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Despite Emma Lazarus’ poignant words inscribed at the Statue of Liberty suggesting a welcoming embrace to asylum seekers, a troubling new implementation of policy is in direct conflict with our nation’s ideological fascination with freedom.  Immigration attorneys throughout the country are finding that people seeking asylum at our borders and within are being held in custody without parole or bond pending their asylum cases. Not only is this a strong deterrent to those who are being persecuted in other countries from finding freedom in the greatest free country in the world, it directly contradicts our longstanding ideals as a nation.

The United States was founded on the idea of freedom.  Religious freedom.  Political freedom.  Freedom in our daily lives.  Give me liberty or give me death.  We welcome the best and brightest from other nations and other cultures.  We incorporate the best ideas and the best practices from those best and brightest minds.  That is how we became the greatest nation on earth.  A melting pot of brilliance.  Yet, the message we see now coming from our government is very clear.  Asylum Seekers – You are not welcome.

I LIFT MY LAMP BESIDE THE GOLDEN DOOR!

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) has been a saving grace for countless people who have no other form of relief from deportation.  DACA is available to people who came into the United States without “admission,” when they were children.  In its simplest form, it is a declaration by the government that they will not institute deportation proceedings for a specified period of time.  The practical benefits to the individual are that the person becomes eligible for certain benefits, like a driver’s license and employment authorization, and they don’t have to look over their shoulder and worry that they are going to be taken into ICE custody.

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In order to be eligible for DACA, you must meet the following requirements:

  1. Were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012;
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Criminal defense lawyers don’t typically know anything about immigration law.  Immigration law is federal.  Most criminal defense attorneys practice only state law in state courts.  Even if they do practice in federal criminal courtrooms, it is a completely different area of law from immigration.  Asking a criminal lawyer about immigration law is kind of like asking a podiatrist about cataracts.  That is unless the lawyer practices in both fields, which is becoming more common.  The problem is that when you ask a lawyer about an area of law they don’t know anything about, they may give you an answer.  “Uh, I’m sure this conviction won’t hurt you.  You’ve been here 30 years.  You have a greencard.  Don’t worry about it.”  And that answer may not only be wrong; it may be dead wrong with deadly consequences.

Case in point – Jae Lee is going before the United States Supreme Court because his criminal defense attorney told him that his plea to Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute would not make him deportable.  Not only did it make him deportable, it is considered an aggravated felony and he has no form of relief to prevent his deportation.  His criminal defense attorney’s nonchalant dismissal of such a critical issue has led to a lifetime of catastrophic consequences for Mr. Lee, including being incarcerated for seven years while he fights his deportation.  If you’d like to learn more about Mr. Lee’s case, check out this wonderful article written by Manny Vargas from the Immigrant Defense Project.  Mr. Vargas provides a very detailed history of Mr. Lee’s case and discusses exactly how Mr. Lee went from thinking his criminal conviction would not lead to deportation to realizing he would not only be deported, but would be detained for many years while fighting that deportation.

Don’t get me wrong.  Many criminal defense attorneys do an amazing job of actually looking at the immigration statutes, calling up immigration lawyers, and sending their clients to immigration lawyers.  But many do not.  So, you should trust your criminal defense attorney, but verify.  Trust, but verify.  Ask your lawyer if they have any experience in immigration law.  Go seek the advice of an immigration lawyer. The consequences are too severe for you to leave it in the hands of an attorney who may view the immigration consequences as a collateral consequence of the plea, rather than a potential life shattering experience.

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There has been great fear rising within immigrant communities regarding the new policies directed at certain non-citizens.  On January 25th, 2107, President Trump issued an executive order titled Executive Order: Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.  This Order provided guidance to federal agencies on how to implement certain provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  Specifically, President Trump called for the targeting of non-citizens who 1) have criminal convictions, 2) have been charged with crimes even though the criminal court proceeding shave not been completed, and 3) have committed criminal acts that have not even been charged.  The Order addresses other individuals to be targeted.  It also calls for 10,000 additional deportation officers to be hired.

So how could this affect you, if you a non- U.S. Citizen.

Any criminal charge, no matter how minor, no matter how long you have been in the U.S., and no matter what your status is could lead to prolonged detention pending criminal and/or immigration proceedings and to deportation.  The law has not changed since President Trump took office, but the way it is implemented has.  It is still too early to tell just how drastic the change will be from the Obama administration, but it is clear that there will be change.

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What am I eligible for? That is a very common question for many immigrants who call or visit our immigration office for legally advice. “I came into the country illegally,” how do I get a work permit or a green card? The truth is if you are in the United States and you do not have status and you did not enter after having been inspected and admitted or paroled, your immigration options can be quite limited. Our immigration laws changed dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s and one of the big changes was to punish people who entered the country illegally by greatly limiting their ability to stay in the U.S. legally.

There are five basic immigration options possibly open to you if you entered illegally and are currently out of status; 1) Asylum/Withholding/CAT; 2) U/T/S Visas; 3) 245(i) Adjustment; 4) Cancellation of Removal; 5) TPS.

At first blush, you may say, wow those are quite a few options, sounds great, how do I sign up. Therein lies the problem, most people who are in the United States without status after entering without inspection will not qualify for any of these forms of immigration relief. That’s right, unfortunately, just because you have been in the U.S. for many years, have family here, have a job here or have a fear of going back to your home country does not mean you qualify for any form of immigration relief. Lets briefly review what it takes to qualify for these immigration benefits/relief.

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Cuban-Flag-behind-man-with-Suitcase-1024x692President’s Obama’s January 12, 2017 announcement about Cuban immigration policy changed the landscape for Cuban nationals. Along with all the official changes announced on January 12, 2017 on this subject, there was another document that contains two very important, but often overlooked paragraphs. The United States and Cuba released a “Joint Statement of the United States and Cuba on Changes to Migration Relationship with Cuba.” This statement contained two very interesting paragraphs that will effect not only Cubans coming to the U.S. on or after January 12, 2017, but Cubans who may have been in the U.S. for decades and already have a final order of removal/deportation, or will receive one in the future. This first paragraph is number 5 and it talks about the infamous Cuban “Repat List” that ICE keeps locked up in a safe somewhere in South Florida:

  1. The Republic of Cuba shall accept that individuals included in the list of 2,746 to be returned in accordance with the Joint Communiqué of December 14, 1984, may be replaced by others and returned to Cuba, provided that they are Cuban nationals who departed for the United States of America via the Port of Mariel in 1980 and were found by the competent authorities of the United States to have tried to irregularly enter or remain in that country in violation of United States law. The Parties shall agree on the specific list of these individuals and the procedure for their return.

When I worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, I spoke to ICE officers who swore the list actually exists and it is kept in a safe in a location I will not disclose. When ICE had a final order Cuban national in custody who was a “Marielito,” they would check the list to see if the person could be deported or “repatriated,” to Cuba. Obviously, not every Cuban national who came to Florida in the Summer of 1980 is on that list, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of Cubans who left the Port of Mariel in 1980 who are currently in the U.S. with a final order of removal or deportation.

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Last week, President Obama issued the first major change in U.S. immigration policy towards Cubans in over 20 years. On January 12, 2017, President Obama announced that the 1995 immigration policy designed specifically for Cuban nationals, known as “Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot”, would be abolished immediately. That means that Cuban nationals arriving at air, sea and land ports would now be subject to expedited removal (they were not previously) and that the Cuban government has agreed to review Cuban nationals with final orders of removal on a case by case basis to determine if they would allow them to be deported to Cuba. In addition, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. without visas and without having been admitted or paroled will not receive special parole consideration. They will be considered for parole like any other foreign national. Parole is the primary way that Cubans become eligible to adjust status in the U.S. and get their green cards.

This is a major, major change to how the U.S. government treats Cuban nationals coming to, or attempting to come to the United States. No longer will they be welcomed into the air, sea and land ports, automatically given parole into the U.S., and a year and day later, be allowed to apply for adjustment of status under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Just for background, the 1995 Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot Policy, enacted by President Clinton, restricted Cuban nationals, who would be paroled into the U.S. and allowed to apply for green cards, to those who actually made it to U.S. soil before immigration officers caught them. Previously, Cuban nationals caught on boats or rafts in the Florida Straits, on their way from Cuba to the U.S., were brought to the U.S. and paroled into the country, rather than being sent back to Cuba. Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot greatly limited the number of Cuban nationals who made it to the U.S.

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Yes, absolutely and without a doubt, if you have a pending immigration case, an old immigration case you want to reopen or you are not a U.S. citizen and want to know about your immigration history, you need a FOIA and you need it now. Information is power and FOIA is information. The federal government loves to use acronyms to describe everything, whether its DHS, ICE, USCIS, CBP, LPR or USC, if you can break a phrase down into letters, Uncle Sam will do it. FOIA is just another example of that and stands for “Freedom of Information Act.”   Knowing how to request one and having the right attorney review it could be the key to winning your immigration case or losing and getting deported.

When I worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we had unlimited access to data and the files of everyone who had an A-file (Alien file). We had vast networks of systems that compiled data on individuals in the U.S. who were born overseas or people deported from the U.S. who were trying to come back. If you know where to look, you could find a tremendous amount of information that could help immigrants trying to avoid deportation. However, most of the time, the government immigration attorneys, officers and agents would keep the information to themselves and often use it against the immigrants.

One of the greatest resources that the federal government has, as it relates to immigration, is information. This is not information that is public record like in criminal cases. Federal government immigration information is protected by a variety of privacy laws and policies. This means, usually, only the person that is the subject of the record can request it, and the government can hold back some of the information for a variety of reasons.

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President-Elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office on January 20, 2017. Its a safe bet that he will get to work immediately on his agenda and campaign promises to undo as much of President Obama’s immigration executive actions as possible.

While Trump has made many promises regarding immigration, many will take an act of Congress to accomplish. These promises (the Wall, legal immigration reform, and others) will take time and will not happen immediately. Other promises will take another country agreeing to them to happen (making Cuba and other countries take back their deportees), therefore they may never happen and certainly won’t happen next January.

There are a few immigration actions that President Trump can, and probably will, take immediately after taking office. These are the actions that immigrants should be immediately aware of and on which they should take action as soon as possible to reduce the negative consequences against them and their families.