Lawyers Assess US Immigration Policies

March 16, 2018: Immigration lawyers panel at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Left to right: Errol Louis, Camille Mackler, Rebecca Sosa, Poonam Gupta (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

At a time of growing anxiety over the the legal status and safety of all immigrants, not only the undocumented, the Center for Community and Ethnic Media, in collaboration with the New York chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, convened a special panel of legal experts on March 16 at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The panel was moderated by Errol Louis, NY1 political correspondent and adjunct professor at the CUNY J-School.

The legal experts noted that immigration law pertaining to everything from asylum cases to business visa applications hasn’t changed during the Trump administration. What has changed, dramatically, is the way in which the laws are being interpreted and administered. Regulations, directives and memorandums have been altered, introduced, and withdrawn at lightning speed and in often contradictory ways, giving both immigration lawyers and their clients a sense of insecurity.

Likening the U.S. to a “cruise ship” for which immigrants book passage with a ticket, or visa, Camille J. Mackler, director of Immigration Legal Policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said that there always have been different requirements for how to obtain that ticket and what that ticket provides. But over the last 15 months, she said, there have been “attacks or changes at basically every level” of the process for obtaining any ticket.

Consequently, the stability, predictability and certainty of that cruise ship ride has been affected, and people have been forced to jump over hurdles, climb ladders, fall into traps and even tumble overboard in the current environment. Mackler noted that following the Muslim ban, the refugee ban, the ending of DACA and the withdrawal of TPS for Salvadorans and Haitians, there has been so much noise, and so many shifts, that immigrants don’t know who or what to trust.

“Without changing the laws, and without changing the regulations, and even half the time without putting it on paper, they are changing their way of doing business,” said Mackler. And when immigration lawyers ask U.S. Customs and Immigration Services for guidance, she said, officials often state that no guidance exists to accompany a new directive.

Seemingly endless demands for more and more evidence to buttress cases, repeated delays and a marked change in how discretion is exercised these days by immigration officers are the rule. Rebecca L. Sosa, whose New York City firm Sosa Law focuses on family-based immigration, said that an asylum application of a 16-year-old from El Salvador that clearly, on the weight of the evidence, should have been a “slam-dunk” for approval was nonetheless delayed repeatedly, with word that it may be sent up the line for decision making. Countless immigrants – from asylum candidates to those who are now “out of status” – live in “immigration purgatory,” said Sosa.

For people trying to obtain visas for business reasons, immigration officers seem to be wielding a greater degree of power. Said Poonam Gupta, counsel and director of immigration services at White & Case LLP, “It seems that [since] the ‘Buy American, Hire American’ executive order…more and more officers are inquiring whether it is in the best American interest for someone to come into the United States…whether it’s a consular officer or an officer at the airport sometimes.”

Immigrants who are here on valid work visas which typically might have come up for automatic extensions and renewals in the past, noted Gupta, now are finding their applications are being denied, and are being treated as brand-new petitions. “Deference no longer governs” these once-routine extensions, she said.

For Sosa, who has represented many immigrant children seeking protection, the thing she finds most troubling is that the U.S. government is “actively picking on the most vulnerable people in our country who have come to our borders because of what this nation is supposed to be historically.”

Mackler discussed immigrants’ confusion and distrust in connection with deadlines for renewal of status that the government eventually plans to eliminate, such as DACA and TPS. A March 19 deadline looms for TPS holders from Haiti and El Salvador to renew their status. While the Trump administration has said it will not extend TPS for nationals of those two countries now in the U.S., they nonetheless qualify to remain until the date on which the TPS programs will expire.

Haitian and Salvadoran TPS recipients must re-register by Monday, March 19, to maintain their status before their TPS termination dates, July 22, 2019 and September 9, 2019, respectively. Additionally, Syria’s TPS designation was renewed for 18 months, but Syrian TPS recipients must re-register by May 4, 2018 to maintain their status.

On March 16, the Mayor’s Acting Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Bitta Mostofi said that “the city is stepping up to ensure immigrant New Yorkers have access to needed legal assistance,” to deal with these and similar immigration issues. An estimated 15,000 New Yorkers have TPS, including 5,400 Haitian New Yorkers and 4,000 Salvadoran New Yorkers.


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