Amid New Immigration Policies, Local Attorneys and Immigrants Navigate a Broken System

Lawyers say the system has been thrown into "chaos"

Hilda Ramirez (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Rows of blue banquet chairs line the inside of a spacious auditorium, all facing a tall wooden cross. A sliver of light sneaks into the dimly lit room through colorful stained glass, beneath the high ceilings, quietly illuminating the serene emptiness. In between the entry doors, the word "Sanctuary," imprinted in plain white letters, denotes the holiest place in a religious building. While unoccupied on a balmy Thursday afternoon, the inclusive space provides a spiritual refuge at least once a week for those in the surrounding North Austin area. But St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church is more than that for Hilda Ramirez. For her, it's home.

For the better part of three years, Ramirez and her 13-year-old son Ivan – Guatemalan refugees who fled death threats and domestic violence in 2014 – have taken sanctuary in the church, living their daily (albeit stunted and unconventional) lives in a makeshift bedroom and kitchen within the building. Ramirez keeps busy by crafting jewelry and small dolls modeled after the women in her pueblo. But neither Ramirez nor her son can leave the building much, out of fear of being apprehended by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The pair spent 11 months in the for-profit Karnes County Residential Center, where Ramirez says she was "humiliated and insulted" by prison officers. While still feeling humbled and grateful for the protection offered by St. Andrew's, which is part of the Austin Sanctuary Network (ASN), Ramirez suffers from "nightmares, stress, and sadness" due to her circumstances. Denied asylum protection in 2015, Ramirez was notified in March of this year that her request for a deferred-action extension on her deportation was rejected without explanation.

Then ICE turned the screws even tighter: In late June, Ramirez received a letter from the agency informing her that she needed to pay $303,620 for "willfully" failing to deport. The notice, obtained by the Chronicle, lists Ramirez taking up residence at St. Andrew's for the purpose of "evading arrest" as an alleged offense, and accuses her of having "connived or conspired" to prevent her deportation. The ASN considers the fine "retaliation" because Ramirez chose to protect herself. "I cannot pay this high amount, and ICE knows I don't have the money," Ramirez tells us in Spanish through an interpreter. "It's an attack to scare me and cause more trauma."

Her jet-black hair pulled atop her head in a bun, a petite Ramirez looks both solemn and hopeful, her eyes filled with steely determination. She cracks a modest smile of optimism, showing her youthful dimples, when talking about those who have helped her along the way. "We need to keep fighting what they're doing to us," she says. "If we don't, they defeat us, and things will get worse. We have no choice but to fight."

The staggering $799/day civil fine levied against Ramirez is a tactic in the Trump administration's expanding arsenal of ways to instill fear in the immigrant community, says Ramirez's attorney, Stephanie Taylor. The law that authorizes the fine has been on the books since 1952, according to immigration advocates, but has yet to be used against an individual before now. "I've been practicing immigration law for 10 years and I've never seen anybody fined before, and certainly not to this level," said Taylor. "It's clear the government is trying to terrorize Hilda."

The decision to issue a fine notice is "determined on a case-by-case basis," writes ICE regional spokesperson Nina Pruneda in a message to the Chronicle. ICE is "committed to using various enforcement methods – including arrest; detention; technological monitoring; and financial penalties – to enforce U.S. immigration law and maintain the integrity of legal orders issued by judges," the agency writes.

Ramirez isn't alone: The administration sent a wave of letters across the country targeting undocumented immigrants residing in sanctuary, looking to smoke them out with excessive fines. ICE's Pruneda tells us the number of letters sent nationwide "isn't immediately available," as many are pending appeal and the agency has not been able to confirm receipt of others. Immigration advocates have identified at least 10 recipients nationwide, including a woman in Ohio who faces nearly half a million dollars in fines. Taylor says she and other attorneys in a handful of states are collaborating on an (unprecedented) legal strategy to combat the "absurd" tactic; they have 30 days to contest the fines.

The letter is not a one-off surprise attack – it's reflective of the dizzying unpredictability and hostility of this xenophobic administration. Local attorneys on the front lines of deportation defense describe an already complex system turned upside down by anti-immigrant officials who have created a frustrating maze of delays, denials, and downright "chaos" for their vulnerable clients. The ever-shifting legal pressure under the draconian federal reign, increasingly capricious for legal advocates and their clients to navigate, isn't expected to let up anytime soon.

"Forcing People to Give Up"

An exasperated Chito Vela sits across the table, worn but resolute. Since the Trump administration took over, the immigration attorney's caseload has risen 150%, a pace he says he can "barely" keep up with. It's no wonder his phone rings multiple times a day, usually from clients who trekked from Central America and are seeking protection. Southwest border apprehensions hit a new peak this past May, with nearly 133,000 migrant arrests, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. While that figure dipped to about 95,000 by June, it's still the highest yet under Trump. Vela shuttles between his Highland-area law office and detention centers in Pearsall (southwest of San Antonio), Taylor, Conroe, and Waco, often waiting up to three hours to meet with his clients. (Some centers hold 3,000 migrants but have only four attorney visitation rooms, forcing an inevitable wait.) The administration, he says, has taken all the difficulties of the immigration court system and amplified them tenfold, leaving clients to suffer long delays, confusion, and bureaucratic barriers not seen prior.

Chito Vela (Photo by Jana Birchum)
“I’m a pretty thick-skinned guy, but it’s getting to me. A whole generation of Latino kids are being devastated by deportations of their mothers and fathers. It’s hard to cope with.” – Chito Vela

"Oh man, just the heartbreak," says Vela. "I'm a pretty thick-skinned guy, but it's getting to me. A whole generation of Latino kids are being devastated by deportations of their mothers and fathers. It's hard to cope with."

Vela points to several changes in the system that make winning protections for clients much tougher. For example, allowing clients to be released from detention on bond allows for easier communication to plead the case for asylum – it's a "critical component," says Vela. But bonds previously set at $3,000 have now risen to $6,000, and bonds that were set at $10,000 are now just being denied outright.

In April, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered immigration judges – who are hired under the Department of Justice and are part of the executive (not the judicial) branch, leaving them vulnerable to political pressure – to deny bond hearings for asylum seekers, keeping migrants detained for months, or even years as the court system faces an extensive backlog that's climbed more than 70% since Trump assumed office. A total of 424 judges face a backlog of over 892,000 cases on the courts' active dockets. On July 2, a Seattle district judge ruled that Barr's order to indefinitely detain migrants is unconstitutional.

In defense of its bond denial scheme, the administration has argued "90% of families" don't show up if they're released – a claim echoed by Texas state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, during a Capitol hearing on immigration earlier this month – but that's false. As of the end of May 2019, out of about 47,000 newly arriving families seeking refuge in this country, nearly six of every seven released from custody had appeared for their initial court hearing, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) database.

Other measures have been taken to stiffen rules once seen as discretionary. Vela discusses one of his latest clients, a Hondur­an refugee and mother of three children who has lived in Austin for a decade with no criminal record. She fled her home country after threats of gang violence, only to be ensnared in an abusive relationship in which she "feared for her life." Her violent ex-boyfriend called ICE, leading to her arrest. In the past, says Vela, someone in those sensitive circumstances would be released by ICE with an order of supervision; now, she's been taken directly to detention in Pearsall. He is currently fighting to reopen her case and rescind her removal order.

Nationwide, the detention network is growing despite calls from Democrats to limit its capacity and to focus on criminals rather than mothers with children. In 2018, under Trump, the average daily population in immigrant detention hovered at 45,890 – the highest in 25 years – and has continued to rise this year, an analysis by the Marshall Project found. As of July 13, nearly 53,000 are detained by ICE, according to federal data.

"Before, ICE would show some humanity and exercise some discretion and release her, maybe with an ankle monitor," says Vela. "But to rip her apart from her children and throw her in detention, that's a new, horrible trend of this administration. What they've done is attack the systemic tools that mitigate and show mercy," he continues. "Now every little thing is a constant battle."

One of the most pronounced and insidious changes is Trump's move to raise the bar for obtaining asylum protections for migrants who face a "credible fear" of danger if they return to their home country. Last year, the administration sought to deny asylum claims from women fleeing domestic violence and for those escaping gang brutality in Central America, overriding longstanding U.S. policy. A few months ago, Trump issued a memo to further toughen regulations that bar some asylum seekers from being granted work authorizations in the U.S.

Earlier this year, the administration implemented a "Remain in Mexico" policy requiring some asylum seekers stay across the border while their cases are processed. Trump's latest punch was thrown on July 15, when the administration announced it would seek to end asylum protections for most Central American migrants. The new rule states that migrants (including children who cross the border alone) will be ineligible for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border if they don't apply for safety in a "third country" (e.g., Mexico) en route. The ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit on July 17 challenging these "most extreme" asylum restrictions to date. Creating a more difficult path to asylum will exacerbate the dismal denial rate that has been rising steadily under Trump: From 2016 to 2018, immigration judges denied protection in 65% of cases heard, according to Syracuse University's TRAC database.

“Let’s just say, I have not become less skilled and I’m working as hard as ever,” says attorney Virginia Raymond. “Man, it’s discouraging. They are trying to force people to give up.”

Attorneys and clients are feeling the impact locally. After years of general success for her clients, local immigration attorney Virginia Raymond says she was unable to win asylum for her last seven cases, an unusual personal shift but one that doesn't surprise her under the current regime. "Let's just say, I have not become less skilled and I'm working as hard as ever," she says over a cup of coffee. She pauses, then shakes her head. "Man, it's discouraging. They are trying to force people to give up."

The "accelerated rate of changes" in the system has made it difficult for clients to receive an initial court date, go through the "credible fear" interview process to qualify for asylum, and be given enough time to prepare for cases, says Raymond. With the many curveballs thrown by the administration, attorneys are forced to completely alter their legal strategies – sometimes overnight. "The thing that really keeps me going is [that] every bond I get, every case I win, is a personal 'Fuck you' to President Trump," says Vela. "It's a really bad moment in time, and those victories mean more than ever."

An "Invisible Wall" for Migrants

Looming ICE raids and horrific treatment of migrant children in Texas border facilities – at least seven children have died in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) since last year, compared to zero in the previous 10 years – have rightly captured headlines recently. In the background, a dysfunctional and purposefully unmanageable legal system works to ensure those vulnerable children and their parents remain separated, remain detained, or are deported. "We hear about the major enforcement actions in the media weekly, but behind the scenes, there's this invisible wall people don't talk about as much," says attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch. That wall "is preventing migrants from securing things like U-visas for crime victims, work permits, and green cards because of massive delays in application processing times." Responses to applications that once took six months are now taking two years; ones that previously took a year are now taking four.

University of Texas Immigration Clinic professor Elissa Steglich echoes the concern, describing the delays she's witnessed as "egregious." Her clinic recently aided three neglected Latin American migrants in getting a special juvenile pathway to residency. Previously, a response to their application would have come back within six months; today, that response took nearly two years – and that's with the assistance of a congressman, she says.

These local experiences reflect a nationwide trend. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) considers the delays imposed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Ser­vices (USCIS) a full-blown "crisis." Using federal data in a January policy brief, the group highlights that average case processing times have slowed by 46% since 2016, "reveal[ing] a legal immigration system in a tailspin." The agency is processing cases at a "rate markedly slower than under the prior administration even as overall case volume appears to have receded."

Lincoln-Goldfinch points to her client Catalino Méndez, a Mexican immigrant who has resided in Austin since 1997, as an example. Méndez, who fled Guanajuato due to extreme poverty, filed all the necessary paperwork to obtain a green card; however, it was "lost in the mail." The process of reissuing the card took more than a year. Lincoln-Goldfinch says that before the Trump administration's tactics and maneuvers, it would have likely taken less than two months. Despite having been approved for work authorization, Méndez continued to anxiously labor as an undocumented immigrant in the construction industry, as his wife and four children rely on his income to survive. He vigilantly checked his mail every day and contacted his attorney's office for updates as he waited in legal limbo. "It was frustrating and nerve-racking," Méndez tells us in Spanish via an interpreter. "I felt desperate and wondered if I had done something wrong."

Catalino Méndez (c) feared deportation while waiting more than a year to receive his green card. (Courtesy of Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch)

Rebecca Lightsey of local immigration legal services nonprofit American Gateways says the many "wrenches thrown in the system" have made it "nearly impossible" for those practicing immigration law to keep up. For clients, it's meant stress and overwhelming apprehension about the future. "Our clients are feeling such high levels of anxiety because of all this uncertainty," she says. "And as attorneys, we can barely help clients understand what happens next in the process because things keep changing weekly or even daily."

Last year, the Austin City Council approved a five-year, $375,000 contract with American Gateways to assist with deportation defense, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), asylum cases, and humanitarian visas for survivors of violence and trafficking. The organization tells the Chronicle that they've been able to serve more than 200 clients this year through that city funding. However, while Lightsey expresses deep gratitude for the support from Council and the community, her group is only able to meet 20% of its demand due to the increased workload.

"The best way to characterize it is complete chaos," says Lightsey. "Pretty much every piece of the immigration process appears to be in disarray."

A Mental and Spiritual Toll

The disastrous policies have spurred growing interest from lawyers – those who are either out of practice or don't specialize in immigration law – who want to help the fight. Lawyers from as far away as Montana have called Steglich hoping to lend a hand. In June of 2018, at the height of Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, Lincoln-Goldfinch, Steglich, and UT Immigration Clinic professor Denise Gilman led an Austin Bar Association training on how to navigate the asylum process. The session quickly filled to capacity, with more than 300 watching its livestream.

A prevailing feeling of exhaustion marks the tone of overburdened local immigration attorneys, who have worked tirelessly for years. Lincoln-Goldfinch likens the new era of immigration law to an aggressive "riptide" forcing her and her colleagues to struggle just to "stay afloat." Vela doesn't mince words when he describes the "mental and spiritual" toll cases have taken and the secondary trauma it inflicts on legal advocates. "We have to go home and shake off the horrors and tragedies we're surrounded by so we can wake up the next day and fight," he says. "One day, it'll come rushing back and I'll process it, but not right now."

The physical and emotional impact forced Raymond to recently quit her legal job at nonprofit Justice for Our Neighbors. She's now working as a solo immigration attorney on a "scaled back" schedule of eight hours a day. With tears in her eyes, she recounts her breaking point: the pain of having to tell mothers separated from their children at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor that she didn't know where their children were, how long they would be kept apart, or whether or not she could reunite them.

"What keeps me up at night are not the cases I lose, because I can try and appeal those – it's the people who commit suicide because their kid was taken away, people who are dying from dehydration because they are waiting under a bridge, or those who swim across the river with their children and die," she says, referring to the shocking images that surfaced in June of 25-year-old Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 2-year-old daughter, Angie Valeria, face down in the Rio Grande after escaping El Salvador and attempting to make a better life in Texas.

"I want to create a space that helps fight the system overall," says Raymond. "Right now, I'm focused on organizing, activism, and changing the big picture. I want people to feel motivated to stand up and say, 'We refuse to accept this.'"

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