Immigrant Rights – Do You Know Where to Turn for Help?

As we hear more stories about ICE raids in San Diego that are breaking families apart, it was very informative to learn about the efforts of two important immigrant rights groups in San Diego County. At this month’s club meeting we were pleased to hear from Tazheen Nizam of the North County Immigration Task Force, and Katherine Paculba, Esq., Pro Bono Program Director with the Casa Cornelia Law Center.

First, Tazheen began with an introduction of the North County Immigration Task Force, a group of advocates, organizations, leaders and community members who work together to empower and voice the needs of the immigrant community, to advance immigrant rights in North County, San Diego. There are approximately 45 active members and all are volunteers. The group meets on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of every month. Their activities include a “Know Your Rights” campaign, voter registration work, lobbying in Sacramento, and Spanish citizen classes year round to mention just a few.

“This election was a can of worms”, Tazheen stated. The Muslim ban has resulted in refugees sent back to absolutely nothing in their own countries. There has been a 38% increase in border patrols roaming the Rt. 78/I5-15 corridors and kids are afraid to go to school for fear of returning home to find their parents have been deported, resulting in a drastic decrease in school attendance. “Fear is crippling the community” she explained, resulting now in a significant drop in reported crimes such as domestic violence. “Local collaboration with the police is a myth” she went on. ICE has often been called and people deported before they are even given due process or they are grabbed while out on bail.

Some of the key goals over the next few months include lobbying for passage of SB54, the California Values Act, which dissuades law enforcement from collaborating with ICE and SB29 which pushes for improving conditions in immigrant detention facilities. They will work hard to meet with legislators over the August recess. There has been a 37.6% increase in the number of detainees held in private detention facilities and this must be stopped.

After setting the context for what has been going on, Katherine gave an overview of the programs she manages at the Casa Cornelia Law Center, a non-profit organization that has been in North County for 25 years. They provide quality pro bono legal help to indigent victims of human and civil rights violations.

Katherine gave a great overview of the various means by which an immigrant can pursue entry into the United States. Those are Asylum, U-Visa, VAWA, T-Visa and SIJS. Asylum is for those who come to the border, and express a credible fear of returning to their own country as determined via a “credible fear interview”. There are no public defenders or help of any kind and the asylum seeker is on their own to make their asylum case.

Refugees and asylum seekers are similar. Both are people who are unwilling or unable to return to their homes for fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (e.g. the LGBTQ community). Asylum is country specific and can only be pursued within one year of arrival at the border. If their case is not accepted then they are subject to “expedited removal”.

The U-Visa is for victims of a serious crime who are already here in the U.S. They must be a victim of qualifying criminal activity, have suffered substantial physical and/or mental abuse, have been helpful to law enforcement, and the crime must have occurred in the United States and the victim must be admissible to the U.S. This type of visa is a path to a green card/permanent residency status.

VAWA is Violence Against Women Act and is similar to the U-Visa described above. To qualify for this type of entry, the victim needs to have a relationship with an abusive US Citizen or an abusive green card holder, needs to show proof of the relationship (marriage certificate or birth certificate) and must be a “good faith marriage” – not just for immigration status. The victim must live or have lived with the abuser, must have suffered physical abuse or extreme cruelty and must be a person of good moral character.

The T-Visa is for victims of human trafficking and again, has significant requirements. They must have been a victim of sex trafficking or labor trafficking and are in the U.S. because of the trafficking; the victim must be willing to report the trafficking to law enforcement and is willing to cooperate with law enforcement and finally they have to show they would suffer hardship if forced to return to their home country.

Lastly there is SIJS or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for abused, abandoned, and/or neglected children. Requirements for SIJS status are that the child is present in the USA, is unmarried and is usually under 18 years of age and was abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents. Lastly they must show that it is not in child’s best interest to return to his or her country of origin. This program was used heavily a few years back when many unaccompanied minors showed up at the border but it has slowed down now.

The most unsettling fact Katherine shared with us is that the Department of Justice is now using an archaic law in an effort to block this kind of legal advocacy work. She described several examples in Chicago and Seattle where the lawyer who is taking up the case on behalf of the immigrant must pledge they will remain the victim’s lawyer until the end of the case. This can sometimes make it impractical or difficult for organizations like Casa Cornelia since they work only off donations and have a limited staff.

Those in attendance greatly appreciated the education as many of us are not subject to such fears. As Tazheen said, “We need educated allies like you” – the North County Immigration Task Force is planning a trip to detention facilities and travel across the border to see first hand how deportees live. You can follow them on their Facebook page at this link.