Immigration policy requires real ideas and hard work, not dumb slogans

I get it. We’re all a bit amped up. The makeup, safety, and general welfare of our communities is of extreme importance and generates strong emotions. When it comes to immigration––both its legal aspects and its effects–it is always far more complicated than it should be. It strikes deep nerves that are easily exploited. Immigration is either the defining characteristic and greatest asset to our country, or an existential threat. (Though likely it is a bit of both, depending on your perspective).

And it is awfully difficult to do perform this work to the standards that it  should be when we are under high levels of stress. I frequently, and increasingly, complain that everything is five times harder than it used to be. Providing legal immigration services (and I imagine that our counterparts in government feel similarly) is akin to working at an organization that was massively strained and barely getting by, but that continued to succeed due to highly competent and motivated leaders. Then, overnight, many of the good people are replaced (or not replaced at all) by incompetent hacks and others who actually want the organization to fail. And everything falls apart.

Previously, it seemed as though DHS was focused on enabling foreign nationals to seek the legal immigration benefits to which they were entitled, and the courts and tribunals were focused on providing foreign nationals their fair day in court––at least, given the resources at hand and the other priorities they were tasked with.

Today, it feels like everything is ‘deny and deport.’ (While this analogy is unfair to those good people who have been brought in to government within the last 1.5 years, that is exactly what it feels like.) The denials of applications often arrive after extreme delays, lost files, misunderstandings, and an inability to actually talk to anyone. The ‘deport’ing often in a needlessly cruel and increasingly expeditious manner when applied to immigrants working on legitimate pathways towards obtaining legal status–frequently the parents and spouses of U.S. citizens.

We are getting hammered by things slow and fast–the very drawn out life of a case, with extra work at every step of the way, increasingly punctuated by very real emergencies demanding our focus.

Immigration lawyers don’t generally bill on an hourly basis, but set flat fees at the outset, which means that these delays, responses, and emergencies create a real strain on all of our resources. Meanwhile, our clients and constituents are managing an incredible amount of fear and anxiety––inevitably, some of which is passed along to us. When you are acutely aware of the stakes involved for your clients, when you refuse to compromise below a certain level of quality and professionalism, and when you attempt to maintain any kind of role as advocate outside of your ‘paying job’––it is hard.

You see some of the best and the worst of the legal community in immigration, particularly in moments like these. There will always be individuals who will find a way to exploit anxieties in order to make money (or, in their words, ‘help their clients’) by filing all sorts of things that I wouldn’t touch. But many practice in this very challenging field for good reasons, strive to do things the right way, and probably feel the same daily, burning rage I do whenever someone learns what I do and informs me that I must be on top of the world under this Trump administration and I must be making an absolute killing.

All of which is to say that advocates of all stripes are feeling a fair amount of stress, frustration, anger, and a desire to push back. Complaining about the President is of limited value as a rallying cry. So I’m not shocked that the agency tasked with the most public-facing and harm-inducing duties, U.S. ICE, is now the focus of these energies. And in crowded, competitive, and polarized elections, the slogans are to be expected as well. They mobilize, which is good. They are also easy and emotionally satisfying, which can be problematic.

“Abolish ICE” is one I will never endorse. It is a shortcut around the real ideas and debates that we need to be having, and it harms vulnerable immigrants, their families, their employers, their employees, and the rest of their communities by driving a further wedge between them and the law enforcement agencies that seek to protect them. (And I’ve yet to hear its proponents’ explain the plan for DHS that they would implement the day that ICE is in fact abolished.)

On a surface level, shortcuts are not my thing. My mission is to serve foreign nationals and the communities they live in: specifically, by providing what I call ‘good counsel’ to my clients, by promoting strong standards of legal practice in the field of immigration, and by protecting consumers of legal immigration services from exploitation by lawyers and non-lawyers alike. This mission is patriotic and grounded in respect for laws and human dignity. I do my best to balance my role as an officer of the court with that of advocate. And while I strive to be as effective and efficient as possible (believe, me, I can be quite efficient where there is no ensuing harm), I believe that both my clients and the public at large are ultimately harmed by shortcuts and laziness, whether in terms of developing strategies for cases or in educating and mobilizing the public for needed reforms.

Addressing ‘immigration fraud’ has been at the heart of what I do from the time that I began practicing law. While much of this work has been supported and facilitated by organizations such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, I’ve been blessed to have been able to work closely with legislators, activists, schools, religious organizations, non-profit and community-based organizations, and government agencies–including U.S. ICE, through their Homeland Security Investigations. HSI focuses on crimes; it is Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) that arrests, detains, and removes (deports) foreign nationals from the U.S. As you may have heard, the animosity generated towards ICE (largely due to the actions taken by ERO) has made it difficult for divisions such as HSI to accomplish its work, which includes investigating and prosecuting cases of ‘immigration fraud’ perpetrated against immigrants. This is important work that I will address in more appropriate length at another time.

What I will say for now is that, having been able to work on this issue independently and from many different angles (including legislation, policy, public education, and enforcement), I believe that, in terms of protecting these communities from crime, the variables that demonstrate the greatest effect are the levels of awareness within the communities and the nature of the relationship between immigrants and the agencies tasked with protecting them. These two variables strongly correlate with each other, and have deteriorated dramatically.

New York City has not been immune to this effect, despite the strong efforts of highly capable stakeholders. Even agencies completely unaffiliated with law enforcement, and even when acting in concert with well known and reputable nonprofit organizations, have seen instances of reporting and complaints tumble due to immigrants’ fears that any identifying information and/or cooperation provided might lead to their detection, detention, and removal by ERO before they have an opportunity to obtain lawful immigration status.

[I will note to those who will respond that these residents have no right to remain in the U.S. that immigration status is a rather fluid concept, that eligibilities for benefits and status can be highly complicated and change with time, and that it is often the case that, only once detained by ICE, does an immigrant become aware of such eligibility. (Yet another topic for another time.) I will also note that, when criminal actors are allowed to operate without impunity, entire communities are harmed–not merely the foreign nationals themselves.]

I strongly believe that only via a holistic approach, grounded in collaboration with the various stakeholders described above, can these most vulnerable communities be effectively protected against fraud and other crimes. (One example of such can be found here.) It is very difficult work requiring great investments in time and energy over long periods of time, but it works. No method has yet facilitated the flow of quality information and the pursuit of effective, coordinated action over time than the development and maintenance of relationships. And established relationships don’t require tax dollars or donations or anything terribly elaborate to initiate an action–just a phone call.

BUT, should a locality be looking for example of how to effectively put resources into this issue, the New York State District Attorneys League of Immigrant Affairs (DALIA) is an example of numerous counties cooperating to protect their residents from crime. Additionally, the New Americans Hotline, provided by the New York State Office New Americans and operated by Catholic Charities, acts as a sort of clearinghouse for complaints by providing a toll free, confidential and anonymous resource (offering assistance in over 200 languages). It is able to effectively develop and, where appropriate, refer complaints to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, while maintaining data that is helpful for both enforcement and policy purposes.

I might also suggest the old-fashioned approach of developing, promoting, and advancing legislation to protect communities in areas where states and localities have the ability to do so. The New Americans Hotline was the product of the Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act (IASEA), which facilitated a similar law in New York City. However, as effective as these agencies have been, the fear associated with ICE has made it significantly more difficult to receive and act upon the complaints that they need in order to protect their communities.

There are better ways to channel our frustrations and protect our communities. We can and should say that our immigration enforcement priorities should have remained focused on the real “bad hombres” and not on tearing communities and families apart by pursuing those with little or no criminal history. We can and should talk about cultural and training problems within ERO. But we must not isolate our most important partners for the sake of an easy (and occasionally self-serving) slogan.

I ask that you please listen to the episode of This American Life, “ICE Capades“, and specifically the segment “The Iceman Cometh” for an example of why maintaining these relationships are absolutely crucial.

And I ask that we make a genuine effort to educate ourselves on these issues before we allow our passions (or self-interest) to expose our ignorance and effect more hurt more than help. We cannot improve this system and protect our communities––U.S. citizens and foreign nationals alike––without a real attempt to understand what the pieces are, how they work, and the people involved. We only heighten the risks of danger to those most vulnerable when we attack an entire institution that plays a necessary role in protecting them, that is necessary to any functioning immigration system, and that inevitably becomes associated with all forms of law enforcement. We can do better, and we must.

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