Lawyers: Major Changes Happening in How Law Is Applied to Immigrants

Jeremy Love

Immigration actions in Alabama and Mississippi recently underscore the point: The campaign against undocumented residents is nationwide, not just on the southern U.S. border.

That’s no surprise to at least one group in Birmingham – the lawyers who specialize in immigration disputes and have been handling growing caseloads.

April Nichols, Natasha Snow and Jeremy Love are immigration attorneys located in Birmingham. All three say there have been major changes to how immigration law is applied to their clients.

Snow said it was once common practice for individuals to be released on bond until their scheduled court date, but that practice is less often followed and more individuals are being sent to detention centers until their court dates. Snow said it could take months or sometimes years for court dates to be scheduled.

“[We are seeing that] more and more bond applications are being denied on discretionary grounds. People who would normally qualify for a bond are now being denied,” Snow said. As a result, individuals will attempt to leave the country “without even trying to fight for their case,” she said.

Nichols said she has noticed a rise in attention to documents such as work permits. “The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services seems to be looking for any reason to deny applications, as all applications are under increased scrutiny. I have a client who has been renewing her work authorization permit for years, and her application was recently denied upon the finding of a technicality that wasn’t followed years ago by her prior attorney.”

Love said one of the biggest changes he has witnessed is the treatment of detainees, primarily “the lack of resources for the number of immigrants who are being detained. The Trump administration has made a number of policy changes that has increased the number of detainees and, at the same time, greatly added to the immigration court backlog.  However, funding has not been provided to adequately house, feed and provide medical care for immigrants in detention.”

Love attributes the high number of cases and resulting backlog to one particular policy change regarding “removal priorities.”

“Under previous administrations, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would focus its detention and removal efforts on immigrants that entered the US recently and those with criminal backgrounds,” he said. “Since 2018, ICE processes everyone equally. So, it is putting more people in removal proceedings, but as it has limited resources, is removing a smaller percentage of people who have committed crimes.”

Snow said individuals in immigration detention are not provided court-appointed counsel, and are often left on their own.

“[Detainees facing deportation], they are not considered criminals because it is a civil violation to have violated the immigration laws. Therefore, the United States is not providing them with a free attorney service [so] they are pretty much on their own. They cannot afford a lawyer and some of them actually have good cases but they don’t know how to go about filing the proper petitions and fighting for their own rights,” Snow said.

Individuals are sent to detention centers throughout the country, but lately some are sent to locations much farther away from their families and attorneys. Most individuals in Alabama are sent to detention centers in Louisiana, which can make interaction between client and counsel difficult, Snow said.

The handling of cases involving minors is another issue. Love said that while the separation of children from their parents is not as frequent as in the past, smaller children are still being detained away from their family members until U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials can verify a solid familial relationship.

This process, he said, can take days or weeks to be completed.

“If a child arrives without a relative, they are held for weeks to months until a relative sponsor in the U.S. can be found,” Love said. “I can’t imagine what is going through the child’s mind as it is detained for weeks in a strange place without understanding the language or the legal process. Once they come to my office with the relative sponsor, it’s my job to advise them on the legal process and options available to them. It’s a difficult but rewarding experience for me to be able to guide them.”

The law in Alabama states that an individual is considered a child until the age of 19, but under federal law the general age of majority is 18, which is the age federal authorities use when making their arrests, Snow said. Current policies result in many 18-year-olds being detained by ICE as adults, Snow said, and many teenagers who would otherwise qualify for juvenile visas are held in detention due to a lack of assets or sustainable community ties that, according to Snow, is one of the requirements to be granted an immigration bond.

There is an option for individuals under the age of 21 to apply for a “special immigrant juvenile visa” (SIJS) but the qualifications do not always apply to the individual. “A petition for special immigrant juvenile statues involves showing that a child was abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both parents,” Snow said. “These children used to be treated with more consideration and concern by courts and DHS. These days, we see the same children re-arrested by ICE as soon as they turn 18, and they are often removed from the country before they can receive a decision on their application.”

Love added that to receive an SIJS, the child in question must “be declared dependent by a state or federal court (by age 18 in Alabama); if it is not in their best interest to be returned to their country of origin,” or if they show “good moral character.”

“There is a long wait process (especially if they are from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador,) Love said. “As long as they file before [the age of] 21, they’re fine. And they’ll eventually be able to file for permanent residence.”

“I have many people coming to me hoping that I can help them achieve legal status in the United States. I often have people in my office who have been in the country for 20 years, have United States citizen children, do not have a criminal record and have been paying taxes with a valid tax ID number,” Nichols said. “Unfortunately, under the current immigration laws, they do not qualify for legalization or even a work permit.”

Snow advocates that a first change in immigration policy should be handling violations as civil matters, as most are, rather than as criminal cases. She also said she feels the first step in immigration reform should be a policy change.