SEE PT. II OF NBC4’S “CRISIS IN THE IMMIGRATION COURTS” FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH ME — Understand Why This System Must Be Changed NOW!

Here’s a link to the video of Jodie Fleischer’s “Late Night Report on the Crisis in the Immigration Courts” from last night’s 11PM Version of News 4:

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Massive-Immigration-Case-Backlog-Takes-Years_Washington-DC-447835143.html

Here’s an updated story from the I-Team on the human costs of the backlog and the mindless policies of the Trump ‘administration that are making things even worse. Includes comments from superstar local practitioner Christina Wilkes, Esq.:

“Deportation rates of undocumented immigrants have ticked up in the federal Immigration Court for the first time in eight years as President Donald Trump starts to make good on his promise to expel millions of people. But even as the Trump administration expands its dragnet, the court is so backlogged that some hearings are being scheduled as far in the future as July 2022.

The long delays come as immigration courtrooms struggle with too few judges, only 334 for a backlog of more than 617,000 cases, and scant resources on par with a traffic court, said Judge Dana Leigh Marks of San Francisco, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

Delays are the longest in San Francisco, where the court is setting dates more than four years out. Courts in Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle and Arlington, Virginia are right behind with dates in 2021.

Immigration law is complex and the overloaded judges are making decisions about men and women who may have been tortured or raped, their children abused or forced to witness horrible acts, or who fear they will be killed if they return home.

“I compare the immigration courts to traffic courts and the cases that we hear – they are death penalty cases.”
Judge Dana Leigh Marks

“I compare the immigration courts to traffic courts and the cases that we hear – they are death penalty cases,” said Marks, a judge for 30 years who was speaking in her capacity as association president. “And I literally get chills every time I say that because it’s an incredibly – it’s an overwhelming job.”

The backlog in Immigration Court, which unlike other courts is not independent but part of the U.S. Justice Department, has been growing for nearly a decade, up from about 224,000 cases in fiscal year 2009. The average number of days to complete a deportation case has risen from 234 in 2009 to a projected 525 this year.

A couple in Immigration Court in New York City for the first time on Sept. 21 came to the United States to escape violence in Ecuador, they said, overstaying a visa as they applied to remain permanently in 2013. They were expecting to finally to explain their circumstances to a judge, but instead they were out the door in less than five minutes with a return date in 2020.

“I don’t even know, how do I feel,” said the woman, who did not want to give her name. “I feel frustrated.”

The logjam began during the Obama administration as President Barack Obama boosted immigration enforcement while a divided Congress cut spending. The Justice Department saw a three-year hiring freeze from 2011 to 2013, which then became even worse when tens of thousands of women and children came across the border escaping violence in Central America.

“I don’t even know, how do I feel,” said the woman, who did not want to give her name. “I feel frustrated.

“The problem was years in the making but this administration is making it much, much worse,” said Jeremy McKinney of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Obama was famously called the “deporter-in-chief” after he not only targeted immigrants with criminal records for deportation but also instituted formal removal proceedings for an increased number of unauthorized border crossers, according to a January study by the Migration Policy Institute. At the same time, fewer people were crossing the border because of a better economy in Mexico and fewer jobs in the U.S. after the recession.

The focus on criminals — whose hearings, when they were detained, were either short or waived — resulted in quick deportations, McKinney said. The Trump administration is targeting a much broader group and includes people who might be eligible to stay and that puts more strain on the courts, McKinney said.

“They will arrest anyone that has a pulse and that they suspect is in the United States without permission regardless of if that person poses a risk to our community,” he said.

To clear the backlog, the Trump administration has proposed hiring 75 new Immigration Court judges plus staff, a number the House has reduced to 65, and it has considered expanding the use of deportations without court approval. In the meantime it has moved some judges closer the border temporarily, but that leaves behind even greater backlogs in their home courts.

But the job of an immigration judge is difficult and those in the courts warn that hires are not keeping up with departures. Long background checks dissuade many except for attorneys already working for the government from applying, they say.

The government is trying to quicken the process by resisting delays it formerly acceded to, McKinney said. For example, he said, government lawyers are now opposing a temporary halt to deportation cases to allow an immigrant who might be eligible to remain in the United States to take the steps that are necessary.

“So you’ve got people that are eligible for green cards but are not able to pursue it because suddenly the government is opposing the motion to close those cases,” he said.

And it is also reopening cases that were closed during the previous administration, a move that could add to the delays, McKinney said.

“They’re taking old cases and dumping those into current dockets that are already overflowing,” he said. “These individuals are ones that were previously determined that they were not priorities for deportation.”

One consequence of the logjam until recently had been that judges were deporting fewer immigrants. Last year, just 43 percent of all cases ended with a deportation removal, down from 72 percent in 2007.

That downward trend is beginning to reverse this year. The deportation rate rose slightly over the first 10 months of the 2017 fiscal year, to 55 percent, from 43 percent for all of the previous fiscal year. Among immigrants in detention, the deportation rate rose to 72.3 percent.

The outcome of a case can depend on the location of a court. Georgia has deported the vast majority of immigrants in court this year, New York ousted less than a third. Houston has expelled 87 percent of the immigrants, while Phoenix is at the low end with 20 percent.

You appear to be in Virginia. Not your state?

In Virginia, 56.0% of immigrants who go to court are deported.

See the rates of deportation in state immigration courts across the country:

Fiscal year 2017 (October through July); Source: TRAC

WHO ARE THESE IMMIGRANTS?

More than half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Mexico but their number has declined by about 1 million since 2007. They have been replaced by those fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, plus immigrants from elsewhere. They live mostly in California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey though the state with the highest percentage of undocumented immigrants is Nevada.

Nearly 60 percent arrived in the U.S. before 2000 and a third have been here for more than 20 years. Eight million of the 11 million have jobs. They make up 5 percent of the country’s labor force, mostly in agriculture, construction and the hospitality industry. They are much younger and somewhat more male than the population as a whole.

The long delays in Immigration Court are jeopardizing some immigrants’ chances. They risk losing touch with witnesses they will need or the death of relatives who would enable them to stay. They may have children back in their home country who are in danger. And although they are entitled to lawyers, they must pay for them.

“And so it is very frustrating and stressful frankly for the litigants in our courts to be in that limbo position for such a long period of time,” Marks said.

The couple who fled violence in Ecuador has built a new life in the U.S. She is now a teacher, he works with hazardous materials and they have three American-born children. With no resolution of their case, they remain in that limbo.

“We’re stuck here,” she said.

Christina Wilkes, an immigration lawyer at Grossman Law in Rockville, Maryland, is representing a mother, identified as Z.A., who arrived with her daughter and son from El Salvador in 2014 after a gang tried to recruit the daughter.

In Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia the number of cases has more than tripled in past five years, with some cases taking more than four years to be heard.

The daughter’s application for permanent residency has been pending since the beginning of the year when a judge granted her asylum, Wilkes said. But the mother still does not have a date for a judge to hear her asylum case, though the facts for both are nearly identical.

“For her, where her likelihood of success is relatively high, it’s really frustrating because she wants a resolution,” Wilkes said.

Andres, whose last name NBC is witholding, left Guatemala in August 2014, because he was discriminated against there, he said. He speaks Mam, a Mayan language, and dressed in traditional clothing, both of which made him a target.

“Because I’m indigenous, that’s why they discriminated against me,” he said. “A policeman would beat me, and we don’t have any rights because they rule. The Spanish speakers are the ones who rule all parts of the country.”

He has a work permit, he said, and is employed in construction. But he has twice had his asylum hearing postponed in Immigration Court in San Francisco and says he is scared that as he waits for his new date in January he will detained and deported.

Those waiting to have their asylum cases heard find the reality that there currently aren’t enough judges and staff to handle the demand leaving some applicants forced to wait for years while their witnesses and key evidence disappear.

“Because that is happening where I live in Oakland,” he said.

Shouan Riahi, an attorney with the non-profit Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn, New York, said that the delays are causing particular problems for those seeking asylum. If a court date is set years in the future, they might not think it’s important to meet with a lawyer immediately or know they face a one-year deadline for asylum applications.

“So that creates a whole host of issues because a lot of people that are applying for asylum now are people who didn’t have their hearing scheduled within a year,” he said. “And never went to see an attorney because why would you if your case is in 2019 and now their cases are being denied because they haven’t filed for asylum within a year.”

Some judges are counting the delays as an exceptional circumstance and are accepting the applications as filed on time, but others are turning immigrants away. Riahi’s office is appealing those cases and he expects some to end up in federal circuit court.

Other who are getting caught up in the delays are children who have been neglected, abused or abandoned and are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status. In some courts they are being deported before they receive their visas, he said.

Paul Wickham Schmidt, a retired immigration judge who served in Arlington, Virginia, for 13 years, said that the delays do not serve due process or justice.

“It’s not fair either way,” he said. “It’s not fair to keep people with good claims waiting, but it’s not really fair that if people have no claim their cases sort of aimlessly get shuffled off also. That leads to loss of credibility for the system.”

ABOUT THE DATA

These stories are based on enforcement, budget and demographic data from the federal government and nonprofit groups.

Our primary source for information on operations of the Immigration Court was the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. TRAC, a nonprofit at Syracuse University, has collected and organized data from federal law enforcement agencies for decades and makes that data available to the public. Its website is trac.syr.edu. TRAC is funded by grants and subscription fees; NBC subscribed to TRAC during this project.

Information about the size and demographics of the undocumented immigrant population came from two primary sources: the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Both groups use a roughly similar technique, the residual method, to estimate the undocumented population, and reach similar estimates of its size. For a brief description of the residual method, go here.

Some of the best information on the immigrant population as a whole as well as historic perspective on immigration enforcement comes from the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. It is available here. The most recent year for which statistics are available is 2015, though 2016 statistics should be provided shortly.”

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Here’s a link that will get you a version where all the links graphs,  and charts work: http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/national-international/Immigration-Crisis-in-the-Courts-446790833.html

Next up, the EOIR/DOJ response!

PWS

09-26-16

MORE BETTER ANGELS: A Message From AYUDA Executive Director Paula Fitzgerald

AYUDA STANDS WITH DREAMERS

September 5, 2017
Dear Arleen:
The Trump Administration announced at 11:00 am this morning its decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program. A centerpiece of U.S. immigration policy under President Barack Obama, who started the program by Executive Order seven years ago, DACA permitted young immigrant “Dreamers” to stay in the United States to go to school and work without fear of deportation.
As of today, the Department of Homeland Security will no longer accept new DACA applications. Only those individuals with less than six months of status remaining will be permitted to continue to renew their work permits until October 5, 2018.
In the Washington, D.C. region, more than 40,000 Dreamers will be affected. For the majority of these Dreamers, the United States is the only home they’ve known.
We believe a policy decision to threaten Dreamers with deportation and prevent them from obtaining legal employment in the United States harms children and families, undermines our shared values as a nation, and threatens the strength of our communities and economy.
Immigrants turn to Ayuda in their greatest hour of need. In this uncertain time, you will find us where we must be: in trusted consultation with the immigrants whose lives are at stake, providing honest guidance, fearless representation, and holistic support. Our team of attorneys, social workers, language access program partners, and volunteers stand ready. We are under no illusion about the magnitude of the challenge facing young immigrants nor the potential threat it poses to their safety, stability, and livelihoods. It will take the entire Ayuda community coming together to ensure that immigrants do not walk this path alone.
As a member of the Ayuda community, you are, and will continue to be, a source of strength for Ayuda and for the immigrant families we serve. Thank you.
Sincerely,
Paula Fitzgerald
Executive Director

************************************************

Thanks, Paula, to you and everyone at AYUDA for your unwavering support and efforts in behalf of the “Good Hombres.”

PWS

09-05-17

I am a member of AYUDA’s Advisory Council.

WashPost: GANGS — A Complicated Problem With No Easy Solution — Budget Cuts Undermine Some Local Programs!

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/ms-13-gains-recruits-and-power-in-us-as-teens-surge-across-border/2017/06/16/aacea62a-3989-11e7-a058-ddbb23c75d82_story.html?hpid=hp_rhp-top-table-main_ms-13-1240pmm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.5745c22fb3d0

Michael E. Miller, Dan Morse, and Justin Jouvenal report:

“The increasing MS-13 violence has become a flash point in a national debate over immigration. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have vowed to eradicate the gang, while immigrant advocates say the young people are being scapegoated to further an anti-immigrant agenda.

Danny’s case illustrates just how difficult the balance between compassion and safety can be. Was he a child who needed help? Or a gang member who shouldn’t have been here?

“Do you close the doors to all law-abiding folks who just want to be here and make a better life . . . and in the process keep out the handful who are going to wreak havoc on our community?” asked one federal prosecutor, who is not permitted to speak publicly and has handled numerous MS-13 cases. “Or do you open the doors and you let in good folks and some bad along with the good?”

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Read the entire, much longer, article at the link.

it does seem short sighted to save a few bucks by cutting some of the few programs specifically designed to address this issue.

PWS

06-16-17

 

DOJ’s Location Of U.S. Immigration Courts At Obscure Detention Locations Helps DHS To Deny Due Process, Punish Lawyers!

https://www.propublica.org/article/immigrants-in-detention-centers-are-often-hundreds-of-miles-from-legal-help

Patrick G. Lee writes in ProPublica:

“One morning in February, lawyer Marty Rosenbluth set off from his Hillsborough, North Carolina, home to represent two anxious clients in court. He drove about eight hours southwest, spent the night in a hotel and then got up around 6 a.m. to make the final 40-minute push to his destination: a federal immigration court and detention center in the tiny rural Georgia town of Lumpkin.

During two brief hearings over two days, Rosenbluth said, he convinced an immigration judge to grant both of his new clients more time to assess their legal options to stay in the United States. Then he got in his car and drove the 513 miles back home.

“Without an attorney, it’s almost impossible to win your case in the immigration courts. You don’t even really know what to say or what the standards are,” said Rosenbluth, who works for a private law firm and took on the cases for a fee. “You may have a really, really good case. But you simply can’t package it in a way that the court can understand.”

His clients that day were lucky. Only 6 percent of the men held at the Lumpkin complex — a 2,001-bed detention center and immigration court — have legal representation, according to a 2015 study in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Nationwide, it’s not much better, the study of data from October 2006 to September 2012 found: Just 14 percent of detainees have lawyers.

That percentage is likely to get even smaller under the Trump administration, which has identified 21,000 potential new detention beds to add to the approximately 40,000 currently in use. In January, President Trump signed an executive order telling the secretary of homeland security, who oversees the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, to “immediately” start signing contracts for detention centers and building new ones.

If history is any guide, many of those facilities will end up in places like Lumpkin, population 2,741. The city’s small downtown has a courthouse, the police department, a couple of restaurants and a Dollar General. There’s no hotel and many of the nearest immigration lawyers are based 140 miles away in Atlanta.

“It’s been a strategic move by ICE to construct detention centers in rural areas,” said Amy Fischer, policy director for RAICES, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that supports on-site legal aid programs at two Texas facilities for detained families. “Even if the money is there, it’s very difficult to set up a pro bono network when you’re geographically three hours away from a big city.”
ICE currently oversees a network of about 200 facilities, jails, processing centers and former prisons where immigrants can be held, according to a government list from February.

Unlike criminal defendants, most immigrants in deportation proceedings are not entitled to government-appointed lawyers because their cases are deemed civil matters. Far from free legal help and with scant financial resources, the majority of detainees take their chances solo, facing off against federal lawyers before judges saddled with full dockets of cases. Frequently they must use interpreters.

An ICE spokesman denied that detention facilities are purposely opened in remote locations to limit attorney access. “Any kind of detention center, due to zoning and other factors, they are typically placed in the outskirts of a downtown area,” said spokesman Bryan Cox. “ICE is very supportive and very accommodating in terms of individuals who wish to have representation and ensuring that they have the adequate ability to do so.” At Lumpkin’s Stewart Detention Center, for instance, lawyers can schedule hourlong video teleconferences with detainees, Cox said.

But a ProPublica review found that access to free or low-cost legal counsel was limited at many centers. Government-funded orientation programs, which exist at a few dozen detention locations, typically include self-help workshops, group presentations on the immigration court process, brief one-on-one consultations and pro bono referrals, but they stop short of providing direct legal representation. And a list of pro bono legal service providers distributed by the courts includes many who don’t take the cases of detainees at all. Those that do can often only take a limited number — perhaps five to 10 cases at a time.

The legal help makes a difference. Across the country, 21 percent of detained immigrants who had lawyers won their deportation cases, the University of Pennsylvania Law Review study found, compared to just 2 percent of detainees without a lawyer. The study also found that 48 percent of detainees who had lawyers were released from detention while their cases were pending, compared to 7 percent of those who lacked lawyers.

Legal counsel can also speed up the process for those detainees with no viable claims to stay in the country, experts said. A discussion with a lawyer might prompt the detainee to cut his losses and opt for voluntary departure, avoiding a pointless legal fight and the taxpayer-funded costs of detention.

Lawmakers in some states, such as New York and California, have stepped in to help, pledging taxpayer money toward providing lawyers for immigrants who can’t afford their own. But such help only aids those detainees whose deportation cases are assigned to courts in those areas.

“What brings good results is access to family and access to counsel and access to evidence, and when you’re in a far off location without those things, the likelihood of ICE winning and the person being denied due process increase dramatically,” said Conor Gleason, an immigration attorney at The Bronx Defenders in New York.”

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Read the complete article at the above link.

Lumpkin is “at the outskirts” of what “downtown area?” Don’t all major metro areas have “metropolitan correctional centers,” city jails, county jails, or some equivalent located near the courts and hub of legal activities for criminal defendants awaiting trial? Why are civil detainees allowed to be treated this way?

For far too long, under AGs from both parties, the DOJ has participated in this disingenuous charade designed to promote removals over due process. Because cases often have to be continued for lawyers, even where none is likely to be found, the procedure actually adds to detention costs in many cases.  Why not house only those with final orders awaiting removal or with pending appeals at places like Lumpkin? Why don’t the BIA and Courts of Appeals rule that intentionally detaining individuals where they cannot realistically exercise their “right to be represented by counsel of their own choosing” is a denial of due process?

Look for the situation to get much worse under Sessions, who envisions an “American Gulag” where detention rules as part of his program to demonize migrants by treating them all as “dangerous criminals.”

Meanwhile, as I pointed in a recent panel discussion at AYUDA, the only part of the immigration system over which the private sector has any control or influence these days is promoting due process by providing more pro bono lawyers for migrants. Eventually, if those efforts are persistent enough, the Government might be forced to change its approach.

PWS

05-18-17

Grossman Law LLC Analyzes Impact Of Exec Orders On Migrants, Families!

Trump’s Executive Orders on Immigration
Yesterday, January 25, 2017, President Trump signed two Executive Orders on immigration, demonstrating that he will take a hard-line, no compromise, and enforcement only approach to handling our nation’s already broken immigration system. Through these Orders, the Trump Administration communicated the following priorities:
Border Wall: The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must immediately begin planning, designing, and constructing a physical wall along the nearly 2000-mile southern border. The U.S. (not Mexico) will pay for this wall at an estimated price tag of $6.5 million per mile. This is an unconscionable expenditure at a time when statistics show that the southern border is more secure than ever and illegal border crossings are at a 40-year low!

Increased Detention of Asylum Seekers and immigrants at the southern border: DHS is authorized to hire an additional 5000 Border Patrol Agents and build new detention facilities. DHS will no longer release asylum seekers on bond or electronic monitoring; instead, asylum-seekers will remain in jail while their cases are pending, and will have to gather evidence, prepare legal arguments, and present their cases while in detention. Not only will this be expensive ($125 per adult per day, or in the case of family detention, $343 per person per day), but it is inhumane. An estimated 88% of Central American women, children, and families crossing the Southern border have valid asylum claims. Subjecting them to prolonged detention further traumatizes them and violates this country’s proud tradition of welcoming those fleeing persecution.

Revised Removal Priorities: DHS is authorized to hire up to 10,000 additional immigration officers who will prioritize for removal individuals convicted of any criminal offense whatsoever, no matter how minor or insignificant. They will also prioritize for removal individuals who have open charges pending against them, even if they have not been found guilty by a judge or jury, and individuals who have never been charged or convicted of a crime, but whom an immigration officer believes may have committed a criminal act or may otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security. This vague and overbroad policy opens the door for rampant constitutional and civil rights violations. It also has the potential to expose both federal and deputized state and local agencies to frequent and protracted litigation.

Relatedly, the President has also Deputized State and Local Law Enforcement Officials to act as immigrant agents in apprehending, investigating, and detaining immigrants. Local jurisdictions currently have no legal obligation to assist with civil immigration enforcement, as immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government alone. Forcing local police to act as immigration agents strains their already limited resources and reduces their ability to respond to and investigate crime. Importantly, this policy also deters immigrants who are victims of crime from coming forward and reporting criminal activity. By alienating our immigrant neighbors and over-taxing local police, this policy will make our communities even less safe.

Sanctuary Cities: President Trump pledges to end “sanctuary cities” (jurisdictions which protect the identity of non-criminal immigrant members of the community by refusing to share information about those individuals with federal immigration authorities). He has promised to end “sanctuary cities” by denying them Federal grants and funding. This move, too, jeopardizes the safety of all Americans. It undermines community policing efforts that encourage everyone to work with the police to prevent and solve crime. When immigrants distrust and fear local law enforcement, victims and key witnesses refuse to come forward out of fear of deportation.

Without a doubt, the impact of these directives will be substantial. Grossman Law is concerned that the President’s priorities skirt the long-established due process rights of all individuals, including immigrants, within our borders. Additionally, the attack on “sanctuary cities” will have the negative impact of further dividing our nation and the potential of increasing crime in our largest cities. Our nation’s history, prosperity and growth has been closely aligned with the prosperity and growth of immigrants. The executive orders, in large part, will work to destroy this proud history, and will have the consequence of instilling fear, rather than hope, into the hearts of deserving immigrants. This is “un-American” and misguided policy. Grossman Law will closely monitor the implementation of these Orders and will provide ongoing advice and counsel to our clients, and will continue organizing to ensure the protection of rights for all.

Grossman Law, LLC
4922 Fairmont Avenue, Suite 200
Bethesda, Maryland 20814
Phone: (240) 403-0913
Website: www.GrossmanLawLLC.com

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PWS

01/26/17

“AYUDA — MAKING AMERICA REALLY GREAT, EVERY DAY” — Meet A Spectacular Nonprofit Legal & Social Services Organization That “Walks The Walk and Talks The Talk” In The DC Metro Area — Read My Recent Speech Here!

AYUDA — MAKING AMERICA REALLY GREAT, EVERY DAY

 

January 11, 2017

 

Verizon Building

 

1300 Eye St., N.W.

 

Washington, D.C.

 

Remarks By Retired United States Immigration Judge Paul Wickham Schmidt

 

Good evening. Thank you Christina,[1] for that wonderful introduction. Thank you, Michael,[2] for extending your hospitality in Verizon’s “state of the art” training center. And, of course, thank you Arleen[3] for inviting me, and for all that you and AYUDA do for our community and for our nation.

 

Even more important, thanks to all of you here for your continued support and promotion of AYUDA’s essential mission — to help hard-working individuals in our community help themselves, through legal assistance and a variety of educational and social support programs. You are AYUDA, and without your continuing support, encouragement, and active participation there would be no AUYDA and hence no place for those vulnerable individuals to seek assistance. Our community and our nation would be immeasurably poorer if that happened.

 

By coincidence, I began my professional career in immigration law in 1973, the year AYUDA was founded. On a personal level, and I know that this touches on only one narrow aspect of AYUDA’s ambitious program, I want to thank all of you for the unwavering support, assistance, and consistent professional excellence that AYUDA provided to the U.S. Immigration Court in Arlington, Virginia during my 13-year tenure as a judge, and, of course, continuing on after my retirement.

 

The sole role of an U.S. Immigration Judge is to provide fair, impartial hearings that fully comply with the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution to individuals whom the Department of Homeland Security (the “DHS”) has charged with being removable from the United States. Without competent legal representation of the individual before the court, known as a “respondent,” the job of insuring due process can be totally daunting. With dedicated professional groups like AYUDA coming to the defense, my task of conducting fair hearings magically went from “daunting” to “doable.”

 

Representation makes a real difference in the lives of individuals. Represented individuals succeed in securing relief in Immigration Court at a rate of at least five times greater than those appearing without representation. But, for some of the most vulnerable populations, such as “recently arrived women with children,” bureaucratic lingo to describe actual human beings seeking protection from rampant violence in Central America whose removal has been “prioritized” in Immigration Court, the “success differential” is simply astounding: 14 times!

 

I am honored tonight to be in the presence of two of the “real heroes – or, more properly, heroines,” of due process at the Arlington Immigration Court: your own “Hall of Famer,” the incomparable Anya Sykes,[4] and your amazingly talented newly appointed — great choice guys –Executive Director, Paula Fitzgerald. Both were “regulars” in my courtroom.

 

Quite simply, Anya and Paula save lives. Numerous hard working individuals and families in our community, who are contributing at the grass roots level to the greatness of America, owe their very existence to Anya, Paula, and AYUDA.

 

For example, last year alone, AYUDA helped a remarkable 1,900 individuals resolve more than 3,500 matters in our legal system. And, Immigration Court is just the “tip of the iceberg.” Much of the work was done with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, with domestic violence victims in local courts, and through AYUDA’s superstar Social Services and Language Services branches.

 

I know we all want to get back to main event – eating, drinking, and being merry. So, I’m going to limit myself to one “war story” about my time with Anya and Paula in court.

 

As some of you probably know, there is a wonderful law enacted some years ago known as “NACARA.” It really could be a model for future laws enabling earned membership in our national community. NACARA has allowed thousands of individuals in our community who decades ago fled violence in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and have lived law abiding, productive lives here for many years, often in valid Temporary Protected Status, to obtain green cards and get on the track for U.S. citizenship and full participation in the vibrant political life of our community and our country.

 

The basic NACARA criteria were fairly straightforward, and most individuals were able to have their applications granted at the Asylum Office of the USCIS.   But, as with any mass adjudication program, there was group of so-called “dog cases” left over at the end.

 

Most of those involved individuals who had served or were believed to have served with the Salvadoran military or Civil Patrol during the civil war that raged in the 1980s. If you remember, the U.S. supported the Salvadoran government during that civil war, and some of the individuals who served in the Salvadoran Army actually received training or instruction at military installations in the United States.

 

At that time, international human rights groups claimed that the Salvadoran government and military were engaging in large scale human rights violations, many directed against innocent civilians, in an effort to suppress guerilla insurgents. Our Government denied, downplayed, or outright ignored most of these claims and refused asylum to almost all Salvadorans on the grounds that no persecution was occurring.

 

Times change, however, and at some point somebody in our Government actually looked at the evidence and agreed, long after the fact, that the Salvadoran government and military had committed large scale “persecution of others,” even though many of the “others” had been denied asylum in the U.S. based on inability to establish that persecution.

 

By the time I arrived at the Arlington Immigration Court, the DHS was taking the position that nearly all individuals connected with the Salvadoran military were presumed to be “persecutors,” and therefore should be denied NACARA unless the individual could prove, by credible evidence, that he or she did not, in fact, engage in persecution decades earlier during the civil war. These cases were routinely declined at the Asylum Office and “referred” to our court for re-adjudication.

 

As you might imagine, such cases are extremely complicated, requiring the individual not only to have detailed knowledge of the structure and activities of the Salvadoran military during the civil war but also specific knowledge of what individual units and soldiers were doing at particular times, places, and dates, and to be able to coherently account for and corroborate their own activities at those times.

 

Most of those “referred” were hard working, tax paying, law-abiding individuals who had lived in the U.S. for decades, and supported their families, but did not have the necessary funds to pay for good lawyers familiar with, and willing to handle, this type of sophisticated case. The chance of an individual being able to successfully present his or her own case was approximately “zero.” Most were completely bewildered as to why service with the U.S.-supported government of El Salvador, once considered a “good” thing, was now a “bad thing,” requiring mandatory denial of their NACARA applications.

 

This is where talented NGO lawyers like Paula and Anya stepped in. With their help and legal expertise, notwithstanding the passage of decades, individuals were able to document, corroborate, and testify convincingly about their “non-persecutory” activities during the civil war. I recollect that every such NACARA case handled by AYUDA before me eventually was granted, most without appeal or with the actual concurrence of the DHS Assistant Chief Counsel.

 

As a direct consequence, hard working, productive, law-abiding, tax-paying individuals remained in the community, continued to support their families, and, with green cards in hand, could now find better work opportunities and get on the path to eventual U.S. citizenship and full participation in our national community. This is “Lifesaving 101” in action, and Anya, Paula, and AYUDA are the “lifesavers.”  If there were an “Arlington Immigration Court Hall of Fame,” they would certainly be in it. In addition to their outstanding services to AYUDA’s clients, Anya and Paula are inspiring mentors and role models for lawyers just entering the field.

 

In closing, I’ve always tried to keep five important values in front of me: fairness, scholarship, timeliness, respect, and teamwork. Dedicated individuals like Anya and Paula, and great organizations like AYUDA, embody these important values.

 

And, beyond that, these are your values. Your investment in AYUDA and its critical mission is an investment in social justice and the values that have made our country great and will continue to do so into the future.

 

Thanks for coming, thanks for listening, and, most of all, thanks for your investment in AYUDA and turning your values into effective action that saves lives, builds futures, and insures the continuing greatness of America.

 

 

 

 

[1] Christina M. Wilkes, Esquire, Partner, Grossman Law Firm, LLC – Chair, AYUDA Board of Directors.

[2] Michael Woods, Esquire, Vice President and Associate General Counsel, Verizon — Director, AYUDA Board of Directors.

[3] Arleen Ramirez Borysiewicz, Director of Program Initiatives, AYUDA.

[4] Unfortunately, Anya was unable to attend. But, almost everyone in the room was mouthing “Anya” when I said the word “heroine” so I realized that she was “there is spirit” and proceeded accordingly. Anya Sykes was inducted into the AYUDA Hall of Fame in 2013.