Category Archives: Humanitarian Relief

California Lawmakers Take Practical Approach to Treatment of Undocumented Immigrants

sanjoseAn estimated two-million plus undocumented immigrants live, work, study, and otherwise make their home in California.

So perhaps it’s fitting that the California legislature recently passed a number of bills (subsequently signed by Governor Jerry Brown) that seem designed to make sure that, as long as they’re here, the undocumented are not treated in ways that are either grossly unfair or lead to unfortunate or dangerous unintended consequences.

Here’s a brief summary of the new laws (click the links for details):

  • AB 4, which forbids law enforcement officials from detaining noncitizens beyond their release date on the basis of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold, unless the person has actually been convicted of one of various crimes or meets certain specified conditions. (This seems designed to put a stop to the expense and absurdity of local law enforcement agencies serving as detention units for the federal government by holding undocumented immigrants even if the criminal charges against them were dismissed or were minor in nature.)
  • AB 35, which says that no one can charge fees for serving people applying for the immigration program known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (or DACA) unless they are either immigration consultants, attorneys, notaries public, or organizations that have received accreditation from the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.); and even those who have received such accreditation cannot engage in price gouging.
  • AB 60, which makes undocumented California residents eligible for a drivers’ license upon providing satisfactory proof of identity and state residency. The license will contain a notation stating that it “does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits,” and will contain the initials “DP” (Drivers Privilege) instead of “DL” (Drivers’ License).
  • AB 524, which specifies that threatening to report the immigration status or suspected immigration status of an person or family may be considered an inducement of fear sufficient to constitute extortion, and thus punishable under the California Penal Code.
  • AB 1024, which allows undocumented persons to be admitted to the California State Bar Association as attorneys, and therefore to practice law in this state.
  • AB 1159, which attempts to crack down on the practice of immigration law without a license, by imposing financial penalties on people who pose as attorneys, in particular by calling themselves “notarios” or other terms which have a more elevated meaning in other countries. The law specifies that the proceeds shall be used to help people damaged by such con artists, as well as to provide free legal advice concerning federal immigration reform.
  • SB 141, which requires community colleges and universities within the California state system to charge in-state, resident tuition to U.S. citizens who live in a foreign country because their parent or guardian was deported or voluntarily departed from the U. S., so long as they will be entering in their first year as matriculated students, can demonstrate financial need, lived in California immediately before moving abroad, attended a secondary school in California for at least three years, and intend to establish residency in California.
  • SB 150, which authorizes community college districts to charge only in-state, resident tuition to certain special part-time students, namely high schoolers who would benefit from advanced scholastic or vocational work, if they are non-citizens in financial need, or students from other states who had to move due to Hurricane Katrina.
  • SB 666, which creates criminal and civil penalties for attorneys and businesses that retaliate against employees and others on the basis of citizenship and immigration status or who report or threaten to report the suspected immigration status of a witness or party to a lawsuit because the person exercises a right related to employment.

In related news, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance prohibiting law enforcement officials from holding for deportation noncitizens who have not been convicted of felonies or deemed public safety risks. (It’s called the “Due Process Ordinance for All on Civil Immigration Detainers.”) Mayor Lee is expected to sign it.

With Broken Promises Like These, Why Would Anyone Help the U.S. in a Conflict Zone?

Breaking pointAsk any immigration lawyer: What the law says and what actually happens in real life can be miles apart, due in large part to competing interpretations — or simply bureaucratic foot dragging — by  various U.S. government agencies.

This is nowhere better exemplified than in the case of the Afghan and Iraqi translators and other workers who helped the U.S. government or military during recent conflicts in their countries. They put their lives at risk, knowing that after the U.S. soldiers went home, they’d have to face reprisals from within their own community.

In what was meant to be a response to their plight, the U.S. Congress created visas within the “Special Immigrant” category. (By way of context, years ago, a similar visa was created for citizens of Panama who put themselves at risk on behalf of the U.S.) See “EB-4 Visa for Special Immigrants: Who Qualifies?” for a complete list of who is covered by this section of U.S. immigration law.

The U.S. government has been very careful to make sure this visa did not create an open door for anyone who might want to come to the United States. It added requirements that both the Iraqi and the Afghan workers “experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of” their employment.  In order to submit a complete application, they must come up with letters of recommendation and assessments of the risk level that they face, from U.S. supervisors and other higher-ups. In other words, they’re far from seeking U.S. entry based on their word alone!

So why is it that only a miniscule number of visas been handed out in this category, which is due to sunset — that is, drop out of the law books, leaving potential applicants high and dry — in mere weeks? The stories are wrenching, as can be seen in such articles as “America’s Afghan And Iraqi Interpreters Risk Lives But Wait Years In Danger For Visas” and “U.S. Soldier Fights For Afghan Interpreter Who Saved His Life.”

The answer can partly be found in another portion of the requirement for these applicants: that they pass a U.S. security check. Given that the countries from which they hail are among those that the U.S. suspects of supporting or sponsoring terrorism, Mother Teresa herself might have trouble passing the security check. And as described in the media coverage above, once your enemies find out you’re trying to head for the U.S., a well-placed call denouncing you may be all that’s needed to seal your fate.

An even more bizarre reason can be found in this 2011 State Department compliance report regarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. It states that, “The embassy opposes the brain drain from Afghanistan of rare, highly qualified individuals. It also questions the realities of the threat environment in individual cases and highlights the extensive resources needed to implement the program.”

Excuse me? Congress saw fit to pass a law to specifically protect people whose lives are at risk, and the embassy in Kabul is worrying about a “brain drain?” I cry foul. Now if Congress would only listen, and extend the sunset date on these laws.

What’s the Fuss Over Asylum Applicants at the U.S. Border?

nasa borderHave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Associated Press successfully debunked Fox News’s recent claims that a “loophole” is allowing hundreds of undeserving immigrants to cross the Mexico/U.S. border by asserting a “credible fear” of persecution by drug cartels?

I hope so. Still, the media coverage could use a little more depth regarding the legal aspects of this (non) issue.

First, the background: Starting in August 2012, various Fox News programs began asserting the existence of a supposedly “new” loophole, by which Mexican would-be immigrants could state certain “magic words” and be admitted to the U.S., after which they might never show up for their court dates. For a rundown on the Fox coverage, see the Media Matters page.

After some media hoopla, the DHS came out with figures showing that the number of credible fear applicants had reached 14,610 by the end of June 2013, more than double what it was last year. Putting that in context, however, DHS officials noted that it represents only a small fraction of the millions of legal entrants from Mexico each year, and that U.S. officials deny the vast majority of such credible fear claims. The DHS also noted that there’s nothing new about this law — it’s been on the books for years.

Indeed, the law simply represents a balancing out of U.S. asylum law, which allows people within the U.S. who are fleeing persecution to apply for asylum — whether they are here legally or not — but needed some mechanism for people who arrive at a U.S. border, airport, or other point of entry to request the same protection. Do the immigration critics really want to reward people who have already crossed the border illegally or overstayed a visa, by allowing them to apply for asylum, but not grant this possibility to people who’ve just arrived? Apparently so, unless — as seems likely — they haven’t thought this issue through.

It’s not as though requesting asylum at a U.S. border or entry point is easy. Scholars and immigration advocates have long criticized this part of the law, because the process includes huge hurdles that are not encountered by people who have already entered the the U.S., and apparently results in many people being unfairly returned to home countries where they will face persecution.

It’s easy to believe the DHS’s assertions that it denies most of these entry requests. As described in Nolo’s article, “What Happens at a Credible Fear Interview,” the applicant is likely to be held in detention after asserting a credible fear of return; is given no access to documents or resources with which to prepare a convincing application; and has little chance of finding an attorney.

The applicant must nevertheless convince a U.S. government interviewer that he or she has a a “significant possibility” of being able to later prove to the satisfaction of an immigration judge – during the next procedural stage of the process, if it ever gets that far — that he or she would be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion if returned to his or her home country. Applicants who fail in this task will be returned home right away; no appeal, no meeting with an immigration judge.

And what about the possibility — which no one seems to be discussing — that more Mexican citizens really do fear persecution due to activities of the drug cartels? The number of Mexicans granted asylum in the U.S. has risen, according to U.S. government statistics. And attorney Kristina Gasson states, based on recent experience, that “The most commonly granted asylum petitions from Mexico are based on fear of persecution and violence from drug cartels and drug traffickers based on social group or political opinion.” (See “Can I Apply for U.S. Asylum If I’m From Mexico?“) Without knowing the details of individual cases, the Fox News approach seems to be to presume first and ask questions later.

Watch Out for Visa Categories With Expiration Dates

eagleOne of the perennially difficult things about visas to the United States (both temporary and permanent ones) is that many of the categories are not written into the law in stone, but come with expiration dates. If Congress fails to take action to renew the visa category when it sunsets, no more visa category.

That’s bad luck not only for anyone thinking of applying for the visa in question, but typically for anyone who isn’t all the way through the system by the category’s expiration date. Applicants who haven’t either adjusted or changed their status while living in the U.S. or obtained a visa from a U.S. consulate overseas and used it to enter the United States will be stopped in their tracks and refused U.S. status or entry.

In some cases, Congressional renewals seem to happen fairly regularly (if last minute), such as with the R visa for religious workers.  (After reauthorization last fall, the R visa category is now good until September 30, 2015.)

In other cases, however, particularly where the visa was meant to respond to an urgent but not necessarily long-term need, Congress may decide to let the visa category lapse. Such may be the case with the Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqi translators.

This visa (allowing U.S. permanent residence or a green card) has been around only since 2008. It authorized issuance of 5,000 immigrant visas per year through September of 2013 (the government’s fiscal year end) to Iraqis who had served the U.S. government in Iraq.

The idea was to protect Iraqis whose work on behalf of the U.S. makes them potential targets of threats and violence by people in their own country.  According to the International Rescue Committee, “an untold number have been kidnapped or killed.” The trouble is, according to the IRC, the threats have continued after the 2011 departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, and not everyone who qualifies for a visa in this category has succeeded in getting one.

Okay Congress, you’ve got six months to act . . . .

Should the Media Use the Term “Illegal Alien?”

No less a news source than The New York Times has entered into the public debate about how best to describe foreign-born people living in the U.S. without permission. (See “Is ‘Illegal Immigrant’ the Right Description?,” by Margaret Sullivan.)

At last count, close to 300 people had entered comments on this article, representing every opinion from “Illegal alien is short, sweet and concise” and “A criminal is a criminal” to “Bigots and xenophobes happily use the term in their efforts to disparage, dehumanize, and condemn” and “Being inside the US without proper documentation is not an illegal act. Even less, the person that is doing it.”

I’ll put my two cents worth of legal insights on this matter here — and try to steer clear of thoughts on overall U.S. immigration policy.

1) Being in the U.S. without permission, whether due to an illegal entry or having overstayed a visa, is not a crime. It’s a civil violation. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but you have only to look at the comments themselves to see how many people make a quick leap from “illegal” to “criminal.” A friend of mine who taught grade school once told me that some of her students expressed the opinion that border crossers should be shot on sight, because they were criminals. That suggests to me that the word “illegal” is being thrown around too loosely. (For the record, crossing the border without authorization is in fact a federal misdemeanor, under Title 8 Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, but the potential punishment is a fine of between $50 and $250 and/or a maximum of six months in jail — certainly not the death penalty).

2) The starkness of the word “illegal” implies that it’s easy to judge who has a right to be in the United States. It’s not. The complexities of immigration law have given rise to many gray areas. For example, the whole system of applying for asylum as a means of gaining protection from persecution in one’s home country presupposes that the person is already in the United States. But how are you supposed to get to the U.S., particularly if you’re, say, a Guatemalan peasant whose chances of gaining a U.S. entry visa are just about nil? Countless such people have entered the U.S. without permission and applied for asylum, and the U.S. has, where appropriate, granted their requests. Until their applications were accepted for processing, they could only be called “illegal” under the prevailing terminology — and yet, had they been arrested and placed in deportation proceedings, the law would have given them every right to apply for asylum as a defense. I don’t believe that such people are who most of the U.S. public think of when they hear the word “illegal,” but such cases are swept up into this overly broad term.

As another example of the gray area, I spent years of my practice as an immigration lawyer helping prepare applications for family members of U.S. lawful permanent residents who were waiting unlawfully in the U.S. for a visa to become available to them. Annual limits on the number of available family-based green cards mean that if you’re, say, the 22-year old daughter of a green card holder, you’re looking at an eight-year wait before you can legally enter or remain in the United States and join your perfectly legal family there. (The wait is much longer for family members from Mexico.) But because of legal bars to reentry that punish people for unlawful status, leaving the U.S. would have actually been the worst thing many such family members could have done — and the immigration authorities, recognizing this conundrum, actually assured immigration lawyers that they would hold off on enforcement activities against such family members. Yet without another word for them, they too are part of this “illegal alien” population.

Here on the Nolo site, we try to use the word “undocumented” whenever possible. It may not be perfect, but at least it recognizes that the person’s status may not be fixed. An “undocumented” person may, for more reasons than the public realizes, someday become “documented” under U.S. law.

Fifth Circuit Decision Illustrates Limits of Asylum: No Protection When Fleeing Gang Recruiter

Jose and Andres Orellana-Monson, ages 11 and 8 at the time they fled El Salvador, were running from a local, violent gang known as Mara 18. The gang had tried to recruit Jose. When he refused, they threatened to kill him, then forced him, at gunpoint, to help rob a store. Andres feared he would be next.

It’s a sad situation, especially given the boys’ young age at the time — but does it qualify the two for asylum in the United States? Unfortunately not, under current U.S. law — at least, in the Fifth Circuit (which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas).

The two brothers did indeed try to gain asylum, saying that they feared persecution from the Mara 18 gang. U.S. immigration authorities apparently found them believable. But there was one major problem in the case. (No, it’s not that the persecution didn’t come from an official Salvadoran source, but from common criminals — that issue is taken care of by the fact that the group fits into the category of one that is beyond the government’s capacity to control.)

The problem is establishing the critical “nexus” between the persecution and its basis in either the boys’ race, religion, nationality, political option, or particular social group. Lack of such a nexus is the downfall of many an asylum case, and ultimately led the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to deny the Orellana-Monson’s claim (in an opinion issued June 25, 2012).

The lawyers for the brothers did their best to fit the two within a particular social group. Such groups don’t necessarily have to match up to any predefined list — the lawyers described them as Salvadoran males between the ages of 8 and 15 who have been recruited by Mara 18 but have refused to join the gang because of their principal opposition to the gang and what they want; and their family members.

The Fifth Circuit found, however, that this supposed group lacked “particularity.” It explained that such a group “is exceedingly broad and encompasses a diverse cross section of society.” The judge’s quoted another court’s opinion in a similar case stating, “Only shared experience — that of gang recruitment — unites them. The gangs target a wide swath of society, and we have no evidence before us that they target young men with any particular political orientation, interests, lifestyle, or any other identifying factors.” In other words, one might say, the definition of this group struck the court as too random to qualify under this legal standard.

The Fifth Circuit further concluded that the Orellana-Monsons’ group lacks the required “social visibility” to qualify for asylum. It stated, “There is little evidence that people who were recruited to join gangs but refused to do so would be ‘perceived as a group’ by society. There is no indication that the gang themselves would even see such ‘non-recruits’ as a group within Salvadoran society.” This argument seems to suggest — without actually coming out and saying so — that the group needs to have formed before the persecutor’s contact with it. And in fact the court does mention a Seventh Circuit court opinion finding “that a member of a family seeking police protection from Mara 18 was not a member of a particular social group, as a social group cannot be defined by its relationship to its persecutor alone or by the fact that its members face dangers in retaliation for the actions against the persecutor.”

To see the entire court opinion, go to the Fifth Circuit’s website at http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/11/11-60147-CV0.wpd.pdf.

Citizens of Syria in the U.S. Now Eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

Conflict in Syria, as its citizens continue to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party rule, has led the U.S. government to deem the country unsafe for return by nationals currently living in the United States.

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, announced on March 23rd that Syria would be designated for Temporary Protected Status. (See Napolitano’s announcement.) TPS is not a permanent right to remain in the U.S., but offers temporary rights to remain and to work, up to a specified deadline — in this instance, through September 30, 2013.

What this means in practice is that, if you’re a Syrian national currently in the U.S., have been residing here continuously since the designation date (March 29), and are not ineligible due to security, criminal, or other grounds of inadmissibility, you can avail yourself of TPS protection by registering with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You will receive a work permit.

Go to the Temporary Protected Status page of the USCIS website for details.

Hondurans and Nicaraguans With TPS: Re-Register Now!

If you’re a Honduran or Nicaraguan national in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), you have the right to extend that status. The new TPS period runs from January 6, 2012, to July 5, 2013.

(By way of reminder, TPS is a designation that the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security may give to people from foreign countries that are undergoing conditions that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, such as war or natural disaster. It allows a temporary right to remain in the U.S., and to work, but does not lead to any sort of permanent status or a green card.)

If you wish to reregister, however, you’ll need to act very soon. The reregistration period ends on January 5, 2012, which is right around the corner.

The reregistration process involves submitting an Application for Temporary Protected Status on Form I-821 and an Application for Employment Authorization on Form I-765.

You must fill out Form I-765 regardless of whether you actually use it to apply for an EAD (work permit). But if you don’t want the work permit, you don’t need to pay the I-765 fee, which is currently $380.

You do not need to pay the Form I-821 application fee, but must submit the biometric services fee (currently $85), or a fee waiver request, if you are age 14 or older.

For more information, see the “Temporary Protected Status” page of the USCIS website.