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Election 2020: The Right to Counsel in Immigration Court Proceedings

vote2020Although it feels like it’s never stopped, election season is now officially in full swing. I’ve spent the last three years whinging about our current president’s immigration policies. My feelings are no doubt clear. But where do his challengers stand on important issues like the right to counsel, the travel ban (which is now in version 3.0), legalization, and so on. What follows is the beginning of a periodic look at the Democratic candidates on these and other important issues. Let’s start with the right to counsel.

Our immigration laws are very complex. If you’re not an attorney, or if you’re an attorney but don’t practice in the area of immigration, you might be surprised to see the back-and-forth that immigration practitioners themselves engage in on various professional listservs about the meaning of a statute, rule or agency memorandum. If we as practitioners in our own specialized field often cannot understand or come to agreement as to what the Congress has written, or a Court has decided, do we really expect a pro se respondent to?

The law guarantees an individual facing removal from the United States with the right to counsel. The law does not, however, guarantee that legal counsel be paid for by the government if someone cannot afford it. The data is very clear that having legal counsel is the most decisive factor in determining whether someone will obtain a grant of legal relief before an Immigration Judge. Indeed even Immigration judges say that cases before them are resolved far more expeditiously when people are represented by counsel.

Yet only a small fraction of those who are in removal proceedings are represented by an attorney. My personal opinion is the government should establish a right to legal counsel, paid for by the government when necessary, to all people facing removal. So that’s my opinion; what do the candidates believe?

When he was mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg pledged $2 million to provide training for lawyers who wish to represent immigrants in immigration court. Thus far, however, he has not publicly stated whether or not he supports the right to counsel at government expense at a national level. In a piece written in 2017 for his media company, he wrote that “speedier case handling must also make a provision for the adequate legal representation that judges have called for.” He’s right.

In 2019, Senator Amy Klobuchar cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, which would mandate that the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) provide access to counsel for all people detained in facilities administered by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) and Health and Human Services (“HHS”).

In a response to a survey put out by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”), Mayor Pete Buttigieg stated that he would “urge Congress to pledge funds and to work with legal service providers and state and local governments to create a system to substantiate this guarantee, building off of the success of programs like the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.”

In response to the same AILA survey, Senator Bernie Sanders stated the following:

Currently, our immigration adjudication system is so broken that immigrants often do not receive notice of their hearings, notices are received in a language the recipients do not speak, and immigrants are sometimes even marked absent for hearings that did not even physically take place. Navigating the immigration system without legal counsel is next to impossible. To ensure that people can actually access their legal counsel, Bernie will adopt community-based alternatives to detention. When Bernie is in the White House, immigrants will have access to counsel, as well as other supportive services as they wait for their hearings.

His immigration platform, available on his website, goes further; it states that he will “ensure justice and due process for immigrants, including the right to counsel and an end to cash bail, create a $14 billion federal grant program for indigent defense, ensure access to translation and interpretation services throughout every stage of the legal process,” and “end the use of video conferencing for immigration cases.”

Interestingly, to me anyway, former Vice President Joe Biden has no public stated position on access to counsel for those in removal proceedings.

And finally, to round out the discussion, not only does President Trump oppose access to counsel in removal proceedings, his administration’s policies have made simple access to counsel so much more difficult. By way of example, his administration’s Remain in Mexico policy has made it incredibly difficult for asylum seekers to obtain information about legal service providers and, for those who have counsel, to meet with and have access to their counsel.

Providing meaningful access to counsel not only ensures that immigrants are treated fairly and appropriately in removal proceedings, but it will also makes their removal proceedings more efficient. Indeed, if more individuals are represented in removal proceedings, the currently untenable backlogs would be reduced as well.

The landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright required state courts to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who could not afford lawyers. Unfortunately, the immigration law, unlike criminal law, does not provide a right to counsel. While immigrant detainees are allowed to hire their own lawyers, more often than not, they cannot afford counsel. Those who cannot are often the most vulnerable in our population, including children, the mentally disabled, victims of sex trafficking, refugees, and even torture survivors. We can do better, and we should provide those who need free representation the most the right to receive it.


[1] See, e.g., “Access to Counsel in Immigration Court,” American Immigration Counsel, Ingrid Eagly, Esq. and Steven Shafer, Esq., Special Report, September 2016.


[3] AILA Doc. No. 19093005. (Posted 9/30/19)

[4] AILA Doc. No. 19093005. (Posted 9/30/19)


“Continuances” in Immigration Court and Fairness

gavelReaders of this space know that the practice of immigration law has always presented my colleagues and I with unique and interesting challenges. Over the last three years, however, I would describe most of the challenges practitioners encounter as completely unnecessary. Let me give you an example.

A prospective client walks through my door, tells me her story, and to keep it short and simple, I determine that she’s out of status, has a prior removal order, but if those things weren’t true, she would be able to stay in the United States because she has some other relief that could be available to her (e.g., she originally had a lawful entry and she’s married to a U.S. citizen), but for the previously stated adverse factors.

Generally our advice to this individual might be, let’s get the paperwork prepared and filed for the “relief” that we think you’re eligible for with, e.g., U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) (but for the adverse factors), and then let’s go to the Immigration Court, ask the Immigration Judge (“IJ”) to reopen her prior removal order (for whatever reasons we can come up with, including, possibly, the fact that our prospective client has relief available to her, again but for the adverse factors), and assuming the IJ did reopen the case, then ask the IJ for a continuance (and to place our client’s matter on the Court’s “status docket”) in the Immigration Court proceeding so we can wait for what we think will be a favorable decision by USCIS.

Yesterday (as I write this, it was just yesterday), that last part became unnecessarily more difficult. In a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) issued on January 22, 2020, the BIA held as follows:

In assessing whether to grant an alien’s request for a continuance regarding an application for collateral relief, the alien’s prima facie eligibility for relief and whether it will materially affect the outcome of proceedings are not dispositive, especially where other factors—including the uncertainty as to when the relief will be approved or become available—weigh against granting a continuance.”

Matter of Mayen, 27 I&N Dec. 755 (BIA 2020) (Emphasis added.)

This impacts foreign nationals in many kinds of situations. The example I gave is just one. Here’s another, and no doubt more compelling. Sadly sometimes the prospective client that shows up at your office has been the victim of a crime, such that this individual might be eligible for a “U” nonimmigrant visa. U visas provide temporary and sometimes permanent legal status to victims of an enumerated list of “qualifying criminal activities” who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse, and possess information concerning that crime, and who have been, are being, or are likely to be helpful to law enforcement or government officials.

There are many “qualifying criminal activities” including domestic violence and sexual assault. Here’s the problem. Let’s say my prospective client has a very compelling case to receive a U visa. The problem is the adjudication backlog at USCIS. Right now, the time that it takes for USCIS to process U petitions is more than 4 years, and that assumes that USCIS simply approves (or denies I suppose) your client’s petition. If USCIS sends you a Request for Evidence (“RFE”), which can often be the case, the adjudication time will be substantially longer.

So, back to my prospective client. The quick reaction and consensus of my colleagues and I will be that some or many IJ’s will use the BIA’s decision in Matter of Mayen as a means to unclog their docket. Attorneys will then be forced to unnecessarily appeal adverse decisions of these IJ’s to the BIA, the BIA will likely affirm the IJ’s decision, and then our clients will be forced to appeal further to a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, depending on where the client resides, hopefully get a favorable decision. This is all just so unnecessary.

We can debate, and meaningfully debate at that, all day long as to whether Democrats or Republicans have better policies as it relates to immigration and even immigration reform. What we’re talking about here, though, is about being practical and being fair. IJ’s have the ability to meaningfully assess whether a respondent before them has a prima facie right to obtain relief before USCIS so he or she can lawfully remain here. Assuming this is true, what difference will it make then to the Court if a respondent’s case is put on a separate status docket and the Court checks in with that respondent “periodically” to see how their case with, e.g., USCIS is going? In my view, it makes (or should make) no difference.

Practicing immigration law is very rewarding. And of course it’s challenging too. All fields of law have their challenges. That’s alright. What’s not alright, however, is creating obstacles to lawyers and litigants that are truly unnecessary (and unfair). Let’s solve the underlying problem through meaningful immigration reform. Let’s not punish individuals who would have (more) rights in the United States “but for” delays at USCIS that are not of their own creation. Seems fair to me.


“Crimmigration” and the Repeal of Silva Trevino

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So I’m going to take a moment to move away from politics and instead discuss some positive developments in the world of “crimmigration.”

On April 10, 2015, former Attorney General Eric Holder vacated in its entirety the November 7, 2008 opinion of Matter of Silva-Trevino,[1] finding that because the Circuit Courts were split and at least two Supreme Court decisions cast doubt on its continued validity, the opinion was no longer useful in determining whether a particular criminal offense is a Crime Involving Moral Turpitude (“CIMT”) under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”).  What the heck am I talking about?

Back in 2008, then Attorney General Robert Mukasey issued the decision Matter of Silva-Trevino (commonly referred to as Silva-Trevino I), which allowed Immigration Judges to find a foreign national deportable from the United States on the basis of alleged facts never established (i.e., proven) in the foreign national’s criminal case which formed the basis of his or her removal (i.e., deportation) proceedings.

Since this decision, five Circuit Courts of Appeals have rejected Silva-Trevino I.  Essentially what was happening was Immigration Judges were re-trying criminal cases in their own courts, and in doing so, they were considering (often unproven) facts that were outside of the foreign national’s Record of Conviction in his or her criminal proceedings.[2]

This was problematic on at least two levels.  First, it created great difficulty for criminal defense lawyers to properly advise their clients regarding the potential immigration consequences of taking a plea to certain criminal charges.  Second, many of the respondents in removal proceedings were individuals who were detained and without counsel, and who had previously given up their right to trial in their criminal proceeding and agreed to plead guilty with the intent of avoiding the immigration consequences presumably associated with their pleas.

Former Attorney General Holder’s order vacating Silva-Trevino I and its accompanying opinion (commonly referred to now as Silva-Trevino II) cited Supreme Court case law which makes it very clear that any inquiry as to whether a criminal offense is a CIMT for immigration purposes in the future should not go beyond the Record of Conviction.[3]

What does all this mean in practice?  Noncitizens can be deported from the United States if they have been convicted of a CIMT (and in some cases, if they’ve been convicted of two CIMT’s).[4]  Examples of CIMT’s under various state case law include, without limitation, fraud and theft offenses, offenses in which intentional bodily harm is caused, and various sex-related offenses.

To determine whether a noncitizen has been convicted of a CIMT, immigration officials have generally looked to the “inherent nature” of the offense as opposed to what the defendant actually did in a particular case.  Simply stated, the facts of the case are irrelevant.  This approach is called the “categorical” approach.”

A few weeks before George W. Bush’s presidency ended, former Attorney General Mukasey issued Silva-Trevino I, which dramatically changed the playing field, and essentially allowed Immigration Judges in certain cases to examine evidence beyond the Record of Conviction to assess whether the defendant’s conduct which formed the basis of his or her conviction involved moral turpitude.

Silva-Trevino I first instructed Immigration Judges to use the traditional “categorical” approach to determine whether a conviction constituted a CIMT.  Again, under this analysis, the defendant’s actual conduct was irrelevant.  The only question that needed to be answered was whether the elements of the statute of conviction either necessarily fall within the case law definition of a CIMT or never do so.  If the Immigration Judge was unable to determine that the prohibited conduct under the statute either always or never involved moral turpitude, then the Immigration Judge was instructed to review the Record of Conviction.[5]  Again, the inquiry would end if the court was able to determine whether or not the defendant was necessarily convicted of a CIMT.  If the modified categorical approach did not resolve the question one way or the other, then Silva-Trevino I allowed for the Immigration Judge to consider “any additional evidence the adjudicator determines is necessary or appropriate to resolve adequately the moral turpitude question,” whether or not it was contained in the formal Record of Conviction.[6]

As indicated earlier, five federal circuit courts rejected Silva-Trevino I, essentially holding that where immigration consequences are premised on a “conviction,” the immigration statutes are unambiguous in prohibiting an Immigration Judge (or any adjudicator for that matter) from considering simply alleged facts, including evidence outside the Record of Conviction.[7]  Indeed, this is what Silva-Trevino II stands for; that is Attorney General Holder’s order prohibits an Immigration Judge from using evidence outside the record of conviction in determining whether an offense involves moral turpitude. Consequently, criminal defense attorneys are now able to assess whether an offense involves moral turpitude and to help their noncitizen client avoid such a designation.  This is good news for all.


[1] Matter of Silva-Trevino, 24 I. & N. Dec. 687 (A.G. 2008).

[2] Immigration Judges were considering evidence outside of the Record of Conviction (e.g., the charging document, bill of particulars, verdict or judgment, sentence, minute entries, written plea [if there was one], jury instructions [if there was a trial], presentence report, or probation report) in order to determine whether a foreign national was removable from the United States on the basis of a conviction of a CIMT.

[3] Matter of Silva-Trevino, 26 I. & N. Dec. 550 (A.G. 2015).

[4] See 8 U.S.C. §§ 1182(a)(2)(A), 1227(a)(2)(A)(i), (ii).

[5] This part of the inquiry is generally referred to as the “modified” categorical approach.

[6] Silva-Trevino I at 704.

[7] Silva-Trevino v. Holder, 742 F.3d 197 (5th Cir. 2014); Olivas-Motta v. Holder, 716 F.3d 1199 (9th Cir. 2013); Prudencio v. Holder, 669 F.3d 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Fajardo v. U.S. Att’y Gen., 659 F.3d 1303 (11th Cir. 2011); and Jean-Louis v. Att’y Gen. of U.S., 582 F.3d 462 (3d Cir. 2009).

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