‘Invisible Wall’ Restrictions Keep Out Legal Immigrants, Too

Alexis Steele
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

Immigration cases that use to be a “slam dunk” – those involving victims of human trafficking with robust applications with ample evidence of eligibility – have become long shots after numerous changes to the immigration system made by federal officials.

“What we’ve seen is essentially standards being inexplicably and extremely heightened for everything,” said Alexis Steele, policy staff attorney for the Immigrant Legal Center. “What we’re seeing is a combination of policy changes, case law changes and procedural challenges that add up to what you might call an invisible wall. That’s essentially just an overall increase in difficulty in being an immigrant in the United States and either obtaining status or remaining in status.”

The consequence for those who seek to obtain or remain in legal immigration status can be dire, as they can be pushed into undocumented status through no fault of their own. Steele said two-thirds of undocumented people came to the U.S. with lawful status.

Steele said the current situation amounts to “an attack on immigrants” – lawful or otherwise.

The U.S. has gone from a leader in welcoming refugees to one of the least welcoming in the world, Steele said. The government’s “zero tolerance” stance, including its controversial policy of child separation, resulted in toddlers as young as 3 being left to represent themselves in court proceedings without their parents.

Steele said the federal government changed the rules in June 2018 by overturning precedent with a Department of Justice decision in Matter of A-B-. That case involved a woman from El Salvador who endured domestic abuse, including being repeatedly stabbed protecting a baby, before fleeing to the United States. The case has had ripple effects for cases of other women who faced violent attacks and subsequently were denied asylum in the U.S.

“People don’t leave their homes simply because there’s a higher paying job over here,” Steele said. “People leave their homes because they’re genuinely afraid, and it’s a very arduous journey. Some people die along the way. There are many abuses along the way.”

Barriers have been erected for other forms of immigration, too, such as the Temporary Protected Status program, which helps people fleeing from a temporary crisis – such as a disaster or civil turmoil, for which the aftermath can take a lifetime to resolve.

Steele said the TPS program is being wound down without justification, with little change since people with TPS status first received it. Steele said that every possible form of legal immigration is under attack.

Steele specializes in T visas that provide temporary nonimmigrant status for certain victims of a severe form of human trafficking, allowing them to remain in the U.S. for up to four years in exchange for assisting law enforcement in an investigation or prosecution of human trafficking.

The T visa allows employment authorization, certain federal and state benefits and possible qualification to become a lawful permanent resident – often referred to as obtaining a green card.

Those cases, and many others, have seen requests for further evidence “skyrocket” in the past few years, even in really clear-cut cases where previously adequate evidence is initially presented.

Steele said those requests don’t come with an explanation, and the requests will sometimes ask for evidence that’s been submitted. 

“The situation is really frustrating, really puzzling, because the only possible explanation for these changes is that the agencies, the government, is not looking to grant applications,” Steele said. “It is very demanding and emotionally eroding for pretty much everyone involved.”

The pace of rapid change in immigration law is being felt by others practicing in the area, too.

McGrath | North posted a blog last month noting changes to the immigration system have come “almost daily” the past two years. 

“Whether it be a new proposed regulation, case, executive order, blocking of court order, policy, or tweet, immigration has been a moving target,” wrote immigration attorney Diana Morales McFarland. “Some policies are proposed, suspended, and some are passed and now in place. Now more than ever it is imperative to keep up to date with the never-ending changes the immigration system is experiencing as increased scrutiny continues.”

For those who do successfully obtain immigration status, wait times can be staggering.

People seeking U visas, which are for victims of crimes who help authorities with an investigation, are unlikely to receive a decision within a decade, Steele said.

They may or may not receive deferred action, which allows a work permit, but their life might simply be on hold as they wait.

Steele said a common misconception is that people can bring their entire family with them, and that’s simply not true. Citizens or permanent residents can bring their children, but they can’t necessarily bring their parents.

The U.S. Department of State, in its October Visa Bulletin, said unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens – the highest priority of family-sponsored preferences – are processing requests from August 1997 for Mexican nationals. For nationals of the Philippines, final actions date to July 2008.

“Your wait could be much longer than your lifetime,” Steele said. “Some of these wait times have been estimated to be over a hundred years.”

The realities of the U.S. immigration system mean people deserve compassion, Steele said, not to face dehumanizing rhetoric.

“Every single person involved is a person,” Steele said.

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