"Every year we have one of these holiday parties to thank everyone and we invite your families and anyone who wants to come up to New York from one of the other offices, and every year I stand up here to thank all of you for conintuing to surpass our minimum pro bono hour requiremen. But before I do that this year, I am actually going to take a few moments to talk about the state of immigration law and why it is this way.
In May of this year, the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” border policy that literally forced crying children out of the arms of mothers so the parents could be prosecuted for the misdemeanor offense of illegal entry, and placed those children in actual cages. When enacting this policy, the administration gave no warnings and no direction to its enforcement agencies who randomly and chaotically labeled children who entered with parents as unaccompanied, who then detained parents in California and children in Pennsylvania without anyone keeping track of who went where and what child was part of what family. Agents did not record important medical information about children who were being taken away from their parents, and children were sexually abused, neglected in basic care, and they have suffered severe psychological trauma. In total, 2,654 children were separated from their families, and to this day there are still 150 children separated from their parents.
At one point, due to overcrowding, HHS asked family members of these children who may be in the United States to come forward and care for them. Many did, in fact 170 undocumented family members came forward to come care for these children and instead ICE arrested them for being undocumented.
In August, we learned that a toddler who was detained at Dilley Texas with her mother for 70 days died after she contracted a serious infection due to the horrifyingly poor conditions that immigration detention centers are kept, and are done so purposefully, as a form of punishment.
Last month, a transgender woman who came here to seek asylum was beaten to death in ICE custody.
his week, we learned of a 7 year old girl who died in the custody of border patrol, and the DHS Secretary went on national television to blame her father, instead of take responsibility for her repeated failures and cruelty only some of which I just outlined.
The violence that people are fleeing from the Northern Triangle is some of the worst and most unimaginable violence we have ever known. For many of us, the violence that people are seeking refuge from today is unlike anything that our ancestors and family fled from when they came here. When everyone here is ready to take on their first asylum case, they come and meet with me and I give them a speech not dissimilar from the one I am giving now, but I reiterate again for most of the people in this room, that immigration laws and especially asylum were never meant to include people or welcome them with open arms but are in fact disguised legalese to prevent masses of persecuted people from successfully claiming refuge here. The law has set a burden so unreasonably high that almost anyone without a trained lawyer at their side cannot attain it, and that’s an intentional problem.
Further, we see in the language of asylum law that gender, on its own, was specifically excluded from being a protected ground to seek asylum and yet this year the the United Nations declared the most dangerous place in the world for a woman was in her own home, and at the same time the former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, reversed a policy that had previously allowed the victims of domestic violence to seek refuge here. Over and over again people have refused to acknowledge the harm women suffer as persecution because it happens privately instead of out in public.
In the past when I have talked about immigration law, a certain type of person would point out that, in fact, the United States takes more refugees than any country in the world, per capita. … And to them I say, so what? The United States has never once hit the refugee cap it sets for itself every year, and this administration has set that cap at the lowest it has been in over ten years reduced from 100,000 to 20,000. There are almost 70 million refugees in the world and counting, the highest it has ever been and there are uncounted climate refugees who have no legal way of seeking refugee in other countries and especially not ours. 20,000 is a joke compared to what the world needs, and it is disgraceful and embarrassing.
The reason I bring this up isn’t to complain or depress your holiday spirit but instead I actually wanted to talk about it to remind everyone how important your pro bono cases are, and especially right now. It was the work of one of our founding partners, on a pro bono basis, that in 1989 got sexual orientation recognized as a ground upon which one could seek asylum in the United States. And this is important, because when these rules were written and codified internationally in the 1960s, they were not rules that considered or thought about women who are victims of domestic violence, families terrorized by gangs, and sexual minorities. They were in fact rules that were meant to prevent wealthier nations from having to ‘open the floodgates’ to the unwanted and unlimited amounts of the world’s displaced persons, but instead, only open their doors to a select few who meet a very specific criteria that were set forth to make it hard but not entirely impossible… if you can get here. But, overtime, immigration lawyers, or as former Attorney General Jeff Session’s called us to a class of immigration judges, “dirty immigration lawyers who encourage our clients to lie,” we have succeeded in moving the way those exclusive boundaries as they were originally implemented to encompassing the world we live in today, and we will continue to do so as we will continue to fight these barbarian policies with everything we have.
I usually spend this time talking about the pro bono cases and work everyone accomplished this year, and this year was particularly hard for all immigration attorneys as our field and our clients are under attack in almost every aspect. It has at times felt very hopeless and brutal for us and our clients. But the worst thing we can do is detach ourselves. The lawyers of this firm, this year alone completed almost two hundred thousand hours of pro bono legal services all over the country, which is the highest amount of hours we have ever completed.
This year, our firm took on twenty-five cases of separated families and twenty-four of those cases resulted in reunification. Although all of these cases were frustrating, one particularly difficult one was taken on by our Miami firm, and our 12 year old client was represented by Karen Longs and Yhao Li. After the client was separated from her mother in the early stages of the family separation policy, she was wrongfully identified as an unaccompanied minor by a border patrol agent. Because there was no tracking mechanism of who went where or who was part of what family and because she was marked as a UM, she had almost no chance of being reunified with her mother. After 96 days, and a horrifyingly emotional and frustrating process for Karen and Yhao eventually through networking with other immigration attorneys all over the country Karen and Yhao were able to locate the mother of our client who was in Washington state being represented by a public interest organization. They were not able to be reunified until DNA testing was conducted at ‘no expense to the government.’ Karen and Yhao are also representing the family on their asylum claim.
At this time, we have one client who has yet to be reunified with his family, he is 9 and was 8 at the time he was separated. At his hearing held a month ago here in New York, he begged the immigration judge to please let him see his father again. The judge who heard this case had to remove herself from the bench because she became too upset when explaining to him that she could not order him removed until there was contact made with his family or a legal guardian in Guatemala. It has been 219 days since he was separated from his father. After his hearing, he told Matt and I that the time away from his father has “felt like his whole life.”
A lot of things happened in immigration law this year, a lot of bad ones and also some good ones. I don’t have time to talk about all of them but we have seen this administration target both undocumented and documented people. We have seen them deport a grandparent who had lived in the United States for 40 years with no criminal record, threaten to take the data that was given over by DACA recipients to deport them and their families, change the rules so legal permanent residents cannot naturalize if they ever used public assistance even for their disabled child. They have cancelled H1-B spousal visas, cut the employment cap and changed the rules for student visas. They unlawfully attempted to subvert congressional authority by saying no person could claim asylum if they entered unlawfully forcing everyone to go to a ports of entry and then proceeded to close all but one leaving thousands of people stuck in Tijuana. Six attorneys from our San Diego firm went to Tijuana and met with potential asylum seekers, discussing what they could expect during the process. Many of the people stuck there had been robbed, they slept outside on dirt patches, had no food, water, or money. They had numbers written on their wrists… shops dramatically increased prices making things like diapers and food too expensive for the people waiting, and a shelter that housed LGBTQ asylum seekers was set on fire.
There are serious human consequences to what is happening and access to legal representation can literally mean life or death for some people. There is a crippling shortage of immigration attorneys who will appear pro bono for immigration defense, because it is hard, and it is expensive, and it is time consuming. To my knowledge, those have rarely been concerns by anyone at this firm, and I really do appreciate it. These cases are all hard and emotional, they are unlike what we usually do and it takes a real toll on people physically and mentally. I am continually impressed by the willingness of all of our attorneys to take on these cases and how ready and eager you have all been to fight back. Thank you so much everyone for all the work on these cases, these ones were particularly hard and I know that we will be able to meet all the challenges that are ahead of us next year."