Category Archives: Immigration Lawyers

When Lawyers for the Other Side Reveal Your Immigration Status

briefcaseLawyers tend to take very seriously their duty to keep their own client’s confidential information — otherwise known as secrets — to themselves.

But guess what: They get a little fuzzier on the question of whether that duty extends to the clients on the other side of a case, for example in a divorce or other civil case, or in a criminal case.

And in a particularly ugly example of how this can play out, the State of Washington’s Latino/a Bar Association (LBAW) has been investigating cases of “immigration retaliation” — in which an attorney “harasses, coerces, or intimidates another person using that person’s actual or perceived immigration status.”

This comes from an article called, “The Unethical Use of Immigration Status in Civil Matters,” by M. Lorena Gonzales and Daniel Ford, in the March, 2014 issue of NYLawyer.

Put in starker terms, immigration retaliation encompasses actions like notifying immigration enforcement authorities that an undocumented person is expected to arrive at a certain courthouse on a certain date; or that a woman participating in the prosecution of a domestic violence case may have no legal status. (“May” being the operative term here — the article discusses cases where the U.S. authorities, after being “tipped off,” wrongly detain the immigrant.)

Thankfully for immigrants in the State of Washington, the state bar association issued a formal ethics opinion several years ago prohibiting lawyers from threatening to report someone to the immigration authorities in order to “gain an advantage in a civil matter.”

A fat lot of good that opinion seems to have done since then, but to drive the point home, the LBAW got the Washington State Supreme Court to issue a formal comment in 2013. That comment prohibits lawyers from making inquiries into or assertions about someone’s immigration status for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or obstruction of justice.

I wonder what’s going on in the other 49 states?

In the meantime, this is a good opportunity to remind immigrants and their counsel of the availability of the U visa, which can provide temporary lawful immigration status to non-citizens assisting law enforcement.

Justin Bieber’s Immigration Woes. Again. (Sorry.)

Demonstrating for Justin BieberJustin, please tell me you didn’t get into legal trouble again.

I say that not because I’m in a moralizing mood, and not because I’m worried about what kind of example you’re setting for your fresh-faced, adoring fans.

No, I say that for one, much simpler reason.

I thought I was done writing about whether your various run-ins with U.S. law enforcement make you, as a non-citizen visa holder, deportable. Intellectually and emotionally, I am over it.

But now readers are asking, “So, is he deportable this time? The LAPD are going after him for attempted robbery! How ‘bout it? ”

Alright, here goes.

Justin’s latest “oops” was apparently grabbing a woman’s cell phone in order to erase photos that he suspected she had taken of him. (‘Cause who wouldn’t want to snap photos of the Biebs?)

If that doesn’t sound like robbery to you, read Nolo editor Micah Schwartzach’s analysis, “Breaking Down Bieber’s Alleged Attempted Robbery.”

Noncitizens of the U.S. can be deported if they commit certain types of crimes, found in Section 237 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.). Although some crimes are named on that list, attempted robbery isn’t one of them (nor is regular robbery.)

However, his lawyers would also want to look at whether the robbery conviction (if it indeed happens, and depending on the details) meets any of the following criteria for deportability found in the I.N.A.:

  • a crime involving moral turpitude that was committed within five years ) after the date of U.S. admission and is punishable by a sentence of at least one year
  • one of two or more crimes involving moral turpitude that took place at any time after U.S. admission, where the two crimes did not arise out of a single scheme of misconduct, or
  • an aggravated felony committed at any time after U.S. admission.

As explained further in the links provided above, the short answer is that, once again, he’s probably not deportable. Unless, that is, he gets a one-year sentence for grabbing a cell phone. Stay tuned!

Wait, no, don’t stay tuned to hear it from me. That’s it. My last blog on Justin Bieber. I swear it.

Horror Story About Seven-Minute Immigration Hearings Isn’t the Whole Story

Breaking pointThe Washington Post‘s recent article, “In a crowded immigration court, seven minutes to decide a family’s future,” exposes one of the many weaknesses of the U.S. immigration system: Undocumented and other immigrants caught violating the immigration laws receive no free legal representation (unless a sympathetic attorney steps in pro bono), have little idea of what their legal rights might be, and enter a system where little individual attention is possible before they’re, in many cases, escorted away.

The Immigration Judge profiled in the article, Lawrence Burman of Virginia, had 26 cases on his morning hearing docket, or an average of seven minutes in which to make a decision on each case.

The results of such a system can be tragic. Let’s say, for example, that the person arrives at one of these hearings with no attorney, doesn’t realize that the bad experiences he fled from in his own country amount to persecution that might qualify him for asylum, and thus fails to convey this to the judge or attorney (assuming he’s even lucky enough to find an attorney serving pro bono and able to understand the person’s language).

If the judge has no more than seven minutes to talk with such a person — and if the person misguidedly fills up the time assuring the judge that he loves this country and works hard and would do well if allowed to stay (common errors, which usually get the immigrant nowhere) — it could be all to easy for the judge to order the person to depart the United States.

But let’s make one thing about the system clear: It is possible for immigrants facing deportation to have a full, private hearing before an immigration judge that lasts more than seven minutes. It’s a matter of knowing the procedural steps and what to ask for. What the article seems to have been describing was merely step one, the so-called “master calendar” hearing.

At a master calendar hearing, many people arrive all at once, and the judge decides which of them seem to have enough of a legal case for staying in the U.S. to be worth calendaring for a full, “merits” hearing. The merits hearing can last for hours, and be continued to future dates, with opportunities for testimony by the noncitizen as well as witnesses, introduction of documents and exhibits, and so on.

Many people won’t have any case for staying in the U.S. at all — they are undocumented, and have no immediate family connections, no grounds upon which to request asylum or “cancellation of removal,” and no other plausible defense to deportation.

But many will have some legal basis upon which to request either the long-term right to stay in the U.S., or at least “prosecutorial discretion” (meaning that the U.S. government agrees that the person is a low enforcement priority because of U.S. family ties and other equities, and will leave him or her alone for the moment). And they may not even know it. The judge will try to elicit such information, but as the article shows, has little time in which to do so.

The more that people called into removal proceedings can do to research their rights and find an attorney in advance, the lower the chance that their seven minutes will be wasted and lead to a hasty order of deportation.

How Will You Know When USCIS Declares a Snow Day?

whitehousesnowWhen local schools are closed due to snow, you will usually hear it announced it on local radio and TV stations (and you can hear the cheers from around the neighborhood).

But how do you find out whether the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at which you are scheduled to attend an interview or provide your biometrics has been closed due to bad (sometimes called “inclement”) weather? Sometimes the media may mention the closure of federal buildings, but it’s best not to count on this as your sole source of information.

If you have a lawyer, and he or she is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association (AILA), your lawyer will likely receive an email with any notifications of USCIS office closings.

If you don’t have a lawyer working on your immigration case, however, you may need to do a little research on your own if the weather is looking bad. USCIS does not make any attempt to reach out to people individually — trying to call or even email the thousands of people who are scheduled for appointments on a given day would probably take well into that night!

USCIS will reschedule non-INFOPASS appointments due to its own closure automatically, but that’s done by letter, and could take weeks. (If you made an INFOPASS appointment to visit a USCIS office, however, you’ll need to go online and reschedule that one yourself.)

The most reliable source of such information is on the “Field Office Closings” page of the USCIS website. On most days, it will simply say (in the top paragraph under the date) “All offices are open on schedule today.” On other days, however, this page will state which of USCIS’s offices nationwide are closed. According to a USCIS spokesperson whom I contacted, they also make an effort to advise people via social media, including the USCIS Facebook page and Twitter.

If in doubt, you could also try calling the National Customer Service Center at 800-375-5283.

If you are still in doubt, do your best to make it to your appointment. Failure to do so could result in weeks of delay at best, and possible denial of your application for immigration benefits.

This Is News: Actual Enforcement Against Shady Immigration Consultants!

oakland courtIn today’s news piece, “Judge: Co. Owes $15M in Botched Immigration Forms,” NBC Bay Area states that the Oakland City Attorney has obtained a $15.1  million court judgment against a fraudulent immigration consulting  business, so-called “American Legal Services.” This company’s actions — we can’t call them legal services, because there seems not to have been a single attorney on staff — are said to have resulted in many Oakland families who were seeking immigration help losing vast amounts of money or winding up in removal (deportation) proceedings.

This story is both surprising and not. The “not surprising” part is that immigrants and their families are prey for unscrupulous fraudsters. That’s been going on for years.

Every immigration attorney has had clients come to them after their case was botched by someone who had no idea what they were doing, but pretended otherwise and charged a lot of money. Many use the name “notario,” because in the Spanish-speaking community, it implies someone with actual training, while in the U.S., it just means someone who’s a notary public — that is, can confirm your signature using a rubber stamp.

The surprising part is that someone is actually doing something about it! Immigrants are seemingly so low on the list of societal priorities that such issues often go unaddressed by enforcement authorities — even when all the evidence is right in front of their faces.

I once had a case where a client paid a fraudster to put a green card stamp in her passport (a stamp which he’d somehow acquired straight from U.S. immigration authorities). You’d think that would have been seen as a serious matter by anyone within the immigration system. But when I pointed it out to the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, and urged him to go after the guy, he shrugged. As far as I know, that was the end of it.

But let’s hope the Oakland court judgement is a sign of more enforcement to come. If you’ve been harmed by a fraudulent immigration service provider, you can add to the push for further enforcement by reporting it to the police, district attorney’s office, and state bar association. And if you’re seeking immigration services, see “How to Avoid a Sleazy Immigration Lawyer” for more information.

It’s National Hug Your Immigration Lawyer Day!

mexican immWell, no, it’s not really. (But with all the national days on the calendar, who’s checking?)

And immigration lawyers are one group that deserves more appreciation than it gets, in a world where lawyers consistently rank at the bottom of the public opinion scales.

Here are some reasons to give a little love to this country’s immigration lawyers (the good ones, anyway — there are some bad ones out there, too):

  • They’re not getting rich off their work. Immigration lawyers usually work as solo practitioners, which means paying a lot of office overhead in return for payments of flat fees or low hourly rates, at amounts that reflect their clients’ typical lack of ability to pay big bucks. (And forget chasing down payment if the judge orders the client deported!) Noodling around online, all the surveys I found put immigration lawyers’ salaries in the $70,000 range — which would be considered peanuts by most attorneys. It’s less if the attorneys work at a nonprofit organization.
  • They do a lot of volunteer work. Huge numbers of immigrants cannot afford even an hour of a lawyer’s fees, yet are desperately in need of representation, for example with cases for asylum (because they’ve fled persecution in another country) or  deportation defense. The U.S. government provides no funding at all to help with this. (There is no immigration equivalent to the “public defender” program for U.S. criminal cases.) So immigration lawyers, often with the coordination and help of perpetually underfunded immigration-service nonprofits, attempt to pick up the slack.
  • They’re grappling with the most complex body of law on the books. For real. As is often repeated, it’s more complicated than the tax code. And it’s treated as a political football, with clauses added and subtracted with every new Congress or President.
  • They can do everything right and still have the case go wrong. I don’t want to point fingers, but . . . well, yes I do want to point fingers. The entire immigration bureaucracy, including the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is a morass of paperwork, process, and inconsistency. Ask any immigration lawyer, and you’ll get tales of frustration — delays and lost files or checks, demands for documents that are legally irrelevant, denials that made no sense or were based on bias or lack of cultural awareness, and so on. These can be difficult to explain to clients, who’ve paid their fees and expect to see some results — or who even believe that the attorneys are somehow in league with the U.S. government.
  • They occasionally pull off miracles. Every time I attend an immigration lawyer’s conference, I hear some story of a lawyer who went to bat on a case I would have thought was a sure loser — and won. That kind of spirit and optimism is hard to maintain, and makes a big difference for other immigrants down the line.

Need I say more? Actually, I have said more, about the important process of choosing, hiring, or firing an immigration attorney.