Lawyers make sure im­mi­grants have a say

Lo­cal at­tor­neys vol­un­teer to rep­re­sent asy­lum seek­ers who have been de­tained

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jean Mar­bella

The man from El Sal­vador told a chill­ing story: He had been as­saulted by a gang and tried to re­port the crime to po­lice. In­stead, gang mem­bers ac­costed him again, hold­ing up a cell­phone that was on speaker so he could hear the threat di­rectly.

“I will hunt down your fam­ily one by one if you go to po­lice,” at­tor­ney Alyssa Domzal said he told her.

Hounded no mat­ter where he went and fear­ful he could bring harm to his loved ones, the man said he de­cided to leave his coun­try en­tirely. He trav­eled through Mex­ico and crossed into the United States near El Paso, Texas, where he was quickly ap­pre­hended and ul­ti­mately sent to a de­ten­tion cen­ter in Folk­ston, Ga. There, he would meet Domzal, far from her own home in Bal­ti­more — and her work as a cor­po­rate at­tor­ney spe­cial­iz­ing in com­mer­cial real es­tate trans­ac­tions.

Domzal and a fel­low at­tor­ney at Bal­lard Spahr, Michelle McGeogh, are among hun­dreds of lawyers across the coun­try who have taken time away from their paid work to travel to re­mote de­ten­tion cen­ters

and rep­re­sent un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants — help­ing them seek asy­lum, for ex­am­ple, or release on bond or pa­role while await­ing rul­ings on whether they can stay in the United States or face de­por­ta­tion to the coun­tries they fled.

With the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion clamp­ing down on im­mi­gra­tion on mul­ti­ple fronts — sep­a­rat­ing chil­dren from par­ents on the bor­der and re­set­tling far fewer refugees than in the past — the num­ber of de­tainees is soar­ing. In fis­cal 2018, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment re­port, 396,448 peo­ple were booked into de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties, a more than 22 per­cent in­crease over the pre­vi­ous year.

Many in the le­gal pro­fes­sion have been mo­ti­vated to take on the cause of those seek­ing en­try to the U.S., with some of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent law firms fil­ing suits to chal­lenge Trump’s poli­cies. Lawyers are do­nat­ing their time, which might oth­er­wise cost pay­ing clients hun­dreds of dol­lars an hour, to rep­re­sent im­mi­grants.

“I be­came in­ter­ested be­cause the pol­icy of fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion was par­tic­u­larly trou­bling to me be­cause I’m the mother of two, and just imag­in­ing that pol­icy play­ing out in my own life,” said McGeogh, a lit­i­ga­tor in real es­tate and em­ploy­ment cases.

McGeogh and Domzal are back at work in Bal­ti­more now, in 18th-floor of­fices over­look­ing the In­ner Har­bor, but they haven’t left their vol­un­teer work be­hind. Domzal and four Bal­lard Spahr at­tor­neys from of­fices else­where in the coun­try con­tinue to work on an asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion for the man from El Sal­vador, whom they worked with the week of Oct. 29, that they plan to sub­mit in Fe­bru­ary. And both she and McGeogh, who vol­un­teered at a fa­cil­ity in Lump­kin, Ga., the week of Nov. 5, want to re­turn in the com­ing year to fur­ther as­sist de­tainees.

“I re­mem­ber when I came back from Ge­or­gia, Mon­day morn­ing, park­ing in the Gallery garage, and hav­ing this sense that my work here is im­por­tant,” McGeogh said, “but also know­ing that what was go­ing on at the time in Lump­kin was im­pact­ful.

“I thought, I should be there,” she said. “I need to go back there.”

Even work­ing just a sin­gle week proved to be an in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence, the lawyers said. Domzal re­calls see­ing hun­dreds of men, wear­ing color-coded uni­forms of blue for lower-risk de­tainees with mi­nor or no crim­i­nal records and orange for those deemed higher-risk.

“The vast ma­jor­ity are in blue,” she said, “and yet they’re here in what is essen­tially a prison.”

While in­ter­preters are avail­able, Domzal speaks Span­ish from hav­ing spent two years as a Peace Corps vol­un­teer in Peru.

“There’s a rap­port and emo­tional con­nec­tion when you’re talk­ing to some­one in their na­tive lan­guage that is re­ally pow­er­ful,” she said.

The pro bono pro­gram Domzal and McGeogh worked with, the South­east Im­mi­grant Free­dom Ini­tia­tive, is run by the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter at three de­ten­tion cen­ters in Ge­or­gia and two in Louisiana. Other groups, such as Catholic Char­i­ties and Kids In Need of De­fense, or KIND, sim­i­larly of­fer le­gal aid to im­mi­grants.

Ear­lier this year, a group of Univer­sity of Mary­land Law School pro­fes­sors and stu­dents spent their spring break vol­un­teer­ing for the poverty law cen­ter pro­gram at a fa­cil­ity in South­ern Ge­or­gia.

Or, as As­so­ci­ate Professor Mau­reen Sweeney calls it wryly, “where due process goes to die.”

Be­cause de­por­ta­tion is a civil mat­ter, im­mi­grants do not have a right to an at­tor­ney as some­one charged in a crim­i­nal case does. And even if they or fam­ily mem­bers have the means to hire a lawyer, the re­mote lo­ca­tion of the de­ten­tion cen­ters means there are few at­tor­neys in the vicin­ity avail­able to take such cases.

“It was eye-open­ing for [stu­dents] to see how lim­ited the ac­cess to le­gal coun­sel was,” Sweeney said. “I think they got a real sort of con­crete, per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of what it means to be de­tained when your rights are so con­strained, more than even in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. I think they also got an ex­pe­ri­ence of what a dif­fer­ence it makes to have a lawyer.

Emily Neu­big, now a third-year stu­dent, had been pres­i­dent of the school’s Im­mi­gra­tion Law and Pol­icy As­so­ci­a­tion and or­ga­nized the trip. Stu­dents raised money and re­ceived as­sis­tance from the law school for travel and ho­tel costs. Much of their work in­volved in­ter­view­ing de­tainees to see whether they might be el­i­gi­ble for bond or pa­role while their cases were pend­ing, con­ver­sa­tions made dif­fi­cult by the fact that there was only one at­tor­ney’s room for in-per­son meet­ings and a few booths where they could talk by phone across a par­ti­tion to their po­ten­tial clients.

“You had to wait for­ever be­fore they would let you in,” Neu­big said, “and then you had to speak through phones where you could hardly hear them.”

For an­other law stu­dent, Jacob Licht­en­baum, the week brought home the priv­i­lege he en­joyed sim­ply by “ac­ci­dent of birth.” Licht­en­baum, now a sec­ond-year stu­dent, said he in­ter­viewed a man close to his own age of 25 who lost his pro­tected sta­tus un­der the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pol­icy af­ter a drug pos­ses­sion case.

“If the same thing hap­pened to me, I would get an at­tor­ney and be fine,” he said. “Their sta­tus is so frag­ile.”

Licheten­baum, who is pres­i­dent of the im­mi­gra­tion as­so­ci­a­tion, said he wishes all cit­i­zens could see for them­selves the des­per­a­tion of de­tainees.

“You see what the stakes are for these peo­ple,” he said. “They’re an easy tar­get. Some­one needs to stand up for them.”

Dan Werner, who di­rects the im­mi­grant ini­tia­tive, said about 320 at­tor­neys have worked pro bono at the de­ten­tion cen­ters, and oth­ers have worked re­motely, an­swer­ing phone calls for the pro­gram.

Along with hun­dreds of other vol­un­teers, such as in­ter­preters, the pro­gram is mak­ing a “sig­nif­i­cant dent” in the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion among de­tainees.

Stud­ies have shown, as in other le­gal pro­ceed­ings, those who have a lawyer are more likely to re­ceive a fa­vor­able out­come.

“Even with the won­der­ful vol­un­teers we have, we’re con­sis­tently try­ing to re­cruit more,” Werner said.

“Just go­ing into a de­ten­tion cen­ter, ac­knowl­edg­ing their hu­man­ity and the iso­la­tion they feel, and gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion that could lead to their free­dom or even save their life, it’s ev­ery­thing,” he said.

Those who fa­vor stricter im­mi­gra­tion laws, how­ever, say that help­ing a de­tainee stay in the U.S. can have a cost, par­tic­u­larly if they go on to re­ceive pub­lic as­sis­tance.

“If the im­mi­grants they help en­ter the coun­try be­come a pub­lic charge, the tax­payer, not the at­tor­ney, picks up the bill,” said Dave Ray, spokesman for the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Re­form, or FAIR, which works to crack down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

“In short, the at­tor­ney has noth­ing to lose if the im­mi­grant ends up be­ing a bad ap­ple.”

He added that help­ing an im­mi­grant “likely greases the skids for fu­ture paid busi­ness for the pro-bono at­tor­ney, since most im­mi­grants com­ing to the U.S. are spon­sored by a fam­ily mem­ber al­ready here.

“Thus, help­ing an im­mi­grant en­ter might lay the ground­work for fu­ture cases from their long list of ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers hop­ing to en­ter the U.S. as well.”

An­drew R. Arthur, a res­i­dent fel­low in law and pol­icy for the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, which fa­vors lower lev­els of im­mi­gra­tion and has the same founder as FAIR, sees the pro bono pro­grams as “an ef­fort to push back against poli­cies they don’t like.”

Arthur served eight years as an im­mi­gra­tion judge in York, Pa. Judges are re­quired to han­dle the ques­tion­ing if an im­mi­grant ap­pears with­out a lawyer, he said, and serve as a “neu­tral ar­biter” re­gard­less of whether rep­re­sen­ta­tion is avail­able.

“There are sit­u­a­tions that went on a lit­tle bit longer than they should have be­cause there was a lawyer in­volved,” Arthur said. “I ended up rul­ing the same way I would have.”

Ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants said that con­trary to some po­lit­i­cal rhetoric, im­mi­grants face many hur­dles in gain­ing en­try to the coun­try and find­ing a way to re­main, at a time when im­mi­gra­tion courts are clogged with more than 800,000 pend­ing cases, ac­cord­ing to a Syra­cuse Univer­sity re­port.

The back­log of asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions alone stood at more than 319,000 at the end of Septem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices.

Seek­ing asy­lum with­out le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion al­most guar­an­tees a de­nial, ac­cord­ing to Syra­cuse’s Trans­ac­tional Records Ac­cess Clear­ing­house, which tracks fed­eral data. In 2016, for ex­am­ple, im­mi­gra­tion judges de­nied un­rep­re­sented asy­lum seek­ers’ claims 90 per­cent of the time, ac­cord­ing to the clear­ing­house, com­pared with 48 per­cent of those with lawyers.

McGeogh said the process is strin­gent. “Re­gard­less of how long you’ve been here and are con­tribut­ing to so­ci­ety, you may not have a valid le­gal claim to stay­ing here.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to put to­gether a good asy­lum pe­ti­tion,” she said. “You need to get a lot of let­ters. You have to have coun­try con­di­tion re­ports. You need peo­ple to help doc­u­ment your fear of re­turn­ing.

“Try to do that while you’re de­tained,” McGeogh said.

It was dis­heart­en­ing, she said, to re­peat­edly have to tell de­tainees that she couldn’t help them. And yet, she said, “the work is still im­por­tant.”

“We need lawyers down there help­ing peo­ple,” McGeogh said, “and let­ting them know there are peo­ple in the United States who care about them.”

Those who have pre­vi­ously vol­un­teered of­ten re­turn again, Werner of the free­dom ini­tia­tive said. There was even one vol­un­teer, on the part­ner track of her firm, who ended up quitting her job to join the ini­tia­tive’s staff.

The Mary­land law stu­dents hope to re­turn as well.

“The sil­ver lin­ing in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ag­gres­sive stance on im­mi­gra­tion,” said Sweeney, the Mary­land law professor, “is the huge upheaval and sup­port among stu­dents who see this as a new civil rights move­ment.”


At­tor­neys Michelle McGeogh, left, and Alyssa Domzal do pro bono work as­sist­ing im­mi­grants who have been de­tained for en­ter­ing the coun­try at the Mex­i­can bor­der. The lawyers trav­eled to ru­ral Ge­or­gia to pro­vide le­gal help, and hope to do more vol­un­teer work there.

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