Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Fallacy of Enforcement Only Thinking

"Let's just enforce the laws we have."  "We don't need immigration reform. We already have immigration laws on the books. Just enforce them."

Those are the refrains we hear over and over again from those who oppose any immigration reform.  It is a mindset that assumes that immigration laws are static, and ought to be so. 

But in a democracy, laws are not static and unchanging.  Laws are meant to be changed over time, just as our society changes over time.  This is why the United States has a Congress.  Like all legislatures, Congress' job is to examine the laws, and decide in a deliberative fashion if new laws need to be passed, if old laws need to be adjusted, and if laws need to be eliminated.

Calling for enforcement only, therefore, cuts off a debate that we as a society need to have on a constant basis.  What are the purposes of our immigration laws? Are our immigration laws functioning in a way to achieve those purposes? Are our immigration law functioning in a manner that reflects our values?  Are there unintended consequences of our immigration laws that need to be adjusted?

All too often, opponents to immigration reform simply presume that our laws are functioning the way they are supposed to function.  They treat immigration laws as if they were criminal law, despite the fact that time and time again immigration practitioners are reminded that immigration laws are civil in nature and not criminal.  Defining immigration laws as civil law gives the government the hook it needs to downplay violation of basic constitutional rights.

But equating immigration law violations with criminal law violations gives those who oppose immigration reform the luxury of dehumanizing undocumented aliens. By calling them illegals, opponents can ignore the inhumane and cruel consequences of enforcement, and claim that "those illegals" deserve it for breaking the law in the first place. 

In that way, opponents of reform can ignore how enforcement causes the separation of families. They can ignore that some aliens who qualify for immigration relief are forced to withstand detentions that are longer than their original criminal sentences. 

For tho who don't have someone they know stuck in the system, enforcement only seems like an easy solution; but it's not a compassionate solution. It's a way to ignore the problems of the current system, and hide away in their own personal cocoon, content with the illusion of security. 

By:  William J. Kovatch, Jr. 
For an appointment call (703) 837-8832
(571) 551-6069 (ESP)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

In Immigation Court, the Deck is Stacked Against Daniel Ramirez and Other Immigrants

Last week in Washington State, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested and detained Daniel Ramirez.  Ramirez now sits in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma Washington awaiting his hearing in Immigration Court on whether he should be removed from the United States.

Ramirez was granted protection pursuant to President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  DACA recipients essentially received a promise that the Government would not seek their removal for a certain period of time, and legal work authorization.  ICE seized Ramirez from his home despite the fact that his DACA protection had not expired.  Ramirez has no criminal convictions.

ICE contends that Ramirez admitted to "gang affiliation," and based on that persuaded U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that grants and administers DACA, to revoke DACA protection.  Though his attorney, Ramirez denies gang membership.  He states that ICE has doctored records to make it appear as though he admitted gang affiliation, and that ICE has misconstrued statements he made during a custodial interrogation.  Moreover, ICE acted illegally and in direct contravention of the Constitution when it seized him, and questioned him aggressively without giving him an opportunity to consult with a lawyer.

Ramirez challenged his detention in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.  Friday, the court ruled that it would not order Ramirez be released, but that the Immigration Court must hold a hearing within one week on whether Ramirez should be released on bond.

The District Court's ruling is correct in that there is a procedure to seek Ramirez's release from detention while his removal case is pending before the Immigration Courts.  The Immigration Court should have the first shot of addressing whether Ramirez should be released on bond.  What is unusual, however, is that the District Court has given Ramirez permission to skip an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) if bond is denied, and ask that the District Court hear his case on appeal.  This may be in recognition of the immense procedural hurdles that face Ramirez, indeed any alien, who seeks bond in Immigration Court while being detained for removal proceedings, faces.

When a person is detained, the Immigration Court can hold a hearing on whether to allow the person to be released on bond pending the resolution of his or her removal proceedings.  Because Ramirez has no criminal convictions, he may be released on bond.  He is not a mandatory detainee.

But a bond proceeding is not the same as a habeas corpus proceeding.  Through a habeas corpus proceeding, a court decides whether the Government is holding a person unlawfully.  A bond proceeding is simply a determination of whether a person should be released while further proceedings are pending, and if so the amount of a bond to be posted to secure his or her attendance at a later hearing.

The difference between these two proceedings shows the limits that the Immigration Courts have.  Despite the name, Immigration Courts as not part of the judiciary.  They are part of the Executive Branch.  Because of this, Immigration Courts lack powers of equity.  They cannot rule that an action of the Executive Branch is unconstitutional.  They cannot hold a person in contempt.  They cannot issue injunctions.  The powers of the Immigration Courts are strictly limited to what powers Congress has granted by statute.

The Immigration Courts are part of the Department of Justice.  They cannot hold an action of the Department of Homeland Security to be invalid.  In some instances, when the Department of Homeland Security has denied an application for immigration benefits, the Immigration Courts can hold a new hearing on the same application.  Thus, Immigration Courts can hear an application for asylum after it has been denied by USCIS, or review a petition to remove conditions on permanent residency, if initially denied by USCIS.  But without statutory authority, it cannot review other actions by the Department of Homeland Security.

This means that whether or not ICE violated the Constitution in arresting Ramirez and interrogating him without a lawyer present is not the deciding factor in the bond proceeding before the Immigration Court.  The questions before the Immigration Court will be whether Ramirez is a danger to the community, whether he is a risk of not appearing for his removal hearings, and whether there is any form of relief from removal available to him.  The constitutional violations could come into play if the Immigration Judge believes that the evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution should be suppressed in considering the bond motion.  But the constitutional arguments are not much more helpful in a bond proceeding.

For Ramirez, the key issues appear to be whether his so-called gang affiliation renders him a danger to the public, and whether there is relief from removal available to him.  In this regard, the reason he was able to stay in the United States before his arrest was the fact that he was granted protection pursuant to DACA.  DACA was not created by statute.  In fact, the President only created DACA when Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would have given legal status to certain undocumented aliens who were brought to this country when they were children.  It is entirely a creature of executive discretion, not statute.  Because the Immigration Court lacks the ability to review every action of the Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration Court lacks the power to decide if DACA protection was rescinded illegally by USCIS.  This could be the issue that sinks Ramirez's request for bond.

But even assuming the Immigration Court were to grant Ramirez bond, that would not be the end of the case.  If bond is granted, the Government has the right to appeal it to the BIA, another arm of the Department of Justice.  If the Government appeals a bond determination, Ramirez would remain detained pending the outcome of the BIA appeal.  Even then, the Government has one more avenue of appeal, this time to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the judicial circuit where the Immigration Court lies.  In this instance, that is the 9th Circuit.

With all of these procedural barriers, it is difficult for an alien in detention to be released on bond, unless the Department of Homeland Security consents.  If the Immigration Judge denies bond, the prospect that a detained alien could be waiting in detention, which in just like being held in jail in all but name, for months and spending money on appeals while still waiting for a full hearing on the issue of removal itself is so daunting, that many aliens simply give up at this point, and agree to be returned to their home country.

It is perhaps because of this great disadvantage to alien detainees that the U.S. District Court gave Ramirez the ability to waive appeal to the BIA, and return to the District Court should he be denied bond.  The U.S. District Court, as part of the judiciary, does have equitable powers, and can entertain an argument that Ramirez's detention is unlawful because of the constitutional violations.  For this reason, the Ramirez case will continue to be an important case to watch when it comes to the potential of reigning in ICE enforcement raids.  This may well be the case that provides immigration law practitioners the tools needed to defend our clients' constitutional rights more effectively.

By:  William J. Kovatch, Jr.
For an appointment call (703) 837-8832
(571) 551-6069 (ESP)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

ICE's War Against the Latino Community

When word of the nationwide enforcement raids by ICE began to break about a week ago, I wanted to be able to say that this is not the time to get hysterical. I wanted to say that these occasional raids are common, and certainly happened under the Obama Administration. But as I read more and more news accounts, I cannot say that. Instead, what I am seeing is a coordinated attack on the Latino community in a modern-day which hunt to find anyone ICE can seek to remove from the United States. I see the utter demise of any sense of humanity or dignity in this nation's immigration enforcement policy. I see the Constitution being torn to shreds. 

Let's start with the change in policy itself. Under the Obama Administration, ICE was instructed to concentrate its enforcement resources on priority cases involving dangerous criminal aliens. Undocumented aliens who were here just earning money to feed their families, and who had not had brushes with the law, were given leniency. 

In his first week in office, President Trump signed three executive orders on immigration policy. In one order, the President outlined the new enforcement priorities, which included aliens who had committed acts that constitute a crime but who have not been convicted. To some degree, this seemed innocuous enough. The Immigration and Nationality Act does have a similar basis of inadmissibility. 

In a closed-door session with lawmakers, however, ICE leadership let it be known that it viewed Trump's executive order as removing the shackles imposed by the Obama Administration. Now the reference to aliens who had committed acts that constituted a crime but who had not been convicted was being interpreted to mean that any of the aliens present in the United States without valid legal status was considered a priority for enforcement. That is, instead of the two to three million Trump  believed were criminal aliens he wanted to focus on, ICE considered all eleven million undocumented aliens as fair game for removal. 

It should be noted that in this very meeting where ICE announced its interpretation of the Trump policy, certain Latino congressional representatives were turned away. That's right. Latino congressional representatives were denied the right to hear from ICE itself the new enforcement priorities that would affect their Latino constituents and their families. 

What's worse is that ICE's enforcement activities have shown an utter disregard for morality and human decency, as ICE has practically declared war on the Latino community. Let's explore just a few examples. 

In Arizona, a woman who had been reporting into ICE annually for ten years was taken into custody during her annual check-in. Within 48 hours she was removed because a decade before she used a phony Social Security number to find work. She had no history of any violent crimes. 

In Washington State, a man who had been granted protection and work authorization pursuant to President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) was taken into custody during a raid on his home targeting his father. ICE ignored the DACA protection, claiming the man had known gang affiliations. ICE's evidence of this?  A tattoo which translates into English as "peace."

In Virginia, ICE waited outside a church hypothermia shelter to stop Latino males as they left the shelter in the morning. One of the Latino males stopped was a permanent resident who is in this country legally. Obviously, ICE's marching orders were to stop all Latino males with the hope of finding one or two who would be removable. 

But the piece de resistance?  In Texas, ICE waited outside a courtroom as a woman obtained a protective order against her abusive partner. Once she left the courtroom, ICE arrested her. In all likelihood, the tip to ICE on where the woman would be was given by the abuser. 

What conclusions, then, are the Latino community supposed to take from ICE's recent actions?  First, ICE has no interest in being transparent and telling Latino political leaders what it's enforcement priorities are. Second, don't bother venturing out to seek any legal protection or to accept help from others with charitable intentions. Are you homeless and need shelter for the night?  ICE will be waiting outside the door to take you into custody in the morning. Are you an abused woman?  If you seek help in the courts, the moment you step outside of the courtroom, ICE will be there to perpetuate the abuse.  Are you a Latino male?  ICE will presume gang affiliation, especially if you have any tattoos. 

The point is that ICE's indiscriminate attacks on the Latino community must be resisted. ICE knows that due to language barriers, many Latinos present here don't know their rights.  ICE knows that many Latinos will not resistente the assertion of authority. This has to change. 

Know your rights, and understand that ICE had to act within the constraints of the Constitution. Don't open the door to ICE unless they show you a judge-issued warrant. Don't answer any questions posed by ICE. Demand your right to see a lawyer. Don't sign any papers without consulting a lawyer first. Insist on a hearing. Only by fighting back within the bounds of the legal system can we push back against ICE's assault on the Latino community. 

By: William J. Kovatch, Jr. 
For an appointment call (703) 837-8832
(571) 551-6069 (español)

Suspension of DACA Would Pose Legal Challenges for DREAMers

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Last Friday, Daniel Ramirez, who had been granted deferred action and work authorization pursuant to President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who raided his house to arrest Ramirez's father.  Ramirez's work authorization was still valid.  But this did not deter ICE agents from seizing him, as ICE contends that Ramirez admitted to being associated with a gang.  Ramirez claims he has no gang association, and that he was pressured by ICE to make such statements.

Ramirez has now initiated suit against the Untied States' Government. But his arrest and detention should serve as a warning to the thousands of young people who have applied for, and received, protection pursuant to DACA.

DACA is simply a promise made by President Obama that his Administration would not seek the removal of young people who were brought to the United States by their parents when they were children.  The President did this by granting deferred action.  Once the President grants deferred action, the recipient is entitled to apply for legal authorization to work in the United States.  But deferred action is not a legal status.  It is simply a promise from the Government not to seek removal.

DACA was not authorized by statute.  In fact, President Obama only created DACA when Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would have created a path to legal residency and possibly citizenship for the young people who were brought to this country as children, but grew up knowing America as their home.  The people who would have qualified for status under the DREAM Act are affectionately known as DREAMers.

But because DACA is not a creature of statute, it is a very fragile promise.  The President is under no obligation to extend protection pursuant to DACA once the current protection expires.  Moreover, because it is a matter of executive discretion, an applicant is unable to challenge the denial of DACA protection in U.S. courts.

But once a DREAMer has been granted DACA protection, that person has an expectation to continue to receive protection from removal until the program expires.

This is the expectation that ICE violated when it took Ramirez into custody.  Ramirez, who has no other legal immigrant status, will now face proceedings in Immigration Court where the United States will seek his removal.

In many instances, Immigration Court can grant relief from removal.  There are some programs, such as asylum or cancellation of removal, which the Immigration Court by law can grant after a hearing.  However, because DACA is not a legal program, but an exercise of executive discretion, the Immigration Courts have no power to issue a ruling on whether DACA protection was improperly suspended for any individual.

This does not leave DREAMers without a remedy.  Because DACA recipients have an expectation of a governmental benefit, that benefit cannot be rescinded arbitrarily or capriciously.  That is, DACA recipients have a due process right to have their protection honored until the expiration of the program.  But to enforce this right, DACA recipients may need to go to federal district court.

That is, if ICE arrests a person who has been granted DACA protection, and seeks that person's removal, the DACA recipient will need to file a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court alleging constitutional violations, such as due process.  Such a lawsuit is expensive and can become complicated.  In Ramirez's case, he will have to address ICE's claims that Ramirez admitted to being associated with street gangs.  There will be discover and a hearing.

The availability of such a process may not be comforting news to other DACA recipients.  Many are not in a position to spend thousands of dollars on legal expenses to fight over weak legal promise which will expire anyway in a little more than a year.  Indeed, the current Administration could be counting on that level of vulnerability to pick off DACA recipients one by one, making tenuous claims of gang association, knowing that they are forcing the DACA recipients into an expensive legal battle.  In that way, the Administration can claim that it is merely going after the "bad hombres" and highlighting its argument that President Obama overstepped his authority when he instituted DACA.  This is a position that would play well with many of President Trump's supporters.

DACA recipients need to be prepared to defend their rights.  All immigrants should know that ICE cannot issue warrants to itself that allow entry into a dwelling.  Only a judge can issue such a warrant.  Before letting ICE into your house, make sure everyone knows that they need to ask to see the warrant, and to check whether it is judge-issued.  All residents of your home should also know that they are under no obligation to answer any question posed by ICE agents, except their name.  If asked anything by ICE agents, demand your right to consult a lawyer.  Sign nothing without consulting a lawyer.  Do not be intimidated by ICE.  Spread the word.

By: William J. Kovatch, Jr.
For an appointment, call (703) 837-8832
(571) 551-6069 (español)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Putting the 9th Circuit's Decision Concerning Trump's Travel Restrictions into Perspective

On the evening of February 9, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an order denying the Government’s motion for a stay of a temporary restraining order from a U.S. District Court in Washington State preventing the Government from enforcing an executive order signed by President Trump which put a temporary halt to the admission of refugees, and to the admission of aliens from seven countries which have been deemed to be a danger to national security.  The case is entitled, The State of Washington, et al. v. Donald Trump, et al.

Immediately, both sides took to the airwaves and to the Internet attempting to turn the decision into a bigger deal than it really is.  Both sides have an incentive to engage in a publicity war and court public opinion.  The opponents of the executive order have an interest in giving the impression that this decision is a major victory against the Trump Administration.  Likewise, the proponents have an interest in creating a public perception that the judiciary needs to be reigned in with more favorable presidential appointees.

In this publicity battle, it is important to keep the 9th Circuit’s decision in perspective, and consider what it is that the Court did and didn’t do.

This is not a decision on the ultimate merits of the executive order.  That is, the 9th Circuit did not find conclusively that the executive order was unconstitutional.  The sole issue before the Court was whether the temporary restraining order (TRO) should remain in place while the case is pending for a decision on the merits before the U.S. District Court.

A TRO is meant solely to maintain the status quo while a case is pending.  That is, where there is an allegation that an action is illegal and that the action will cause irreparable harm, a TRO is meant to prevent one side from engaging in that act until the court can decide the merits of the case.  When a TRO is granted, a party can seek a stay from an appellate court.  That is, the party can go to a higher court, and argue that the TRO should not be enforced because the TRO will cause that party harm pending litigation.

With that perspective in mind, it is important to note that the 9th Circuit itself recognized that its decision was only preliminary, and issued at a very early stage in the litigation, before a full record could be created on the merits.  Nonetheless, the 9th Circuit’s decision did make some very important points.

First, the 9th Circuit determined that the states of Washington and Minnesota had standing to establish the lawsuit.  U.S. federal courts do not issue advisory opinions.  That is, federal courts will not weigh in on whether an act by Congress or the President is constitutional in the abstract without there being a case or controversy.  To have a case or controversy, some party must suffer some harm because of the act.

In this instance, the Court recognized that state run colleges were branches of the state governments.  State run colleges have an interest in presenting a quality educational program, which includes foreign students, professors and lecturers.  Indeed, the state schools act as the petitioner in student visas.  Many of the students, professors and lecturers found themselves aggrieved by executive order, as they could not travel abroad and return, or they could not enter the United States to be part of the school’s program.  Therefore, the states, through state-run schools, presented a case or controversy.

Second, the 9th Circuit ruled that the Executive Branch’s actions in the area of national security were not entirely unreviewable by the courts.  If an Executive action in the area of national security affected individual rights protected by the Constitution, that action could be reviewed by the courts.

Next, the Court addressed the elements necessary for granting a stay.  In doing so, the Court considered:  (1) the likelihood of success on the merits; (2) would the party suffer irreparable harm absent the stay; (3) whether a stay would cause substantial injury to other interested parties; and (4) where the public interest lies.  The Court found that the Federal Government’s showing on the first two factors was lacking.

When considering the likelihood of success on the merits, it is important to remember that decisions concerning a stay are issued at an early stage of the litigation.  The appellate court recognizes that the record has not been fully developed.  And thus it should not be taken as an authoritative sign that one party will ultimately prevail.

Nonetheless, the 9th Circuit did find that the executive order deprived certain parties of the constitutional right to due process before an interest can be taken away from the government.  Due process requires, at a very minimum, a party with a protected interest must have the right to notice and an opportunity to be heard.  The executive order made no provisions for notice and opportunity.  Therefore, to the extent that a party had a protected interest, the Federal Government could not carry its burden that the state governments’ arguments would necessarily fail.

The Court noted that the right to due process is not limited to citizens, but rather applies to all persons within the United States (whether present legally or illegally), as well as to certain persons seeking re-entry into the United States.

Specifically, permanent residents have an interest in traveling and re-entering the United States.  Likewise, those who have been issued non-immigrant visas (these are visas allowing a person entry for a temporary time for example to work or go to school) have an interest in having that visa honored and being permitted entry into the United States.  Before infringing on those interests, permanent residents and visa holders must be given notice of the Government’s intent and an opportunity to be heard.

In this regard, the Court found that statements made by White House counsel to the effect that the executive order would not affect permanent residents was not sufficient.  Interpretations by White House counsel are not authoritatively binding.

The Court declined to narrow the impact of the TRO, either in terms of who the TRO covered or the fact that the TRO was national in scope.  The Court stated that the Federal Government had not offered an alternative set of people that the TRO would cover that would include all persons with a protected interest.  Additionally, uniformity of enforcement with respect to immigration issues was desirable on a national level.

Concerning the argument that the executive order infringed on religious rights, the 9th Circuit merely stated that it was too early in the litigation to make such a determination.

Finally, with respect to the balancing of hardships and the public interest, the Court found that while the Federal Government has an interest in combatting terrorism, the Government had not shown an immediate need to implement the order.  Specifically, there was no showing that any alien from one of the seven countries had perpetrated an attack against the United States. This was in contrast to the substantial injury that persons with protected interests would suffer if the travel restrictions remained in place. Regarding the discretionary waiver provisions of the executive order, the Federal Government offered no explanation as to how they would function.

There is much in this decision that is useful to the immigration law practitioner.  Specifically, the recognition of a protected interest in those who already hold permanent residency or visas to re-entry to the United States, and the requirement that such interests cannot be infringed upon without due process is helpful.  Likewise, the recognition that the Federal Government cannot shield its actions from judicial review merely by claiming it is a matter of national security is in line with prior Supreme Court precedent.

But it should be noted that the case is far from over.  Litigation over the merits, wherein both sides will better develop the factual record and their arguments, continues at the U.S. District Court level.  After that, there would still be an opportunity for an appeal to the 9th Circuit and potentially the Supreme Court.  It may take a long time before the case is ultimately decided.

By:  William J. Kovatch, Jr.

For an appointment call (703) 837-8832
Se habla español (571) 551-6069