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My annual ritual. The start of the H-1B nonimmigrant visa filing season is once again upon us. And once again, immigration practitioners around the country are having increasingly more difficult conversations with their clients who wish to hire foreign nationals into what are called “speciality occupation” positions. Last year, after President Trump signed an Executive Order on April 18, 2017 entitled “Buy American, Hire American” (“BAHA”), the conversations became very different from previous years. This year it seems even worse. Let me explain.
The purported purpose of the “Hire American” portion of BAHA is to create higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers, and to protect their economic interests by rigorously enforcing and administering the laws governing entry of foreign workers into the United States. President Trump specifically highlighted the H-1B visa program, directing the Secretaries of State, Labor, and Homeland Security, as well as the Attorney General, to suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled and highest-paid foreign workers.
As always, a (reminder) primer is in order. The H-1B nonimmigrant visa is a temporary visa that allows employers to petition for highly educated foreign professionals to work in “specialty occupations” (e.g., architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts). These positions typically require at least a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent for entry into the field.
Notwithstanding what you read in President Trump’s “fake” tweets, before an employer can file an H-1B petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”), the employer must first take steps to ensure that hiring the foreign worker will not harm U.S. workers. First and foremost, employers must attest, on a Labor Condition Application (“LCA”) filed with and certified by the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), that employment of the H-1B worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
An executive order cannot modify existing statutes or regulations. However, BAHA does clearly direct the above-referenced agencies who administer immigration programs to approach their administration obligations from an enforcement standpoint rather than as providing a service to those parties that they regulate. Consequently, a number of agency memoranda have either been issued or repealed since BAHA was signed by the President.
In 2018, practitioners saw how BAHA would play out in real time. Quite simply, as a result of BAHA, employers, their current / prospective employees and their attorneys are being besieged by requests for evidence (“RFE’s”) from USCIS. According to The Wall Street Journal, “the administration is more closely scrutinizing applications for the high-skilled visa program known as H-1B, sending back more than one in four applications between January and August [of 2017] via “requests for further evidence,” according to data from [USCIS], which administers the program. A year earlier, fewer than one in five were sent back.”
In terms of my own practice, and anecdotally what I am hearing from virtually every colleague of mine that practices in this area, these RFE’s are making requests that we’ve never seen before, including questioning the prevailing wage classification and level selected on the underlying LCA associated with the H-1B petition, and also questioning whether the position requires at least a Bachelor’s degree in a specific educational specialty.
Specifically, USCIS is taking the position that a Level 1 wage, as a general matter, cannot support a claim that the offered position is in a “specialty occupation.” Alternatively, the RFE’s often claim that if a position is sufficiently complex to be considered a “specialty occupation”, then it cannot have a Level 1 wage associated with it. Some RFE’s make both arguments and then ask the employer-petitioner to essentially prove the impossible.
And, where at first we starting seeing these RFE’s in specific types of case (e.g., software developers, computer systems analysts), we are now seeing them issued in a wider array of occupations, including engineers (e.g., civil, mechanical, industrial, etc.), lawyers, dentists, teachers, physicians, and accountants/auditors.
Mercifully for our clients we have been able to successfully overcome these RFE’s, but now without a lot of extra time and effort put into the case that, given the existing regulatory framework and case law, seems absolutely unnecessary. These RFE’s have added substantial expense and uncertainty to the H-1B process. The result is that it discourages immigration without making any formal policy change. This needs to change.
You can’t make this stuff up. This is the world that I and a few other local colleagues of mine work in.
So, I asked my wife what she wanted to do to bring in the New Year (not that we usually do anything more than have dinner with some close friends), with the caveat that no matter what it was, I had to be home … in front of my computer … at midnight … because I had work to do. That’s right, many of my colleagues and I (on the East coast anyway) were at our offices or at our homes in front of our computers working as the clock struck midnight. And then mayhem ensued, and I promise you, it was not fireworks or noisemakers. Let me explain.
One of the visa programs that some of my clients use is the H-2B nonimmigrant visa program. The H-2B nonimmigrant visa allows foreign nationals who are citizens of certain named countries (with limited exceptions) to accept “temporary” non-agricultural employment in the United States (e.g., landscape workers, ski resort employees, etc.). Before doing so, however, the sponsoring employer must first obtain a temporary labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) by establishing that there were no willing, able, and qualified U.S. workers available during a recruitment period.
Like some other visa programs, there is an annual numerical limitation for this visa program; specifically there are 66,000 H-2B visas that are available in each government fiscal year. Also like some other visa programs, there are more companies filing applications for a temporary labor certification from the USDOL than there are visa numbers available.
Of the 66,000 worker positions that are available annually, 33,000 are allocated to each half of the fiscal year. This allows industries that traditionally have opposite seasons (e.g., summer beach resorts v. winter ski resorts) to have a “fair” chance at participating in the H-2B program to obtain necessary temporary workers. Because of the incredible demand associated with the H-2B program (indeed even our President allegedly uses this program for his resorts), H-2B applications are now date and time stamped to the millisecond in order to establish the order of submission. Applications are processed by the USDOL in the order that they’re received. And for the second half of the government’s 2018 – 2019 fiscal year, the period for filing a temporary labor certification with the USDOL commenced one millisecond past midnight on New Years Eve.
As the New Year rang in, the USDOL later reported that there were applications for 97,800 workers that were about to be filed by an “unprecedented volume of simultaneous system users.” The USDOL noted there were 22,900 server login attempts on January 1, 2019 versus a mere 721 attempts in the same period on January 1, 2018. Not surprisingly, the government’s online filing system crashed. The exchange that went on over the next couple of hours, well past midnight, on the American Immigration Lawyer Service’s (“AILA”) H-2B attorney Listserv, bordered on a combination of sad, pathetic, and ridiculous. It was also really so unnecessary.
Readers of this piece know how much I long for meaningful reform to our immigration system. There are many substantive examples that I’ve written about over the past few years. This is not one of them. This is a procedural reform, somewhat selfishly written for sure (as anyone who knows me knows that I can barely stay up to 9:00 pm on a normal day), but it’s important.
What kind of program requires employers (or yes, even their attorneys) to sit by their computer at the stroke of midnight, on New Years Eve no less, requiring them to hit “submit”, tens and sometimes hundreds of times, so they can participate in a visa program to fill necessary positions with their company? And in today’s day and age, what kind of government is so ill-equipped to handle the unprecedented volume that they themselves created? Was the system not adequately stress tested? Was no one monitoring it (perhaps in light of the current government shut down)?
As annoying as this whole debacle has been, it’s not missing New Years that bothers me. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m usually sleeping at the stroke of midnight in any event. It’s that our government can’t come up with a better and more equitable system within which employers and their counsel can work to get things done. It really is ridiculous. The H-2B program is an absolutely necessary program for many employers. The process for participating in it, however, is unnecessarily cumbersome and needs to be reformed
For those companies (or their attorneys) filing outside of the eastern time zone, the filing time was an hour earlier for each time zone west you go.
 At that time, the USDOL indicated that employers had prepared 5,400 H-2B applications, which were in a queue to be submitted to the USDOL, seeking a total of 97,800 workers.
The midterm elections have come and gone. No one could (or should) disagree, no matter what your political affiliation is, that the politics leading up to and even since the election were and continue to be toxic, at best. Case in point was and is the President’s use of the “caravan” of migrants that trekked across Central America (that he claimed were going to invade our southern border) as the impetus to issue an “asylum ban”.
Specifically, on November 9, 2018, the President issued a proclamation that, in conjunction with a rule promulgated by both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, bars any individual from seeking asylum who enters the United States from Mexico between official ports of entry. The proclamation will remain effective for 90 days (and can be extended) or until the establishment of a so-called “safe third country” agreement with Mexico.
Advocates not surprisingly (and in my view appropriately) are up in arms, arguing that the President’s action eliminates fundamental due process protections for asylum seekers. They specifically argue that U.S. law clearly states (and it does) that all persons arriving to the United States, no matter where they enter from, have the right to seek asylum. It is true that not everyone is eligible for asylum, but nevertheless, under current U.S. law, everyone has the right to pursue it no matter whether they seek asylum at a port of entry or otherwise.
Specifically, section 208(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) provides that “any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States … whether or not at a designated port of arrival … may apply for asylum[.]” This seems pretty clear to me.
As a result of the President’s actions, several immigration advocacy organizations sued in U.S. District Court in San Francisco to halt the asylum ban. In a ruling issued on November 19, 2018, U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar temporarily blocked the President’s policy of denying asylum to migrants who cross the southern border into the United States without inspection, saying the policy likely violated federal law on asylum eligibility. Really? No kidding.
Judge Tigar wrote that “[w]hatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.”
The Trump Administration appealed, and just recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, also refused to immediately allow the Trump Administration to enforce the ban.
The asylum ban represents yet another effort by the President to turn away those seeking protection under our asylum laws. Since taking office, the Trump Administration has detained more asylum seekers, it created the infamous policy that separates asylum-seeking families in connection with its “zero-tolerance” policy, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued the decision Matter of A-B-, which restricts the ability of domestic and gang violence survivors to obtain asylum.
Writing for the 9th Circuit, Judge Jay Bybee, a nominee of Republican President George W. Bush, stated, “Just as we may not, as we are often reminded, ‘legislate from the bench,’ neither may the Executive legislate from the Oval Office.’
Collectively, all of the President’s measures undermine our country’s longstanding commitment to protect those fleeing violence and persecution. Since its inception, the United States has been a beacon for those pursuing freedom and protection against persecution. The President and Congress can ensure the integrity of our borders while still upholding these fundamental truths. They just need to do it thoughtfully and lawfully.
The midterms are upon us. I don’t need to tell the readers of this blog how I hope it ends up.
I was struck recently by two quotes I saw within moments of each other about the “caravan” of immigrants trekking across Central America that are, according to President Trump, preparing to invade our southern border. On the one hand, there’s former Vice President Biden saying “[t]he press is not the enemy of the people. Immigrants are not animals. My hope and prayer is that all of our leaders will work to lower the temperature in our public dialogue, and I have faith that they will do that.” In contrast, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen recent stated that there is no “intention right now to shoot at people” from the Central American migrant caravan if they attempt to cross the United States border. I would suggest that Secretary Nielsen’s statement is not quite “lower[ing] the temperature in our public dialogue” that Vice President Biden was suggesting.
Days after I read the above quotes, and in stark contrast to the above quotes, I read a comment by Tarek El-Messidi, a Chicago-based activist who helped coordinate a fundraising effort by two Muslim organizations that raised about $200,000.00 to help victims and their families following the shooting massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. “Putting our religious differences or even your political differences aside, the core of all of us is that we have a shared humanity. … We really wanted to reach out as human beings to help.”
The politicization of our broken immigration system (and yes, it’s very broken and has been for way too long) is brutal to watch. Our political climate is toxic right now and we need more thoughtful approaches to some of the terribleness that we’re seeing (like Mr. El-Messidi’s response) to the massacre that took place in Pittsburgh.
The immigrants stuck in our broken immigration system, whether they are here lawfully or not, are paying a very big price. For example, in April 2018, President Trump implemented a “zero tolerance policy”, which as anyone even barely paying attention to the news knows resulted in the widespread and inhumane separation of parents and children arriving together at the United States southern border. The President’s policy mandates the prosecution for illegal entry of everyone apprehended between ports of entry, including those who are lawfully allowed to seek political asylum in the United States (no matter where they enter).
During the President’s first two years, his administration has also implemented policies that are undermining the independence of our immigration judges and weakening due process in the immigration court system. The changes adopted by the Department of Justice over the last year include steps to impose numerical quotas on immigration judges and attempts to curtail procedural safeguards. Immigration courts play an important role in affording noncitizens an opportunity to present claims for relief and stay in the United States. The administration’s changes threaten the integrity of these courts.
There have been other issues too, including among many others, the Trump administration’s efforts to rescind DACA relief for Dreamers, congressional efforts to curb legal immigration, and of course, who can forget the Travel Ban?
More recently, along with the ridiculous rhetoric in connection with the caravan, are the President’s claims that he will end birthright citizenship by means of Executive Order, vows to hold undocumented immigrants in detention until they could be deported, and to block asylum seekers from claiming asylum if they are caught crossing the border outside of legal ports of entry. Oh, and lest I forget, the President has a plan to send thousands upon thousands of our military personnel to save the country from the “bad hombres” and “Middle Easterners” in the caravan preparing to attack our southern border.
Please, make him stop.
I don’t know who’s in the caravan, but the data (i.e., the facts and not the fake news) does not support any of the President’s statements that these individuals are “bad hombres” or even “Middle Easterners”. More than likely, these individuals are leaving their home countries in search of a better life (i.e., seeking refuge from political violence in Honduras where the caravan originated), just like our ancestors did when they left Europe and arrived on Ellis Island. We welcomed them then. We should do so now.
Recently, in a rambling and pretty much unintelligible speech from the White House, which was as always filled with lies and falsehoods, the President once again politicized the immigration debate. He once again chose politics instead of offering real solutions, when he announced plans to rewrite U.S. asylum law and procedures and to construct tent cities where families and asylum seekers could be detained for years.
Not surprisingly, as with any proposal that the President has offered mere days before the midterms, details of the plan are conspicuously absent, but instead will be forthcoming after the election. Of course they will. Just a little more red meat for his base. Please, make him stop.
 DACA stands for Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
 The President claimed that only 3 percent of asylum seekers show up for immigration court proceedings when the Department of Homeland Security’s own numbers show that the vast majority appear for their scheduled hearing.
A colleague of mine called me recently about an I-9 issue, and specifically about an investigation that was taking place with a client of hers. It got me thinking about immigration compliance in the age of Trump.
It seems like barely a day (certainly a week anyway) goes by when we don’t see a story where Immigration & Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) has raided a workplace somewhere and hauled away dozens, sometimes hundreds of workers, allegedly working unlawfully in the United States. No doubt there are some employers who absolutely know that they have some workers who should not be working for them. For others it comes as a seeming total surprise. Certainly when that calls comes in, it creates an uncomfortable conversation with the client (or perhaps prospective client), but ethically, our duty is clear as to how we as lawyers need to advise them. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (“IRCA”), passed in 1986, imposes penalties on employers for knowingly hiring or continuing to employ persons who are not authorized to work in the United States.
Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification (“I-9”), is used by employers to verify the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for employment in the United States. All United States employers are required to ensure the proper the completion of the I-9 for each individual they hire for employment in the United States. This includes citizens and noncitizens alike. The I-9 is required to completed by both employees and employers (or authorized representatives of the employer).
The primary worksite enforcement mechanism utilized by ICE during the George W. Bush and Obama years was the I-9 audit along with the administrative fine procedure established by IRCA. ICE had historically viewed the I-9 audit as its most important administrative tool in building criminal cases against employers who knowingly (or even unwittingly) violate the law, as well as a tool for bringing employers into compliance with the law. Audits involve a comprehensive review by ICE of an employer’s I-9 forms and payroll records. Audits can result in civil penalties. Audits can also provide the groundwork for the government to commence criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers and/or commit other more serious violations.
Nowadays, it seems like ICE has abandoned the I-9 audit and administrative fine procedure under IRCA and, over the past two years, is now focusing on criminal worksite enforcement investigations. These are resulting in high-profile raids which themselves are resulting in the arrests, criminal prosecutions, and/or deportation of thousands of unauthorized workers.
This is happening to all employers, both big and small. Indeed, as I’ve written here before, this is happening in my own hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York all too frequently because of its deep ties to the horse racing industry and its large service and hospitality industry.
So what is an employer to do? Where do I begin? Bottom line? Every employer needs to establish an I-9 employment eligibility verification system. You would be surprised to learn how many employers I work with that do not have a system set up to do this. And the law has been in effect since 1986!
In setting up an I-9 compliance system, the employer needs to be careful as to the procedure it uses during the I-9 employment eligibility verification process. The procedure it uses must meet the standards set forth under IRCA both to determine employment eligibility and to assure that the employer has not engaged in unfair immigration-related employment practices.
Here are some very basic but very important ground rules. First, every employer should have a standard, written I-9 compliance policy which will be followed by all managers who have hiring authority. If you’re a small employer, then the burden may fall upon the owner. Whether big or small, a standard written policy needs to be in place. Every employer should also have one employee who is in charge of the company’s compliance program. This is particularly important when a company is big, and perhaps spread out across many offices or even states.
Next, the employer’s I-9 compliance policy should be part of, and not separate from, the employer’s overall hiring policy. Indeed, all company materials, including hiring application forms should be reviewed to make sure they are compliance with this policy. Employers also need to make sure that the managers who are in charge with implementing this policy are intimately familiar with the I-9 employment verification procedure. What’s the point of having the policy if no one knows how to properly complete or store the I-9?
Employers need to also evaluate, and periodically reevaluate, their I-9 compliance program and, importantly, conduct periodic in-house audits of their I-9 records. These audits will assist employers in determining whether changes in policies or procedures are required. And, perhaps equally as important, these audits will help employers reduce their exposure in the event of an ICE investigation.
And finally, whether it’s for setting up the compliance program, assisting with an in-house audit, or if ICE just happens to show up at your door, although this may sound self-serving, employers should consult with competent legal counsel on all of these issues. I-9 compliance issues, along with decisions on whether to hire or fire an individual for immigration-related reasons, raise very complex legal issues for which competent legal advice is required.
The sheriff in town is no longer new. And he has deputized his deputies in ways that his predecessors never did. Employers need to be extremely vigilant in terms of how they run their businesses, both big and small. While historically WE may have been able to predict those businesses or industries where these issues would be arise, no more is this the case. Everyone now seems to be fair game for ICE enforcement.
 Employer liability is not limited to just those situations in which the employer has actual knowledge that one if its employees does not have permission to work; rather, an employer may also be liable if it has constructive knowledge that an employee is unauthorized to work. For example, an employer may be found to be liable if it deliberately fails to investigate suspicious circumstances, such as when the employee has stated on the I-9 that he or she is a permanent resident but the employer is then asked to sponsor the employee for employment (either temporarily or permanently).
 These raids regularly result in the arrest of dozens and sometimes hundreds of allegedly unauthorized workers, who are then themselves detained for criminal prosecution (e.g., for document fraud or identity theft) and/or deportation. As for the employers, ICE agents will seize the employer’s record which then, as a result of an investigation, can result in, among other things, the filing of criminal charges against the companies and their individual owners and managers. Criminal complaints often include charges of harboring undocumented workers, document fraud, tax evasion, money laundering and/or knowingly hiring undocumented workers. None of this is new. It’s just way more prevalent than it used to me. Way more.
On the one hand, we have a President who is married to a naturalized citizen of the United States. To my understanding, Melania Trump was originally an O-1 nonimmigrant in the United States (a temporary visa status reserved for, in her case, a fashion model of extraordinary ability in business) who later used a comparable immigrant category to obtain lawful permanent residence. She then, eventually, applied for naturalization and became a citizen of the United States.
Fast forward, in what can only be described as a case of chain migration (something the President has professed to being opposed to), the President’s wife then petitioned for her own parents to come to the United States as immigrants, as she has the legal right to do under the law. Fast forward one more time, Mrs. Trump’s parents do come to the United States and, after a period of time, they apply for naturalization themselves, something they also have the right to do under the law. These naturalization applications, according to recent news reports, were granted. I work with clients every single day under similar fact patterns.
Juxtapose this with the fact that the President, himself individually and through his minion, Stephen Miller, is actively pursuing a policy to make it harder to become a lawful permanent resident (i.e., a Green Card holder), or for some lawful permanent residents to obtain citizenship. This is on top of all the other ridiculousness we’ve witnessed thus far over the summer, including the forced (and in many instances continued) family separations, actively opposing the continuation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”), among other acts of stupidity and egregiousness.
How is this so? How can a man who’s own wife (indeed even his own ex-wife too) and who’s own in-laws are immigrants to this country be so callous and cold-hearted to literally an entire class of human beings (i.e., anyone who was not born in the United States but yet wants to permanently reside in the United States)? Can someone explain this to me? Is the President’s family better than all the other aliens who want to become permanent residents of the United States? Or do they simply have more means?
And what about Mr. Miller? It seems that his family too were immigrants to the United States, arriving through Ellis Island from what is now Belarus. It seems that Mr. Miller’s relatives fled anti-Jewish pogroms and forced childhood conscription in the Czar’s army at the beginning of the 20th century. According to news reports, the first decedent of Mr. Miller arrived in the United States knowing no English and with $8.00 in his pocket. He peddled street corners and worked in sweatshops. And by all news accounts, he worked hard and become very successful. That’s a great story.
With that as backdrop, the President, through Mr. Miller, is now pushing to enact a policy that could penalize legal immigrants whose families receive a wide array of public benefits and make it more difficult for them to obtain citizenship. At its core, the President’s proposal would penalize lawful permanent residents if they or their family members (including their U.S. citizen family members) have ever used government benefits (e.g., health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, some forms of Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit). If I was a permanent resident, because one of my sons receives services from the county, I could actually be impacted under this law.
Up until 1996, lawful permanent residents were eligible to receive public benefits on the same terms as U.S. citizens. In 1996, however, Congress passed a welfare reform law that barred permanent residents who resided in the United States for less than five years from participating in any means-tested public benefit programs (e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program, and food stamps). The 1996 law labeled newly arriving immigrants who might not be able to provide for themselves as “public charges,” making them inadmissible unless they could demonstrate that they were not subject to that provision of the law.
The law still allows for the removal of lawful permanent residents who, within five years of their arrival to the United States, become public charges. That said, administrations prior to the current one have limited the public charge definition in this context to immigrants who use cash welfare programs or long-term institutional care funded by the government. Consequently, very few people have been removed from the United States. All this could change, however, if Mr. Miller gets his way. How so?
The law would redefine the terms “public charge” and “means-tested public benefits” to include a much wider variety of federal programs. Second, the government could remove legal permanent residents for using benefits. Under the President’s proposed policy, lawful permanent residents could be removed for using a wide variety of public benefits, potentially including food and nutrition assistance, federally subsidized health insurance through Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act, and even education benefits. Third, although the law currently allows immigration officials to refuse to admit prospective immigrants to the United States who could become public charges, the new policy, as currently written, could be interpreted to make a high-school degree or better a prerequisite for admission to the United States, or for someone to have a certain amount of assets. (This would obviously not impact the President’s in-laws, but could severely impact low-income or less well-educated immigrants from coming to be with their families). And finally, although also on the books now, the new policy would instruct federal agencies to request reimbursement for benefits used by legal immigrants. (This rarely happens now.)
So, where does that leave us? The haves and have nots? It sure sounds like it. It sure sounds like the President and Mr. Miller are attempting to portray legal immigrants as a drain on our system, somehow taking advantage of people like you and me. This is simply not the case. According to the CATO Institute, “[o]verall, immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native-born Americans.”
Mr. Miller’s family is an example of how immigrants can come to the United States, work hard, and become successful. But not everyone’s experience in America will be perfect, and sometimes individuals need to lean on our government for some help. No one should be forced to make a decision between ensuring their legal status in the United States is preserved against making sure their family is healthy and can eat. No one should ever have to make that decision.
Perhaps we were all wrong about President Trump? Maybe he does listen to the women in his life? Current reports suggest that the President’s own wife and daughter, Melania and Ivanka Trump, were the impetus behind the President’s executive order to end the separation of families at our southern border. I guess the fact that all four living former First Ladies condemned President Trump’s border policy was not enough. Quite frankly, I think we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the brilliant journalists at all the Fake News organizations across the country who reported on the inhumanity we all saw as families were torn apart from each other as they tried to apply for political asylum in the United States.
Let’s back track a little bit though, because this crisis is far from over.
I recently noted the profound changes that happen in the world of immigration, literally on a daily basis. Two more cases in point. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued the precedent decision of Matter of A-B-. This case held that victims of domestic violence no longer qualify for asylum protection in the United States. Since President Trump was inaugurated, the Attorney General has used his position to literally rewrite our immigration law. Through what has been a historically cautiously-used power, the Attorney General has taken certain immigration cases that were previously decided by the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”), and in this case, has essentially eliminated a previous right of persecuted people to seek asylum in the United States.
And then of course there was President Trump’s now former border policy of separating families from each other as they endeavor to seek refuge in the United States from domestic and gang violence in their home countries.
With respect to Matter of A-B-, in a case he referred to himself, Attorney General Sessions narrowed the criteria for demonstrating membership in a particular social group and overruled the holding of Matter of A-R-C-G-. According to the Attorney General, domestic violence victims and other victims of crimes perpetrated by private, non-government actors no longer generally qualify for asylum. With this decision, the Attorney General continues to undermine the independence of both our Immigration Courts and the BIA.
The Attorney General’s decision in Matter of A-B- is a huge setback that overturns a precedential decision which firmly recognized the right of women who are fleeing domestic violence to avail themselves of the protection our asylum laws provide when their own governments fail in their duty to provide protection.
So now we’ve got women and families who have to make a choice. If they remain in their home countries, they may very well die as a result of domestic and gang violence. If they pick up and try to seek refuge in the United States, they now face an incredible uphill battle to obtain protection under our laws. And worse, if parents bring their minor children with them, they’ll be detained, albeit perhaps now together, potentially all throughout their lawful efforts to remain in the United States.
Along with his wife, daughter and the former First Ladies, literally everyone was opposed to Trump’s policy of separating or detaining families with minor children, including corporate executives, religious leaders across all faiths, health experts, and the list could go on and on. Similarly, there is a very long list of attorneys, advocates, retired immigration judges (“IJ’s”) and former members of the BIA that are opposed to Attorney General Sessions’ new decision in Matter of A-B-.
To date, the President’s border crossing policy has separated more than 2,300 minor children from their parents. The research is clear. According to Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, “[t[he effect [of family separation] is catastrophic.” According to Dr. Nelson, the children’s heart rates go up, their bodies releases stress hormones, and over time, all of this wreaks long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the child’s brain. Why on earth would the President want to do this?
As to the difficulty that women who have suffered domestic violence will now face trying to seek protection under our laws, in one fell swoop, the Attorney General erased a 15 year effort of the immigration courts and BIA to finally recognize that victims of domestic violence may qualify for asylum as a member of a particular social group.
The Trump Administration’s policies are doing nothing more than dehumanizing a large population of individuals who live in Central America, and specifically women and families who are subject to domestic or gang violence. When will this President stop the madness?
 Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018).
 Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 388 (BIA 2014).
Have you seen the news recently? The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced new efforts that will result in the forcible separation of families seeking protection in the United States under established U.S. law. Not only that, the Trump Administration announced that it will increase criminal prosecutions of parents attempting to enter the United States illegally, even those seeking political asylum in the United States, in its effort to tighten immigration enforcement.
In a recent speech, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that going forward, the United States would have a zero tolerance policy, suggesting that anyone crossing the border unlawfully into the United States will now be prosecuted. Even those seeking asylum in the United States. I quote:
“If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally.”
It is a bit ironic that on the very day First Lady Melania Trump made a public statement about cherishing and protecting children, the Attorney General was talking about U.S. policy of separating parents from children for immigrant families seeking asylum status in the United States. That’s right, when Melania Trump said that “children deserve every opportunity to enjoy their innocence”, Attorney General Sessions declared that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) will arrest parents, and thereafter separate them from their children.
With then candidate Trump putting immigration front and center in the 2016 election, and now President Trump doing the same ahead of this year’s midterm elections, I suppose no one should be surprised by any of this.
Does that mean if a family presents themselves at a proper border crossing point and applies for political asylum, seeking protection from unfettered criminal violence in their home country, that they won’t be prosecuted or separated?
Individuals who arrive at the our border, without proper documentation, are often subject to fast-track deportation processes called “expedited removal” or, in some cases, “reinstatement of removal” (if they’ve been removed from the United States previously). In each instance, however, the law requires that these individuals receive a preliminary screening interview with a U.S. asylum officer if they express a fear of persecution if they were returned to their country of origin.
Over the past several years, however, federal law enforcement officials have been very vigorous in prosecuting migrants for entering the United States without permission or for reentering the country without permission after a prior deportation or removal order. Indeed, tens of thousands of individuals are subjected to criminal prosecution for these crimes every year. I understand this. We are a nation of laws.
However, the United States is a signatory to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which is supposed to prevent nations from penalizing individuals requesting protection from persecution or torture in their country of origin. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General noted that prosecuting those “who express fear of persecution or return to their home countries” may be inconsistent with and may violate U.S. treaty obligations.
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, 2017, including more than 100 children under the age of 4. The Office of Refugee Resettlement takes custody of children who have been removed from migrant parents. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in February to challenge the practice of family separation.
We need to find the proper balance of appropriately and humanely enforcing our immigration laws, protecting individuals from being returned to their home country, and preventing families from being forcibly separated while the U.S. immigration process plays itself out. Right now, all this new policy is doing is making criminals of people who are simply seeking refuge from violence in their home country, and separating already stressed families, including very young and vulnerable children. This is unacceptable.
A recent article in the WALL STREET JOURNAL referred to a March 30, 2018 email from James McHenry, the head of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”), to immigration judges across the country, indicating that new metrics will require immigration judges to complete three (3) cases per workday. As a lawyer, I am used to dealing with many cases every day, so at first blush, three did not seem like a lot. But in context of the immigration judicial process, it most certainly is. And the stakes are high.
According to A. Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges union, “[t]hey are allocating, on average for a case, no more than two and a half hours,” further noting that political asylum cases often include hundreds of pages of supporting documents and evidence, not to mention countless hours of testimony and deliberation. In addition, because different judges handle different types of cases, including complex ones that take more time, it does not make a whole lot of sense to apply the same standard uniformly to all judges. Again, Judge Tabaddor: “We deal with people who are unaccompanied children, with people who have mental competency issues, with people who have serious criminal convictions, and with people who have fear of returning to their home countries in case of threat of death.”
According to Syracuse University, the immigration court backlog is currently more than 680,000 cases. EOIR’s new requirements will force some judges to adjudicate cases more quickly than they have been. The average cases completed per year by immigration judges, according to the EOIR, is less than 680. The new metric will require judges to complete 700 cases per year.
Judge Tabaddor says that “[y]ou are going to, at minimum, impact the perception of the integrity of the court.” It’s a lot worse than that.
Immigration judges are appointed by the Attorney General and are employees of the Department of Justice. Unlike their regular federal judge counterparts, who have life-tenure, immigration judges can be fired by the Attorney General. Courts certainly have established “aspirational” case completion goals in order to move overall caseloads along, but numeric quotas have never been explicitly tied to judges individual performance evaluations. This will no doubt jeopardize an immigration judge’s ability to remain independent and impartial.
“The very concept [of a quota system] is in conflict with independent decision-making authority of judges,” says Judge Tabaddor, “because it pits the judges’ personal livelihood to mere completion of cases faster through the system, rather than making decisions that are based on the fact and the law of the case as they took the oath to do.”
One could also argue that mandatory quotas will lower the quality of adjudications and perhaps even compromise due process. The Immigration and Nationality Act requires that a respondent in removal proceedings be given a “reasonable opportunity” to examine and present evidence. Most respondents in removal proceedings do not speak English as their primary language. A strict time frame for judges to complete their cases would no doubt interfere with that judge’s ability to assure that this important federal right to examine and present evidence is respected.
Related to this, Judges may now feel more pressure to deny requests for continuances. An unrepresented person making his or her first appearance before an immigration judge may need more time to find an attorney. An individual seeking political asylum may need more time to gather and develop evidence that is often very difficult to obtain from his or her home country. Reasonable continuances are often necessary to allow individuals time to develop their case.
Here’s a novel idea. What about increasing the budgets for the immigration courts? Remember the backlog number above? 680,000 cases! Immigration courts are way under-funded relative to the budgets of immigration enforcement agencies. In the government’s 2017 fiscal year, the combined budgets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) and Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) exceeded $20 billion. By comparison, EOIR’s was about $420 million.
Let’s face it. By imposing numeric quotas on immigration judges, we’re doing little more than enabling the Trump Administration’s broader agenda of streamlining removal procedures in to so it can deport massive numbers of people at the expense of due process. The immigration court system can only function if due process is respected. This can only be accomplished if the judges have enough time to carefully review each case, conduct a thorough and fair hearing, deliberate the case, and then when all this is done, issue a well-reasoned decision that is consistent with the facts and relevant law.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) recently announced that it’s changing its mission statement to eliminate a passage that describes the United States as “a nation of immigrants.” USCIS’s new mission statement reads as follows:
“U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”
The previous mission statement read as follows:
“USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.”
Where do I start? Did you now that the director of USCIS, Lee Francis Cissna, is actually the son of an immigrant? Aren’t most of us if we trace back our lineage far enough?
In a letter to USCIS agency staff, Mr. Cissna said, “We are also responsible for ensuring that those who naturalize are dedicated to this country, share our values, assimilate into our communities, and understand their responsibility to help preserve our freedom and liberty.”
What Mr. Cissna did not mention in his letter to agency staff explaining his reasoning is that the phrase “nation of immigrants” was popularized by a book by President John F. Kennedy (published posthumously), titled “A Nation of Immigrants”, and is frequently used to convey the American ideal of multiculturalism. President Kennedy’s book explored the contribution of immigrants when the United States was in the midst of a debate over the direction of its immigration policy.
People who know me know my politics. I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I am a registered Democrat. (I grew up in Albany after all.) I also used to work for Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato. Back in those days, Washington was very different. Democrats and Republicans could debate issues during the day and enjoy a meal together in the evening. Senator D’Amato always worked with his colleagues across the aisle, including Senator Edward Kennedy.
In the wake of 9/11, Senator Kennedy, along with his colleague, Senator Sam Brownback, stated, “Immigration is a central part of our heritage and history. It is essential to who we are. Continued immigration is part of our national well-being, our identity, and our strength.” He wasn’t wrong.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan stated, “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.” He wasn’t wrong either.
That was then, this is now. President Trump has used the phrase “nation of immigrants”, but he did so in a written statement defending his attempt to ban immigrants from seven Muslim nations.
Ensuring “the promise of the United States as a nation of immigrants” is no longer the mission of USCIS, the very agency charged with administering our immigration laws. On the contrary, the new mission statement reflects President Trump’s hardline stance on immigration and immigrants themselves.