Archive for the ‘Processing of Applications & Petitions’ Category.

Let’s Dance

Leslie DanceThis blog post is adapted from the speech I gave when I was installed as AILA’s President for the 2014-15 term. I was thrilled to be able to reflect at the Annual Conference hosted by my home chapter, the New England Chapter of AILA.

New England is where I found immigration and, if I hadn’t found immigration I don’t think that I would be practicing law. I started my legal career in New York as a commercial litigator, but I found my calling after moving to Vermont. I found it in immigration law through dance in Vermont – African dance in Vermont.

While I have always loved to dance, I’m not the most adept at it, but that never stopped me from enjoying all forms of dance in all its facets. So it was that in 1998 I began attending African dance classes in Burlington. Several members of the National Ballet of Guinea as well as Senegal and the Ivory Coast lived and worked in Burlington and after class they would ask me questions about their immigration status (P-3s). However, I knew nothing about immigration whatsoever and referred them to a terrific immigration attorney instead.

I am a first generation American (my mother was born in and escaped from Hungary) and between my history and my involvement with foreign dancers I made a life altering decision by deciding to concentrate only on immigration.  I distinctly remember my first task. I needed to determine whether a client had been admitted to the U.S. Admitted? They were here weren’t they?  - Of course they were admitted.  It took 16 hours of research before I realized that I had entered a world where nothing was as it seemed: the world of immigration law.

Five years ago I started on my way to the AILA presidency, working my way up from Secretary through all the roles and responsibilities until this year. Looking back at those years, I reviewed the goals I had set out each year for myself and the organization. I took a look at what had been resolved and accomplished, what issues recurred over and over again, what issues still remain, and which of my goals have not yet been reached.

While many of my priorities changed from year to year one issue remained constant – ironically it was the lack of consistency and predictability in adjudications, determinations, rulings, and admissions – and the need to fix this through, among other things, interagency engagement. Our world requires that we typically deal with not just one agency, but at least two, and generally three.

When I meet with new clients, I along with other immigration attorneys, often find myself saying something akin to the following during our initial consultation:  “Before we proceed it is imperative that you understand that, even if your petition is approved by the USCIS, you are not home free. You also need approval from the Department of State and then, even if you pass that hurdle, you still must obtain permission from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to actually enter the U.S.”

This situation is unfortunately a constant in all areas of our practice whether it is business, family, or removal. Think of H-1B visas denied after petition approval for critical employees, approved fiancées who never get here, or as we call it in our office, “love’s labors lost,” or waiver applicants with provisional grants denied on other grounds not previously believed to make one inadmissible. The interagency disconnect is not limited to the petition, visa, and subsequent admission situation. It is also at the heart of so many of the procedural issues that we face.

Thus, it makes sense that my primary long-term goal relates to AILA’s liaison work. One of the many benefits of living in Vermont is that I learned to practice immigration in a place where I truly had access to government officials and was able to work with them to address some of the issues that came up as a result of interagency miscommunication.

Having learned to practice where openness and accessibility continue to be the standard has guided my vision. Those of you who have sat in meetings with me likely have heard two recurrent themes. The first is that my local CBP, USCIS, and ICE offices are the exemplar. I have never felt that I could not approach them and they have always been willing to talk and listen. The second is a request I make, at each and every meeting: whether the agency would be open to a multi-agency dialogue at a later date.

I believe that many of our adjudication and process problems stem from the fact that two or more agencies have conflicting interpretations of the law or regulations and that they do not actually know the effect that their actions have on the applicant when that applicant must next deal with another agency. They may not know what switching to an automated form might mean for another agency which still requires a hardcopy. I believe that we could solve so many issues if we were just permitted to sit down together and explain the problems that crop up.

Interagency engagement is not the only way to attain more consistency and predictability in what we do. Another aspect is the need to locate, isolate, and change the negative policy that seems to be driving so many adjudications, decisions, and admissions. In our area of practice, I think more than in any other, discretion abounds. But it seems that more often than not the trend is toward denial rather than acceptance.

Earlier I told you that I found immigration through African Dance. However, not only did African Dance lead me to immigration, it taught me immigration. In representing my dance community I encountered early on in my career almost every immigration situation there is. The good news is that I was able to help them, at least until fairly recently.

Almost three years ago, one of my clients returned home to Guinea to visit his family and bring back new and current dance and drum rhythms. He had an approved P-3 and had never been in trouble with the law or violated his status. However despite that, his visa was denied for immigrant intent. He had returned to Guinea because of his strong family ties, yet he was denied. That sort of denial would not have happened just a few years ago.

Through all the ups and downs of immigration law practice, one thing has been constant – AILA. AILA is a community where people who perform the same work can obtain from it the tools they need to practice their profession. I truly believe that with just the InfoNet and AILAlink immigration attorneys have all the tools they need to practice immigration and, practice it well. But by also offering accessibility to mentors, practice management help, ethics guidance, media training, advocacy, and liaison assistance, immigration attorneys get all that they need to become well rounded and truly excellent in their field.

More than that though, I believe AILA goes far beyond just a professional community. It is also a fellowship. I practiced law for 11 years before joining AILA. I never experienced elsewhere the support, camaraderie and professional generosity with my peers that I found here. I ask that all of you continue to engage, to care deeply about AILA and its governance, and to share your thoughts and insights.

I am looking forward to this year. To liaising with the government and you. To working together to make positive changes in immigration, to make things better for our clients, to making AILA the best it can be.

Almost every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday I wake up with a feeling that something is special. They are dance days. I hope that every day this coming year is a dance day. If that happens I know that we can accomplish our goals and make a difference, as, in the words of the Hopi who steadfastly believed that through dance they would influence the Gods and accomplish their goals,  – To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak. So, let’s dance!

Written by Leslie A. Holman, AILA President

To watch Leslie’s full speech, including a performance by her friends from the African dance and drumming community Jeh Kulu, watch here: Video: Leslie Holman Installation Speech

Turning Our Backs on Our Own History

shutterstock_151907147The humanitarian crisis involving the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors at our borders has brought out diverse opinions within our government and country.  Some politicians would like to send these minors back to Guatemala on a bus.  Before we become too critical about the future of these voiceless children, let’s not forget about our country’s history regarding unaccompanied minors.

The influx of unaccompanied minors is not a new phenomenon. Our great country has always opened its arms to needy children during humanitarian crisis.  During World War II, Jewish families sought safe haven for their children escaping the death camps of Hitler and the Nazis. Prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, Jewish parents sent their children in small groups (roughly a dozen at a time) to the United States based on pre-existing country quotas. After 1941, when the United States became more aware of the brutality of the Nazi regime, unaccompanied children were brought in larger numbers. During their voyage to the United States, dedicated women acted as chaperones on the ships that brought the children to our country.  Upon reaching the United States, the unaccompanied children went to Jewish foster homes. Although some of the children were reunited in America with the parents and siblings they left behind in Europe, most became the only surviving members of their families. This effort became to be known as the One Thousand Children.  Other countries also participated in this endeavor.

Between 1960-62, over 14,000 Cuban children were sent to the United States unaccompanied to escape the oppressive Castro Regime.  Known as Operation Peter Pan (Pedro Pan), the program was created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Approximately half of the minors were reunited with relatives or friends at the airport. More than half were cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. The unaccompanied children from the Cuban Refugee Children’s Program were placed in temporary shelters in Miami, and relocated in 30 States.

In 1975, during the end of Vietnam War, unaccompanied children were evacuated from Vietnam during “Operation Babylift” before the fall of Saigon.  During the war, thousands of babies were born and abandoned, many of them the mixed-race sons and daughters of American GIs.  Operation Babylift sent these children to various countries, mostly the United States.  According to Miriam Vieni, a US social worker and adoptive parent, “the ‘Baby Lift’ was a way of removing them from a dangerous situation without the usual processing…”.

Central American countries suffered greatly through years of unrest and violence during their civil wars.  The United States involvement in these civil wars is no secret.  Thousands of people were displaced and many came to the United States.  Children who suffered immense psychological damage grew up in the inner city and were exposed to the United States gang culture.  Years later, many Central American youth in the United States fell prey to the culture of gangs.  In 2006, ICE’s “Operation Return to Sender” arrested and removed thousands of gang members repatriating them to their Central American homelands.  The result was that the unique American gang culture infested the Central American countries.  International criminal organizations were established and have ruled over these countries, driving many people to flee, including the children, to avoid being recruited by the criminal gangs.

Since 2009, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have collectively seen a 432 percent increase in asylum applications from the same three countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  Many others have fled to the United States where numbers that were steadily growing over several years have now surged in the last few months.  While there may be various reasons why parents are sending their children out of the country, or where parents aren’t present, the children themselves are choosing to flee, the Congressional testimony of Bishop Mark Seitz reflects that violence in the country of origin is the “overwhelming factor” pushing children to flee their country.

It is important to note under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress transferred the care and custody of unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services (HHS) from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to move towards a child welfare-based-model of care for children and away from the adult detention model. In the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which expanded and redefined HHS’s statutory responsibilities, Congress directed that unaccompanied minors must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”

Under these laws, unaccompanied minors that are not from Mexico or Canada must be detained, processed, interviewed, and some information collected.  The intent of these laws is to protect children from human trafficking abuses and ensure their due process rights are respected.  These unaccompanied children are referred to immigration court to present their cases. These laws also provide for the creation of a system of pro bono representation for these children to navigate the labyrinth which is the immigration court system.  Just a few short weeks ago, the current Administration announced the creation of a program that will provide pro bono representation for these children through “justice AmeriCorps” by recruiting 100 attorneys and paralegals.

With this backdrop, the Obama Administration is now seeking funding and assistance to speed up the deportation of these children.  While many in Congress feverishly hammer the notion of the need to follow the rule of law, the concept of expeditious removal of children is unconscionable, especially when our current laws prohibit such action.  Circumventing the law is not the answer.  The care of these children and respect for their due process rights should be paramount. At a time when Congress and the Administration should be working together on commonsense immigration reform, it would be reprehensible if they can only agree on expedited removals of these terrified, voiceless children.

Before we are quick to judge and put these unaccompanied children on a bus, we should stop and consider our legal and moral obligations to this humanitarian crisis.  Moreover, let’s not forget our own country’s history when it comes to the treatment of displaced unaccompanied helpless children.  There is a legal process in place for these situations; we must not forego such protections for political convenience.

Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, AILA President-Elect

Getting a Little Serious about the Need for Immigration Reform

shutterstock_197321441This is a post adapted from my speech last week in accepting an award from AILA for outstanding contributions made as a young lawyer in the field of immigration and nationality law. While the occasion was a happy one and I was honored to receive that award, I took the opportunity, as I do here, to emphasize what is wrong with our current system and that we desperately need to fix it.  I hope you find it of interest:

As I think about the great migrations of people, I’m reminded of my own “gringa” migration from the heartland of Iowa to Washington, D.C. While my own journey was not nearly as harrowing an experience, it is that journey that led me to practice immigration law, to AILA, and to the work that I’m so passionate about.

I have been incredibly lucky to have several amazing people guiding me throughout my journey. My parents who taught me that everyone no matter their background deserves the chance to pursue their dreams. My wonderful husband Justin, whose constant love and support sustains me. Michelle Mendez, my friend and co-professor in the Catholic University immigration clinic who is the most selfless, passionate advocate that I know. The dedicated staff of Benach Ragland, and my partners who I deeply respect and admire; there is no one else I would rather work with in pursuit of our shared mission. Finally my mentor, the late great Michael Maggio: despite his busy immigration practice, he always found time to contribute to our field as a policy advocate, a pro bono champion and a mentor. I have strived to use Michael’s well-rounded approach to our work as a model in contributing through my own practice, especially as I’ve observed the developments in our field over the last few years.

We’re going to get a little serious now.

We are now faced with a humanitarian crisis at our borders.  CBP and ICE officers are using excessive force, inhumane detention conditions, and “no process” removals. We are faced with immigration courts fighting against insufficient resources, overcrowded dockets and cabined legal discretion. And we are faced with a renewed assault on our asylum system by Congress and the agencies themselves.

Yet, no actions are taken by those in power to fix our system. Instead we have a Congress that points fingers and strikes a pose in Capitol Hill hearings and an Administration which, on the back of an immigration reform-focused campaign, has taken to putting Band-Aids on gashes rather than treating the underlying wounds.

Until we have leaders who are going to work together to solve real problems that affect real people, American businesses, and separated families, it is up to us. It is for these reasons that this award is only the beginning of my journey.

Thank you so much for this honor and I hope you will join me in restoring due process and humanity in our immigration system.

Written by Dree Collopy, 2014 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyer Award Winner

 

Responding to the Increase in Child Migrants: We’ve Managed These Crises Before

shutterstock_199198397In my first week as an immigration lawyer, 286 Chinese migrants waded ashore in Queens, and a significant number were detained at a county prison near me in York, Pennsylvania.  In 1993, there was no significant infrastructure for handling those hundreds of cases in the Northeast – no detention facilities to hold them, government lawyers to prosecute them, judges to decide their cases, or immigration lawyers in York to volunteer to represent them. Everyone involved with the process felt overwhelmed, and many expressed the fear that thousands more Chinese migrants would undertake the dangerous ocean journey if the Golden Venture passengers were granted the ability to stay in the United States.

In spite of feeling overwhelmed, the government provided the resources to detain these migrants and to process their applications for relief.  The community rallied to help reunite the children among the migrants with their families, or to find foster homes for them if they had none; to train lawyers in asylum law and other humanitarian forms of relief, and to find volunteers to visit the detainees and help them communicate with their families.  The answer to the influx, ultimately, was improved economic growth in China that provided employment opportunities in the country to prospective migrants, which lessened the demand for migration from China to the United States.

On our southern border today, everyone is feeling overwhelmed by a humanitarian crisis: the detention of 200-250 child migrants each day along the US border with Mexico.   These children are unaccompanied by parents or relatives – while some are coming to try and reunite with relatives in the United States, many more are simply fleeing intolerable conditions in their home countries.  The majority of these children come from three countries: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  In these three countries, murder rates have skyrocketed in the past five years – Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world – and other forms of criminal violence have also risen.  Children interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have reported fleeing forced recruitment into gangs, much as “child soldiers” were recruited in African civil wars over the past decade.

While some elected leaders opposed to comprehensive immigration reform are claiming that children are coming to the United States because they believe they will be eligible for some form of legal status, that claim flies in the face of the fact that the U.S. is not the only country receiving displaced children and other individuals fleeing from these countries.  UNHCR reports that since 2009, the number of asylum applications from citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras received by the surrounding countries of Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico combined has increased by 712 percent.

What is to be done with these children?  As the United States has done in response to each of the large migration flows caused by political turmoil or natural disaster in the last twenty years – from the Cubans fleeing to Florida by boat in the mid-1990s to the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti – the children have been detained for removal proceedings in which it will be determined by a judge as to whether they have any claim to be able to stay in the United States.  They will be detained unless or until they can be reunited with a family member, either inside the United States or in their home country.  If they are reunited with a family member in the U.S., they will remain in removal proceedings until a judge decides their fate.  While the number of these children has risen in the past year, the administration has already been making plans to deal with it – witness their budget request for additional funding to detain and process these children, which demonstrates their planning for the eventuality that rates of arrival may continue to climb.

As many commentators have noted, however, the answer to the bigger question of how to prevent these children from coming to the United States does not lie at the US-Mexico border.  Rather, the United States must continue to engage with the governments in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to build capacity for dealing with the violent criminals who are causing the conditions these children are fleeing.  Just as disaster aid to Haiti and a migration agreement with Cuba reduced the number of illegal migrant from those countries, the best answer to this newest wave of migrants will be assistance to the countries from which they are fleeing.

Solving the migration problem from those countries cannot happen overnight – and in the meantime, the United States must continue to treat these children humanely, to reunite them with families wherever they may be, and to grant them asylum if they are eligible for it.  If they are found to have no relief from deportation, they should be returned to their home country in as humane and safe a way as possible.  These children have already been traumatized at the hands of criminals – the U.S. immigration system should not traumatize them further.

Written by Bill Stock, AILA First Vice President

The Good, the Not-so-Bad and the Ugly: USCIS Announces DACA Renewal Procedures

shutterstock_174737858Today, USCIS published long-awaited guidance for renewals under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, including a new Form I-821D for both initial and renewal applications.  The guidelines should mean a streamlined process for most renewals, but the agency missed a real opportunity in how government processing times impact those who don’t—or can’t—apply months in advance.

The Good:  For most young immigrants who already have DACA, the renewal process should be fairly straightforward.  In order to be considered, a renewal applicant cannot have left the United States (without permission from the government) since August 15, 2012 and must have continuously resided in the country since they were granted DACA.  They must also not have any disqualifying criminal history.

Consistent with prior policy, USCIS took a real-world approach to the educational requirement.  An initial grant of DACA requires that the applicant be in school, have graduated High School, obtained a GED, or show proof of continuing educational efforts.  For renewals, the agency is not asking for further proof that the individual graduated or even continued in their studies.  For those who were forced to drop out or stop schooling due to financial or other difficulties, this practical solution will be a real boon to a lot of families and young people just starting out.

The Not-So-Bad:  USCIS wants DACA renewals in early.  So much so, apparently, that they are hinting that for early filers (more than 120 days before expiration) whose applications are not granted due to unexpected delays, USCIS “may provide deferred action and employment authorization for a short period of time.”  That being said, USCIS doesn’t want the renewal applications too early:  filings received more than 150 days before expiration may be rejected. So, trying to hit that sweet spot between 120-150 days before expiration might be your best bet.

Unfortunately, at $465, the filing fees associated with DACA renewals are still steep for many families with multiple applications or for young adults struggling to make it through school or in their first jobs. I’ve heard lots of talk about potential microloans or possible funding sources but so far I haven’t heard of an existing and simple option for the tens of thousands who may run into this issue.  Ideas welcome!

The Ugly:  Applicants who don’t file in that sweet spot of 150 to 120 days prior to expiration have some significant risks.  Timing on consideration of initial DACA filings has been creeping up, with a small, but nonetheless significant percentage of cases languishing for months past “normal” processing times.  A DACA renewal, after all, should just be a matter of a background check to make sure no red flags pop up from the last two years of a person’s life, scheduling biometrics and running a report.

To my mind, there’s absolutely no reason DACA renewals shouldn’t be held to the same 90-day standard as other work permit renewals that require the same background check.  If USCIS thinks they won’t be able to hit the 90 day benchmark, there’s plenty of precedent to allow for continued eligibility to work for those who file prior to expiration.  The same goes for how a lapsed or delayed renewal might impact “unlawful presence.” While eligibility to work (and in many states, qualify for a driver’s license or in-state or reduced tuition) may be the more immediate concern, DACA grantees should also pay attention to how accruing unlawful presence may trigger severe immigration consequences in the future.

All DACA renewal applications will have to go through a background check, and anyone who has had trouble with the law should be cautious. A conviction for a felony, a “significant misdemeanor” or three or more misdemeanors probably means that a renewal won’t be granted.  At best, someone with this kind of a history may just be throwing away their $465 in filing fees; at worst, that’s a lot to pay for a one way trip to a country that’s no longer home. In short, if there’s criminal history, better see an immigration lawyer to evaluate risk and any other options.

And of course, USCIS may use a renewal application as an opportunity to check for fraud.  If the information on an old application doesn’t match up with the information on the new form, that may be cause for concern.  A lot of initial DACA applications were filed without qualified legal help, without fully understanding exactly what was being asked for or knowing what was actually included.  In some cases, those inconsistencies may be innocent errors, in others, the DACA applicant may him- or herself be the victim of fraudulent preparers.  Best bet is to make sure you know what was filed and get appropriate help if there are any discrepancies.

Finally, while it sure looks like the renewal process should be relatively straightforward, the devil is in the details.  An increasing number of DACA applicants—and even more so, DACA renewers—may be eligible for something better than deferred action, like permanent residence or another path to legal status.  Use the free PocketDACA App to review eligibility or find help, or use www.ailalawyer.com to find an immigration lawyer to evaluate your best options.

Written by Laura Lichter, AILA Immediate Past President

The Revised Credible Fear Lesson Plan: Enough is Enough!

ENOUGH2This is not just a blog post, but a call to action.  Over the past six months, we have seen dog-and-pony hearings by Congress and a series of administrative changes to our asylum system that have deviated from the United States’ longstanding obligations under domestic and international law to the detriment of bona fide refugees.  The most recent of these deviations is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Asylum Division’s revisions to its Lesson Plan on Credible Fear of Persecution and Torture Determinations.

Implicit in the core humanitarian purpose of U.S. asylum law is the requirement that it be as effective as possible in offering reliable protection to bona fide refugees.  While effectively protecting refugees may seem like a simple concept, the human rights considerations involved in U.S. asylum law often collide with the challenges involved in maintaining the integrity of the application process.  It is this collision that led to the development and implementation of the expedited removal and credible fear provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA), which took effect on April 1, 1997.

Expedited removal was a direct result of the Congressional perception that individuals arriving at ports of entry with false or no documentation were abusing the asylum system.  Nonetheless, under U.S. asylum law – which was derived directly from international law – the government is prohibited from returning refugees to countries where they would face persecution.  In an attempt to address the potential for violations of this obligation of nonrefoulement through the implementation of the expedited removal process, the credible fear provisions were also enacted.  Under these provisions, rather than being subjected to immediate removal, an individual arriving at a port of entry who expresses a fear of persecution or torture will be referred to an asylum officer for a “credible fear” interview.  If the individual substantiates a “significant possibility” she could establish eligibility for asylum under INA § 208, the asylum officer will find her to have a credible fear of persecution.  Such a finding grants the individual her rightful day in court, allowing her to present a full asylum claim before an immigration judge in INA § 240 proceedings.

For those who have been following recent developments in U.S. asylum law and procedure, the rhetoric surrounding – largely unsubstantiated – claims that our asylum system is under attack by abuse and calling for sweeping changes that threaten the core humanitarian purpose of U.S. asylum law sounds all too familiar.  With a significant and steady influx of refugees fleeing the violence and turmoil stemming from the entrenchment of gangs and drug cartels in Central America, the human rights considerations involved in U.S. asylum law are once again colliding with the challenges involved in maintaining the integrity of our asylum system.  Unfortunately, this collision has resulted in a series of changes that have deviated from the United States’ longstanding obligations under domestic and international law to the detriment of bona fide refugees.

Over the past six months, we have seen border officers overzealously using expedited removal to deny individuals fleeing real persecution and torture the opportunity to seek asylum.  We have seen Congress focus its attention on a series of hearings entitled “Asylum Laws and Abuse,” designed to attack those seeking protection rather than the faulty implementation of the expedited removal and credible fear provisions by Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  We have seen the Board of Immigration Appeals, in Matter of M-E-V-G- and Matter of W-G-R-, dramatically increase the evidentiary burden on asylum-seekers while seeking to rationalize a legal test that is irreconcilable with U.S. obligations under domestic and international law.  And just last week, we saw the USCIS Asylum Division join in the backlash against the influx of refugees at our borders with a notable narrowing of the “significant possibility” standard for credible fear determinations made by its asylum officers.  Is anyone else out there thinking, “Enough is enough!?”

In this most recent development, USCIS revised its April 14, 2006 Lesson Plan on Credible Fear of Persecution and Torture Determinations, which it uses to train asylum officers.  In releasing the revised Lesson Plan, USCIS issued a memorandum describing the changes and the reasons for these changes (see AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 14041845).  In explaining the need for these revisions, USCIS notes the significant increase in credible fear referrals to the Asylum Division and its need to allocate more resources to credible fear adjudications than ever before.  Instead of recognizing that this increase in resources devoted to credible fear adjudications may be due to the overall increase in individuals seeking protection at our borders, however, USCIS seemingly attributes this increase to its concern that “the application of the ‘significant possibility’ standard has lately been interpreted to require only a minimal or mere possibility of success.”  Although USCIS claims that “these modifications…do not change the ‘significant possibility’ standard or alter the screening function of the credible fear process,” in practice these revisions will considerably narrow the longstanding “significant possibility” standard.

The main problems with the 2014 Lesson Plan stem from deviations that thwart the legislative intent behind the expedited removal and credible fear provisions.  The legislative history of IIRAIRA indicates that Congress intended the credible fear provisions to be a safety net and the “significant possibility” standard to be a low standard that would catch any potential refugees in that net.  The 2006 Lesson Plan previously included several explicit references to this intent, but in the 2014 Lesson Plan, all such references have been removed.

Moreover, Congress intended the credible fear process to serve as a threshold screening mechanism for protection claims to ensure that, in its implementation of the expedited removal provisions, the United States was still abiding by its longstanding obligation under domestic and international law not to return an individual fleeing persecution to his or her persecutor.  The credible fear process was not intended to be a full assessment or adjudication of an asylum claim, but rather, a gateway to the full assessment and adjudication process.

Contradicting this Congressional intent, the 2014 Lesson Plan: (1) directs officers to apply the significant possibility standard through the lens of a full adjudication, (2) emphasizes that a claim that has only a minimal or mere possibility does not meet the “significant possibility” standard, (3) creates a three-prong test that did not exist in the previous 2006 Lesson Plan standard, requiring the asylum-seeker’s testimony to be “credible, persuasive, and…specific”, and (4) includes extensive statements of the current regulations and case law, similar to those discussions included in the Lesson Plans on full asylum assessments and adjudications.  These changes seem to require an asylum officer to complete a full assessment of the asylum-seeker’s potential asylum or Convention Against Torture (CAT) claim, rather than a safety net preliminary screening for a potential refugee.

These changes are likely to yield confusion among asylum officers, as well as a blending of the credible fear standard with the full asylum and CAT standards.  Furthermore, they will likely lead to officers applying prohibitively high standards during credible fear interviews, creating yet another source for the increasing number of bona fide refugees who are denied the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States.  Finally, since these changes are likely to generate assessments that are closer to full asylum and CAT adjudications than screenings for potentially successful claims, these changes are ironically likely to cost USCIS even more time, money, and resources.  Notably, USCIS did not consult key non-governmental organizations or non-governmental stakeholders during its revision process.

Although these Lesson Plan revisions may seem minor in the grand scheme of our broken, punitive, and increasingly unworkable immigration system, to me, they signify another drastic deviation from our system’s founding principles and legal obligations.  I don’t know about you all, but for me, “Enough is enough!”  As another AILA year concludes and a new AILA year begins in June in Boston, let us re-commit ourselves to working together on all fronts.  Only together can we fill the next six months with developments that restore protection for bona fide refugees and renew our obligations under domestic and international law, while still maintaining the integrity of our asylum system.  This is not just a blog post, but a call to action.

Written by Dree Collopy, AILA Refugee & Asylum Liaison Committee Chair

Advance Parole Rules Need Review

shutterstock_151420769On Friday, I received a difficult phone call many immigration lawyers face on occasion.  While it is fortunately a rare occasion, demographics and statistics assure us that these calls will continue.  My client’s derivative adjustment application has been pending since 2007, she is working based upon an EAD, and her father is dying in India.  The family expects his death will come any moment, certainly within a couple of days.  She didn’t have an advance parole.

My first step was to call the local Field Office Director (FOD) and I immediately found an individual at USCIS with both the compassion to understand the need for the advance parole, and the commitment to help.  The FOD suggested I file the I-131 online, and get her the receipt as soon as possible.  Within an hour, we had electronically filed the application, including the supporting documentation from the doctor, and the FOD spent the rest of Friday afternoon seeking the technical ability and legal authority to issue the travel document.  Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to issue the document before the weekend notwithstanding what I am certain was a dedicated effort.  After a very long weekend for my client, the FOD returned to work on Monday morning to continue the effort. Fortunately, the advance parole document was issued first thing Monday and my client was able to travel immediately.  Before that could happen, however, our office spent an entire day working with her, and the FOD spent most of the same day working on the effort, as did many other local office and service center staff, and other personnel within USCIS.   A great deal of effort by all parties was required, during which my client spent a few very difficult days with a lot of stress and anxiety concerning her ability to be with family at the time of her father’s death.

This experience led me to think about the rule that requires the issuance of advance parole, and more specifically, the reason that the document must be issued before the applicant departs from the United States.  The regulation imposes the rule that departure before the document is issued constitutes an abandonment of the adjustment application.  8 CFR §245.23(j).  There is no statute that mandates this rule.  The regulation was written when adjustment applications took 30 to 60 days to adjudicate, and the need to travel during this brief interim period was rare.  The predominant theory suggested that an individual applying for adjustment wanted to live permanently in the U.S., had just submitted an application for this benefit, and absent extraordinary circumstances, there should be no immediate need to travel.  By 1992, the processing times were slightly longer, and Associate Commissioner James Puleo issued a memorandum with instructions to grant advance parole upon request unless the need to travel was contrary to law or public policy.  He explained this new standard as follows:

This instruction was clearly meant to accommodate the legitimate travel of persons inconvenienced by visa numbers becoming unavailable after they filed adjustment applications. Construction of the term ‘bona fide business or personal reason’ to require a showing of emergent or extreme need to travel is inappropriate. Accordingly, travel for a bona fide business or personal reason should be considered as travel for any reason which is not contrary to law or public policy. 

Adjudicator’s Field Manual, Chap. 54.3(b), quoting from the 1992 Puleo Memo (emphasis in the original).

In July 2007, at the same time 325,000 adjustment applications were filed, many of which are still pending today, USCIS published a new fee schedule that became effective on July 30, 2007.  This notice increased the filing fee for adjustment applications to $985 (plus $85 for biometrics) but included applications for employment authorization and advance parole for every adjustment applicant, irrespective of the need to travel.  From 1992 to 2007, we moved from a standard that required “emergent or humanitarian considerations” to a new standard that makes the advance parole application a routine part of every adjustment application.

The only reason advance parole is required before travel is because the regulation imposes this requirement.  8 CFR §245.23(j).  But if this is not required by the statute, only by the regulation, what is the policy imperative behind this rule?  I suggest that today, there is no good reason for this rule.  The nature of the adjustment application and the routine advance parole applications that are now a part of every single application, suggest that an applicant’s travel before the document is issued no longer justifies the abandonment of the underlying adjustment application.  By eliminating this rule, clients with an emergent need can travel, and make arrangements to have the approved document sent to them overseas once it has been approved.  This would eliminate the stress, time, money, and attention of the applicants and USCIS personnel to expedite a process that is required only by an obsolete rule.

Written by Rob Cohen, Vice Chair, AILA’s USCIS Liaison Committee

The Intolerable Delay for Relative Petitions

shutterstock_114417286I recently met with a prospective client.  The facts were not unusual: she was 35 years old, a U.S. citizen who is, and has been, living abroad, and she met somebody she wishes to marry.  With this decision comes a host of other major life decisions: how to introduce her fiancé to her family, when and where to get married, and when and where to begin a family.  These are choices that many, if not most of us, experienced in our 20s and 30s; it is part of the human experience.  But when each half of a soon-to-be-wed couple is from a different country, there are additional considerations of immigration laws and processing that must be taken into account.

We reviewed the options: a fiancé visa if she wishes to be married in the U.S., or a relative petition and an immigrant visa application following a wedding abroad.  For the latter option, there is the legislative provision for a K-3 visa if the processing is going to take a long time.  However, USCIS has eviscerated this provision by insisting on adjudicating the K-3 petition simultaneously with the relative petition.

The discussion naturally turned to processing times.  I had to explain that it was absolutely unknown.  Right now, relative petitions are taking close to — maybe more than — a year.  K-3 petitions may or may not be available.  I still don’t understand the benefit of a K-3 petition since if USCIS is going to adjudicate the K-3 petition, why not simply approve the relative petition?  It appears that USCIS agrees, but rather than approving the relative petition in a timely manner, it doesn’t adjudicate either until an unknowable period of time has passed.

It is, of course, close to impossible to plan a wedding based upon a fiancé petition.  There is a 90-day window for the wedding, and the timing of that window cannot be known in advance.  By the time it is known, there is insufficient time to find a venue, hire a caterer, send invitations, and plan a celebratory wedding.  It is simply not possible.

Then, of course, my client wanted to consider the timing to start a family.  She would like to have a baby in the United States, where she is more comfortable with the medical care, and has the support of family.  But she naturally wants her husband to be a part of that experience.  After all, it will be his child as well.  The biological clock is ticking and family planning issues are a major consideration.

Oh yes, the fiancé lives in an Islamic country.  We don’t discriminate based upon religion, of course — this is America.  Except I am required to advise this client that “administrative processing” might be a phrase in their future.  If so, “administrative processing” based upon the non-discriminatory security checks may delay her husband’s entry to the United States by anywhere from 2 weeks to a year or longer.  This makes it more difficult to plan.  No, let’s be honest, it’s not more difficult, it’s impossible.  Of course, since he has been denied a visitor’s visa based upon section 214(b), there is no hope that he may be able to come to the U.S. temporarily to share in the birth of a child, and then return to his home country to wait for the immigrant visa.

So I find myself discussing the timing of a pregnancy with my client.  Should she wait to get pregnant or get pregnant before getting married if they are going to apply for a fiancé visa? (This was not acceptable to the client.)  She is 35 years old, so the question shifted to what if she has trouble getting pregnant?  Should she start now? If a child does come along, what happens to the process to bring her husband to the U.S.?  Will he miss the first year or more of the child’s life?

Then I get angry.  She should not have to discuss all of this with her immigration lawyer– these are issues best discussed with her obstetrician and family if she chooses.  Yet our dysfunctional immigration system makes it an immigration issue.  It should not be an immigration issue, and to make it an immigration issue is just plain wrong.

USCIS appears to have put immediate relative petitions on hold.  There is a heavy case load, we are told, and yet they still collect a $420 filing fee to adjudicate each petition.  We are told that the fee, which has increased fourfold in the last 20 years (more than 300 percent higher than the cost of living increase[1]) is because the fee pays for the service and permits better service.  Twenty years ago a relative petition took weeks to adjudicate.  Now?  Now it takes years.

It seems that USCIS owes the American citizens it purports to serve an explanation.  And following the explanation, an apology, and a plan to correct this injustice is the least that should be done.  To paraphrase, justice delayed does indeed create injustice.

Written by Rob Cohen, Vice Chair, AILA’s USCIS Liaison Committee


[1] In 1994, the INS increased the filing fee for a relative petition to $80.00.  The Department of Labor, Consumer Price Index, calculates that $80 in 1994 has the same buying power as $126.07 today.  This is an increase of 333% above the increase in the consumer price index.  http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm

Ding Dong, DOMA Is Dead

Cheers erupted this morning outside the Supreme Court as the ruling was announced that by a 5-4 decision, Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional.

For over 15 years, because of DOMA, bi-national same-sex couples were often forced to choose between separation or staying together, but living in exile from the U.S.  Our nation was really behind the times on this, since over 30 countries provide immigration benefits for same-sex couples and we have seen firsthand the incredible toll of this unconstitutional discrimination.  Any American would agree that being forced to choose between your homeland and your loved one is a heart-breaking choice, and not one that is worthy of our traditions of liberty and fairness.  And today, in a landmark civil rights decision, the Supreme Court agreed, striking down part of DOMA as unconstitutional.

Under current law, the agencies charged with administering the immigrations laws may only recognize lawfully married couples—and under DOMA’s federally mandated discrimination, that explicitly excluded same-sex couples.

As immigration lawyers, we know that whether a marriage is valid impacts all areas of immigration law:  for example, a lawful union would be required before the CEO of a multinational company could relocate to the US with her partner and a US citizen or resident may only sponsor a spouse or have a stepchild relationship recognized where there is a valid marriage.  Even in something as serious as a potential deportation, an immigration judge is barred from looking at the hardship on US citizen or permanent resident partner for an individual facing deportation—unless there is a marital relationship.

There will certainly still be challenges for same-sex couples in the immigration process.  Only twelve states and Washington, DC (in addition to 15 countries) recognize same-sex marriage.  Civil unions or domestic partnerships—so far—do not appear to be covered by the ruling.  Traditionally, the immigration authorities have recognized family relationships based on where the event was celebrated, rather than where the couple lives.  The continued application of that rule will ensure that a couple that legally married in Iowa, for example, but moved to a state like Colorado (which has a state constitution ban on gay marriage) can still be recognized as spouses under Federal immigration law.

Same-sex bi-national couples will still face more and different hurdles than heterosexual couples in the immigration process.  For example, there may be increased scrutiny as to the bona fides of a same-sex relationship, which—combined with greater challenges to providing evidence of a marital relationship that are traditionally the subject of agency review—may make it harder to prove a real relationship.

Even if DOMA has been struck down, that doesn’t mean that LGBT individuals are suddenly free from prejudice.  Some individuals may not want to disclose their sexual orientation to their employer, friends or family, meaning that a rich source of corroborating evidence may be off limits.  For others, the reality may be that it’s just not safe to openly admit they are gay, much less identify a spouse.  The Supreme Court’s invalidation of DOMA only struck the Federal government’s ban on recognition of marriage.  It did not protect LGBT individuals from discrimination or worse, and it will be critical for all elements of the process—including the Department of State in the workings of its consulates overseas—to be particularly sensitive to this potential harm.

As an extra benefit, allowing our immigration system to recognize same-sex bi-national couples will also make America more attractive to global talent.  According to Immigration Equality, there are an estimated 36,000 same-sex bi-national couples in the United States, and those families include 25,000 children.  AILA believes that LGBT/same-sex families should be included in the definition of the American family and that should be reflected in our immigration laws. The Supreme Court’s ruling today will guarantee all lawfully married couples equal rights in regards to immigration.

Same-sex bi-national couples have fought long and hard for the right to keep their families together.  It’s only fair that if a U.S. citizen or permanent resident is legally married—regardless of sexual orientation—that their lawful marriage be recognized by the federal government when it comes to immigration issues.

Stateside Waivers: Some Families Still Left Out in the Cold

This week, USCIS launched the new I-601A provisional waiver program, allowing certain relatives of American citizens who are in the country illegally to get a decision on their waiver case, before leaving the United States.

The exact numbers are not known, but it is clear that the new rules will impact thousands of US families.  For those who wouldn’t undertake the artificially-imposed, but very real risk of “touching back” to their home country under the old rules, the new regulations mean that it’s finally safe to complete the residency process.  For thousands of others, the goodwill shown by immigration authorities in trying to alleviate the hardship created by the meaningless departure requirement has inspired them to start a process that was unthinkable before the new rules were put into place.

There is no question that the new rule is an overwhelmingly positive development for American families.  Immigrants and their citizen family members now have some measure of peace, knowing that their loved one will not be stranded in a foreign country for an unknown length of time, potentially risking life and limb, while waiting for a decision on their case.  USCIS’s continued impressive handling of deferred action applications has shown that the agency has the capacity to handle a large volume of applications, and get it done right.  And, promisingly, USCIS has indicated that the provisional waiver process should be extended to qualified relatives in other family categories, as resources allow.

In the context of immigration reform, this “solution” to a problem that never should have existed in the first place this begs the question of why we punish American families (and U.S. employers) by forcing the very immigrants that already have a path to citizenship to undergo separation, financial and emotional hardship, and risk their safety to attend a 10 minute interview abroad, when the same process can be achieved at a local USCIS Field Office.

Unfortunately, for many other equally qualified relatives, the new provisions will do nothing to fix their immigration problems, and they and their family will remain stranded by the unworkable scheme Congress put into place nearly two decades ago.  Moreover, the new processing rules do nothing to fix the draconian “permanent bar” which results in de facto exile of a decade or more for immigrant family members.  As we move forward to try to find real solutions to our broken immigration system, Congress would be wise to consider the real cost to American families and U.S. competitiveness when trying to retain the failed policies or create new penalties which do nothing but harm the very people who already have a path to citizenship.

Regrettably, despite numerous comments from immigrant communities and advocates, the new rules perpetuated some of the absurdities of the process.  Instead of fixing the problems identified by experts in the field, the agencies inserted a glaringly punitive rule, inexplicably excluding individuals who had already started the process and had already paid the required government fees.   The irony is that this change serves only to leave out in the cold those families who were playing by the (old) rules.

As a result, thousands who had bravely begun the very last chapter of the application process have been stranded—ironically, after most put their cases on hold because the agency announced the proposed process over a year ago in draft form.  Under the final rules, those individuals cannot take advantage of the new procedures and must risk waiting outside the US for an indeterminate amount of time, without any sense of whether their case might—or might not be granted.

Not even filing a new consular application will allow a person with an approved petition to benefit from the new procedures.  The only way to have the same protections as other families appears to be withdrawing all applications and starting a case over from the very beginning.  In practical terms, this means that applicants who were nearly at the front of the line after years of processing, are being forced to choose between going forward, with all the uncertainty and risk of the “old” system, or abandoning their applications, getting into the back of the line, waiting years until they might see a new appointment and, to add insult to injury—paying twice for the privilege.

So, is there any reason these families are being singled out and put at risk?  No one involved in the process seems to have an answer, much less a defensible reason for this oversight.  If this feels like being in a long line at the grocery store and being relieved to see a new lane open, only to have the clerk take the guy behind you first, you’re not far off.  Except in this analogy, you not only get stuck at the back of the line, you end up paying for your groceries twice.

Written by Laura Lichter, AILA President