AYUDA — MAKING AMERICA REALLY GREAT, EVERY DAY
January 11, 2017
1300 Eye St., N.W.
Remarks By Retired United States Immigration Judge Paul Wickham Schmidt
Good evening. Thank you Christina, for that wonderful introduction. Thank you, Michael, for extending your hospitality in Verizon’s “state of the art” training center. And, of course, thank you Arleen 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, 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.
 Christina M. Wilkes, Esquire, Partner, Grossman Law Firm, LLC – Chair, AYUDA Board of Directors.
 Michael Woods, Esquire, Vice President and Associate General Counsel, Verizon — Director, AYUDA Board of Directors.
 Arleen Ramirez Borysiewicz, Director of Program Initiatives, AYUDA.
 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.