineligible from ever sponsoring their parents for immigration status so the “chain migration” arguments do not apply to this relief.

What does Chapter 96 change?

Maryland law already permitted courts to issue SIJS factual findings. However, prior to Chapter 96, juvenile courts in Maryland could only exercise jurisdiction to consider individuals for SIJS up to age 18, which is the age of majority for guardianship and custody matters, even though federal immigration law permits anyone to apply for SIJS who is under age 21. This three-year gap significantly abrogated the federal law and caused undue hardship on the most vulnerable immigrant children. Chapter 96 closes this gap for this discrete class of Marylanders to carry out the will of the federal law on SIJS.

How Does Chapter 96 Benefit Maryland?

By expanding Maryland courts’ jurisdiction when determining whether immigrant youth qualify for SIJS, Maryland will have more stable families and community members. Through guardianship and sole custody proceedings, private individuals who want to take on the full legal and financial responsibilities of youth who have been abused, neglected, and abandoned can do so, providing an adult role model and easing reliance on state resources. At the tender age of 18, adult supervisiMD mapon makes a critical difference – studies show that involvement of surrogate parents is a key factor in educational achievement and avoiding risks such as alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and violence. SIJS youth can gain protection against being forced to return to unstable, life-threatening environments as well as obtain legal status, making it easier to qualify for student loans and attend school, learn English, and work legally. These youth become productive members of society, benefiting Maryland’s economy and increasing tax revenue and consumption. Moreover, SIJS proceedings are fiscally neutral to the state: the Department of Legislative Services determined the changes made by Chapter 96 fit within existing judicial procedures and carry no additional fiscal effect.

With children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala seeking safety in United States and Maryland having received 2,205 of these children from January 1 to July 7, 2014, Maryland will be able to serve the families of these children better than any other state thanks to Chapter 96. Chapter 96 will allow SIJS-eligible children to pursue this relief consistent with the intent of the Congressional framework, and not needlessly close the courthouse door on them on their 18th birthdays. This is crucial because the number of non-profit and private attorneys with SIJS competency do not meet the demand for representation for SIJS-eligible children so the wait lists are long and the cases slow-moving. Thanks to Chapter 96, the abused, abandoned, or neglected undocumented immigrant children who come to Maryland will have better chances and a longer opportunity of becoming documented, fully-contributing members of our society.

To learn more about SIJS, consider taking a case pro bono case from one of the following reputable non-profits with in-house SIJS expertise and a pro bono program offering mentorship and sample materials:

 

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington

Immigration Legal Services

Pro Bono Coordinator Jim Feroli, James.Feroli@catholiccharitiesdc.org

 

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)

Washington, DC Office

Christie Turner, cturner@supportkind.org

Baltimore Office

Liz Shields, lshields@supportkind.org

 

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore

Esperanza Center

Managing Attorney Adonia Simpson, asimpson@catholiccharities-md.org

 

Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition

Legal Director Heidi Altman, haltman@caircoalition.org

*Detained cases only

 

To learn more about how this law came to fruition, visit: https://cliniclegal.org/resources/articles-clinic/maryland-law-expands-eligibility-special-immigrant-juvenile-status

California Drops a Day and Improves the Lives of Immigrants

22 Jul

jerrybrown

In a move that will help thousands of immigrants, California governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1310 into law today.  This law imposes a maximum sentence of 364 days in prison for those convicted of misdemeanors in California.  The law is set to take effect on January 1, 2015.  Under current California law, a person convicted of a misdemeanor may be sentenced up to one year, or 365 days, in prison.  The change of subtracting one day from the maximum sentence can help many people convicted of minor crimes avoid certain detention and removal from the U.S.

U.S. immigration law attaches consequences to many convictions based upon what the potential sentence is or what the sentence imposed is.  Immigration law treats a suspended sentence as the equivalent of a served sentence.  So, an individual convicted of petty larceny who gets a year in prison with a full year suspended is considered to be an aggravated felon because he has been convicted of a theft offense with a sentence of a year.   Even though the sentencing judge s1.reutersmedia.netdid not see fit to incarcerate, the Department of Homeland Security will jail and likely removal such an individual.  The new law goes a long way to preventing this inequitable result.  For example:

  • A noncitizen is deportable for a single conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude committed within five years of admission, if the offense has a potential sentence of one year or more. INA § 237(a)(2)(A), 8 USC § 1227(a)(2)(A).   As of the effective date, a single California misdemeanor conviction will not cause deportability under this ground, because it will carry a maximum possible sentence of 364 days.
  • Conviction of certain offenses becomes an aggravated felony only if a sentence of a year or more is imposed. For example, crimes defined as: crime of violence, theft offense, obstruction of justice, forgery, perjury, receipt of stolen property are only aggravated felonies if the sentence imposed is a year or more.  And, yes, misdemeanors can be aggravated felonies.  However, with the change in California law, misdemeanor versions of these categories of offenses can not be aggravated felonies.  Designation of an offense as an aggravated felony is often very prejudicial to a non-citizen as not only does it establish removability, it causes mandatory detention and serves as exclusion to nearly all forms of relief from removal.

There are myriad other ways that this simple change in the law will aid immigrants and their families.  As Congress remains stuck, inventive advocates are pursuing a variety of creative remedies in a variety of fora to slow down the deportation machine and improve lives for thousands of immigrants, their communities and their families.

 

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 by Catholic University Law Students: “From Tragedy to Triumph, One Man’s Second Chance”

1 May

Ana and Brittni

By Ana Sami and Brittni Downs, CUA Immigration Litigation Clinic Students

Our work with Joe* started with a bang. Our Immigration Litigation Clinic had just begun when we were assigned his case and told that he had a master calendar hearing scheduled within a few days. With the help of our supervising professors, Dree Collopy and Michelle Mendez, we rushed to prepare for our first court appearance. Although we were nervous for our first court appearance, which we did not anticipate would happen so soon after our first meeting with Joe, our nerves were overshadowed by the urgency of his case. Joe found his way to Catholic Charities after an Immigration Judge had given him one final chance to find legal counsel. Since immigration removal proceedings are civil as opposed to criminal, Joe did not have access to government appointment counsel, and therefore, needed to find a pro bono attorney on his own. It was meant to be; Joe’s need was met with our desire to represent an indigent individual before the U.S. Immigration Courts. From September through April, we developed and prepared Joe’s case.

The Master Calendar Hearing

Our first court appearance went smoothly given the short time we had to prepare. While it was a quick master calendar hearing, it gave us an opportunity to get to know our judge, and to become accustomed to interacting with DHS counsel. As we were the first team in our clinic to appear in court, we were excited to recount to our classmates our experiences and tell them what we had learned. We enthusiastically provide our classmates tips, just as we benefited from their courtroom tips as their own cases progressed. While we did not know much about Joe at the time of the master calendar hearing, it was clear that he needed us. After the whirlwind of the first hearing settled, we buckled down and began meeting with Joe more. We learned about him in small increments. Joe’s story began as a young car mechanic in Sierra Leone. He explained to us that he, his wife, and three young children escaped the war-torn country of Sierra Leone in the late 90’s when Joe’s aunt assisted him in applying to come to the United States. Getting Joe’s paperwork together, however, was fraught with dangers. Because the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone had been evacuated as a result of the dangerous conditions, Joe would have to travel through a war zone to neighboring Guinea and stay in a U.N. refugee camp for a full year in order to process his diversity visa paperwork. Throughout this time, Joe lost many family members at the hands of the “rebels” who killed indiscriminately.

Learning about Joe’s Tragic Past

After narrowly escaping death, Joe was finally able to bring his family to the United States. Although Joe was now in a safe country where his life was significantly better and where he went on to have three more children, he would often think about the brutality he witnessed in Sierra Leone, which to this day, weighs heavily on his mind. As time went on, Joe had a couple of run-ins with the law, but paid his fines and learned his lesson. Although Joe was a permanent resident, one of his run-ins with the law resulted in a misdemeanor conviction and was the type that could prompt the Department of Homeland Security to try to deport him. That day came ten long years after his conviction and after his fines were paid, despite the fact that he had kept a clean criminal record since then. Being placed in removal proceedings before the Immigration Court so long after his conviction took Joe by surprise and it could not have come at a worse time, as Joe was struggling to find employment.

Developing the Legal Strategy

Upon reviewing the facts and the law, along with our professors, we decided that Joe qualified for Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Cancellation of Removal. We began learning the law of LPR Cancellation, and found out that the issues on Joe’s record did not disqualify him from this type of relief. However, while Joe qualified statutorily, discretion would weigh heavily to determine whether he would be granted LPR Cancellation. In our quest to construct a complete picture of Joe’s life and to prepare a court filing that would meet our burden of proof, we quickly learned that gathering information and preparing his evidence would require herculean efforts because Joe did not possess many of the documents we needed. In addition, his living situation was unstable, and therefore he was unable to maintain organized records.

Joe’s Wife Succumbs to Breast Cancer

While gathering documentation from such a vulnerable client was tough, nothing could have prepared us for what we heard on the line one cold January morning, a few days after school was back in session following our holiday break. Joe’s voice quivered over the phone as he said, “My wife just passed away.” Joe’s wife tragically passed away in the hospital after a long bout with breast cancer. We were in shock, especially because we had just communicated with Joe’s wife a few weeks ago as she happily recounted that she had just become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and then expressed her concern about Joe being in removal proceedings. Our worry for Joe grew as a flood of traumatic memories surrounding death and loss overwhelmed him. While we gave Joe space to grieve, we knew now, more than ever, that our mission to keep him here for the benefit of his U.S. citizen children was vital.

Preparing for the Individual Hearing

The race to collect documentation continued as our filing date in April was fast approaching. But, throughout the daily tasks of gathering information, we also had many memorable moments during the course of our representation of Joe. Perhaps the most solemn memory of our many long hours of meetings with him included the time when we read him the final draft of his affidavit, which we had worked tirelessly on to make sure it was an accurate representation of his life and voice. He sat and silently listened to his own story recounted to him, his head slightly bent. As we finished, reading the last sentence to him aloud, a stream of tears flowed silently from his somber eyes. Joe’s story was heartbreaking and we had to be the best and strongest possible advocates for him.

Joe’s application slowly came together with the help of his friends from church and his family. We sought their assistance in many ways, from being witnesses to arranging rides so that Joe could meet with us at Catholic Charities. Meeting with him was tough as Joe had found a job that required him to work throughout the night, meaning that he needed to rest during normal business hours. Joe would often come to our meetings restless, no doubt because of the fatigue, but also because he was anxious about his fast approaching case. The lack of sleep and the loss of his wife were too much for Joe to handle on some days. Joe’s strong faith in God and his love for his children were the anchors that he clung to during his darkest moments. And yet throughout the tumult of his days, Joe would periodically call us simply to say thank you, and to say that he would pray for us. Little did he know these small glimmers of hope he held in his heart would carry us to the end.

Our professors arranged a time in which we would be able to practice in a moot with a guest Judge and DHS attorney. Our classmates played the roles of our client and witness. The moot was the best practice we received that was as close to a real hearing as possible. We had to learn to think on our feet, to object to DHS counsel’s questioning when necessary, and, in general, pay close attention to every minute detail from our client’s demeanor, to the Judge’s reactions and commentary. While we had many practice moots with our professors, we felt especially prepared and confident after our formal moot. After all of our preparation, we knew we had a firm grasp on all the possible scenarios that could arise on our hearing date. This preparation in itself gave us confidence and helped to steady our nerves.

The Judge Grants Joe LPR Cancellation of Removal Relief from Removal

Our victory finally came on April 24, 2014 when the Immigration Judge in Arlington Immigration Court granted Joe LPR Cancellation of Removal. All those hours of preparation had come down to that one moment, and it was worth every last bit of effort we had exerted in those final days. We felt prepared to address both DHS counsel and the Judge, and had practiced enough with Joe so that we knew he would be comfortable on the stand. It felt invigorating to have a dialogue with the Judge, and to properly address DHS’s concerns within the direct examination of our client. In the end, the Judge thanked us for our efforts in taking the case pro-bono, thanked our professors for their guidance, and concluded that Joe was deserving of relief.

Brittni Ana and client

We had worked with Joe tirelessly throughout what seemed to be an emotional roller coaster. When we felt the pressure mounting, our professors’ steadfast presence around us held us upright. With the tremendous support of our classmates, we knew we would not waver. Throughout it all, the thought of Joe’s younger U.S. citizen children, ages 9, 11, and 12, who we have never met, but whose photos we carried with us, fueled our resolve to keep their father here so that they would not suffer another tragic loss. While there is more we are invested in doing to help Joe, like finding a good counseling center so that he may receive the emotional help he needs, we took a few moments to relish in our success. Outside the courtroom, smiles of relief came across all our faces. We took pictures outside of the court as mementos of our triumph, and we were thankful and extremely pleased with the outcome.

We can think of no person more deserving of a second chance than Joe. While we facilitated Joe’s journey in seeking relief from removal, we became students of his example of courage, faith, and tenacity. Joe’s devout belief in a better tomorrow, despite tremendous obstacles, will forever remain with us as a source of eternal strength.

 

* An alias has been used.

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).

If Nigella Lawson was Found to be Inadmissible, that Finding is Suspect and, Even if she is, she has a Terrific Case for a Waiver!

3 Apr

Nigella

From across the pond comes word now that Nigella Lawson, she of the cookbook and lifestyle empire, has been denied admission to the United States, due to reports of her testimony regarding her use of cocaine and marijuana.  Now, Nigella Lawson has never been convicted of illegal drug possession or distribution.  So what gives?  Well, what appears to have happened is that Ms. Lawson was determined to be inadmissible to the United States because she may have “admitt[ed] to having committed  . . . a violation of any law or regulation of a state, the United States, or a foreign country related to a controlled substance.”  This ground of inadmissibility does not require a conviction of a drug offense, just an admission.  But is Ms. Lawson’s apparent admission in a United Kingdom court sufficient for her to be found inadmissible?  It seems highly doubtful.

Here’s what we know.  Nigella Lawson is a highly successful businesswoman.  She has authored a number of cookbooks and lifestyle books.  She has had her own television shows and has appeared in a number of tv shows about cooking and entertaining.   Her private life burst out into the open in July 2013, when she was photographed being grasped around the neck by her husband, Charles Saatchi.  Shortly thereafter, Ms. Lawson was a witness in the fraud trial of two of her assistants, who had been accused of wrongly using Saatchi’s credit cards.  Their defense was that their use of the credit cards was allowed by Lawson in exchange for them not revealing her drug use.  Lawson testified in court and stated that she had used cocaine and marijuana.  Fast forward to last weekend.  At London’s Heathrow airport, Lawson was apparently denied boarding a flight to Los Angeles.  Apparently, Ms. Lawson has been found to be inadmissible due to her admission of a violation of a law relating to a controlled substance.

U.S. law allows the Department of Homeland Security to find a person inadmissible if she has admitted to a violation of a law involving a controlled substance.  It would seem simple enough.  However, the process required to make that finding is tightly controlled by longstanding caselaw.  Specifically, in the 1957 decision in Matter of K-, the Board of Immigration Appeals held that, in order to find someone inadmissible for admission of a controlled substance, these steps must be followed: (1) the individual must be provided with a definition of the offense with all essential elements; and (2) the individual must be provided with an explanation of the offense in laymen’s terms.  Since the statute does not makes someone inadmissible for use of an illegal drug, but the violation of a law related to a controlled substance, DHS must identify the statute violated and the person must be provided with an explanation of the elements of the crime and must admit to all those elements.  This process is usually undertaken at a port-of-entry between a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer and an applicant for admission.  A person can not be found to be inadmissible if these requirements are not satisfied.

This is why the explanation for Nigella Lawson’s inadmissibility in unconvincing.  Perhaps there were other reasons why she could not board that plane.  But, if she were indeed deemed to be inadmissible based upon her admissions of cocaine and marijuana use in UK court, it would seem that these procedural requirements were not honored as it does not appear that any sort of interview between DHS and Lawson ever occurred.  In addition, it seems unlikely that Ms. Lawson, in her testimony ever specificallty admitted to violating a specific law.  In other words, Lawson probably did not testify as follows: “Yes, I knowingly and willfully possessed a substance that I knew to be cocaine.”  And it is unlikely that someone then said, “Aha!  So you admit violating the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971?”  To which, she probably did not reply, “Yes.”  It is not enough for inadmissibility for a person simply to say “I used cocaine.”  They must admit violating a law and that law must be identified.  Where?  When?  Was it really cocaine?  All these questions need to be answered.  And Lawson has an absolute right under U.S. law to say that she is “not guilty.”  Therefore, it seems that, if she was denied boarding that plane on these grounds, she was wrongly found to be inadmissible.

If she is, in fact, inadmissible, Lawson would be an excellent candidate for a waiver of inadmissibility.  The law provides a generous waiver of inadmissibility for people seeking to enter the U.S. temporarily.  Known as a 212(d)(3) waiver, the waiver allows inadmissible people to enter the U.S. despite their inadmissibility.  In considering an application for a waiver, the DHS must weigh the following factors: (1) the risk of harm to society if the applicant is admitted; (2) the seriousness of the ground of inadmissibility and (3) the reasons the applicant is seeking admission.  In assessing a potential Lawson application for a waiver, it would seems that she has a very strong case.  First, it can not be seriously argued that Ms. Lawson is any threat to U.S. society if allowed into the U.S.  Second, it is hard to say that this is a very serious ground of inadmissibility.  It is not a conviction, it does not relate to violence, the sale of drugs, or weapons.  It deals with the recreational use of illegal drugs in the past, an act that many millions of Americans have engaged in.  As far as grounds of inadmissibility go, this would seem to be on the lower end of the serious scale.  Finally, certainly Ms. Nigella 2Lawson has very good reasons to enter the U.S.  An accomplished businesswoman overseeing an empire of lifestyle media, her commercial ties to the U.S. are substantial.  U.S. businesses would lose out if they are unable to continue to collaborate with Ms. Lawson.  Applications for 212(d)(3) waivers are made to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security and both must agree to grant the waiver.  The legislative history and the caselaw show that the the waiver is supposed to be generously given.

In the end, Ms. Lawson should be able to get on with her life and her travel to the U.S.  For now, no doubt she is reeling from this latest indignity.  If you are reading, Nigella, there is hope.  We can help!