To Trust Or Not To Trust Government Agencies:
That Is The Immigration Question
I’ll be blunt.
First and foremost, I’m disappointed current immigration reform proposals are not comprehensive.
At stake are the lives of immigrant families being permanently destroyed by laws in need of revision. This is not the time for political juggling.
Secondarily, as an attorney who defends immigrants from deportation, I’m disappointed by the lack of attention paid to our broken immigration court system.
The Birth Of Immigration April Fools’ Day
In my view, the issue will be amplified on Monday.
April 1, 2013 represents the 16th year since several bolts fell off the hinges of deportation defense at immigration court.
Yet, the attempt to address these problems is nowhere to be found in current immigration reform talks.
April 1st, in other words, is Immigration April Fools’ Day.
As I wrote in Practicing Deportation Defense In The Dark, April 1st has a special meaning, a special ugly meaning, for immigrants, immigrant advocates, and immigration lawyers.
On April 1, 1997, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) went into effect.
It’s a day I’ll always remember.
The Day After IIRAIRA Became The Law Of The Land
I’ll also always remember April 2, 1997.
On that day, a local businesswoman visited my San Diego immigration law office. She brought her two brothers. She was a citizen. They were undocumented immigrants.
They were both “A” students in high school. She feared they would never be able to attend college in the United States.
About six months beforehand, she learned immigration laws were about to change. Some friends informed her that new laws were going to restrict opportunities for individuals lacking legal papers to live and work in the U.S. legally.
She was also told the seven-year amnesty rule would be eliminated.
There was no such rule.
Blind to reality, she went to an immigration office to inquire about the changes. There she learned the seven-year suspension of deportation rule was ending. A new ten-year cancellation of removal rule would take its place.
She was also informed that one of the requirements, hardship, was changing.
Under the current rule, the hardship to be suffered by the immigrant, himself or herself, who faced being deported, was weighed by the government. But under the soon-to-be new rule, the hardship to those like her brothers would no longer count in their favor.
Before leaving, she was encouraged to fill out an application for her brothers to be interviewed.
For several months, she was not called. She was not sent a notice for an appointment.
The appointment request form had been specially prepared for applicants like her, requesting an interview to surrender before the law changed.
She did not comprehend the nature of her actions.
In essence, she had offered to voluntarily bring in her brothers to be interviewed to start deportation proceedings against them.
In late March, she finally received a notice to appear for an interview on April 4, 1997, three days after the law changed.
She decided to seek legal counsel to explain what happens at the interview.
She was clueless about the larger issues.
I advised her to tread cautiously. I explained how the law had changed – and more importantly, I explained what the interview possibly meant for her siblings.
Before she proceeded, I suggested figuring out how the government planned to handle such interviews, since the new law had already went into effect a few days earlier.
She was shocked and furious.
I understood her sentiment. It’s happened more often than I care to recall.
It’s a natural reaction to unexpected bad immigration news.
A Hazardous Position: Deciphering The Intent Of Immigration Agencies
I knew the source of her emotions.
She wanted badly to obtain legal documents for her brothers. She believed filling out the request for an interview was a step in the right direction.
When it comes to immigration reform, however, the proposed cure is sometimes worse than the problem.
We went back-and-forth for almost 90 minutes. Finally, I convinced her to allow me to probe the government regarding its intentions. We agreed on a plan.
I would inquire whether those who had filled out these special forms months ago, but had not been interviewed before April 1, 1997, would be placed in proceedings under the old rules or the new rules.
Once I had an answer, she could decide what actions to take.
For nearly eight weeks, government counsel and I exchanged several telephone and written communications. The government would not admit its intentions.
I suspected applicants, like the two high school brothers, would be put into court proceedings under cancellation of removal.
When we met again, I explained to the businesswoman that if my hunch was correct, her brothers could be automatically deported. They would not meet the new statutory provisions. They had lived in the U.S. eight years. The old law required seven years. The new law required ten years.
In the end, due to the uncertainties, she decided not to re-request an interview.
That’s not the end of the story.
Why I Distrust Immigration Agencies
Some people question, “Carlos, why are you so distrustful of immigration agencies?”
Here’s one example.
About a week after the businesswoman’s decision, my request for a face-to-face discussion with district officials to address the interview notices was granted.
Upon arrival, I was escorted to a conference area.
Along the way, I passed a room, with a door slightly ajar, where I saw about 3,000 to 5,000 files sitting on huge tables.
I asked the escorting agent about them.
He responded, “Interview requests”.
“Yes. We just began reviewing them a few weeks ago.”
“Why so long?”
It was a rare peak behind the government curtain.
At that point, I no longer needed a meeting.
I now knew the answers to my concerns.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics