Lawyers Association Provides Critical Information to Detained Immigrants, Families

by Anna Marie Macías

Sept. 18, 2008

Ever since Congress rejected an immigration reform bill last year, federal agents have enforced immigration laws more aggressively than ever, setting records for the largest numbers of undocumented immigrant laborers rounded up and deported from their homes, factories and other work sites.

While this might appear to be an open-and-shut case of law enforcement at work, these frequent raids pose a challenge for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), whose 11,000 members in 35 chapters across the country often represent and advocate for the immigrants arrested by the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (ICE). The lawyers, typically specialists in immigration law, organize into “r apid r esponse teams” that spring into action to counsel detainees and their families after each raid.

“In a raid situation, we’re trying to make sure there is compliance with the law,” said Kathleen Campbell Walker, immediate past president of AILA. “We have response teams that are making sure people are represented by attorneys for any immigration-related relief available to them.”

While many of the deported workers have no legal option to stay in the country, others are eligible for visas sponsored by their spouses or relatives or as victims of domestic violence or political persecution in their homeland. Even immigrants whose deportation is unavoidable can benefit from counsel to explain how they might return to the U. S. legally in the future.

People arrested on immigration charges have the right to representation by an attorney, but not at taxpayer expense. That does not dissuade members of the association, who often volunteer to protect immigrants’ constitutional rights, particularly in the aftermath of a raid.

A Plan to Help

Because the time and place of a raid is unpredictable, the lawyers have the AILA Chapter Raid Preparation Plan to prepare them in case one happens in their region. When a raid does occur, both during and after, members follow the AILA Chapters Workplace Raids Action Plan, a systematic guide developed by experienced immigration lawyers. The guide encourages lawyers to prepare for a “coordinated and intelligent response to an actual raid, when time is of the essence.”

Lawyers who respond to a raid must work quickly to learn the names, nationalities and charges pending against each detainee . Lawyers also must identify those who might meet the requirements for legal relief . A detainee might be unaware that he or she qualif ies for one of the many types of resident visas.

The lawyers’ task is complicated by the government practice of moving inmates to facilities across the country. If a detainee is sent to another state, an association  member will try to find a colleague to provide counsel there.

In many cases, workers without proper documents are deported, leaving behind spouses and children who might be legal U.S. residents or citizens. Often, their relatives are not informed about where their loved one is being held and what, if anything, can be done to prevent their removal from the country. The response teams attempt to ensure that detainees and their families receive critical information after a raid.

The attorneys bolster their legal expertise with a creative use of technology. With the permission of the Justice Department’s Administrative Control Courts, informally known as simply “immigration courts,” some members host live video conferences for immigrants detained in rural facilities. The association’s Dallas chapter , for example, presents Know Your Rights, a monthly live video program that has been viewed by hundreds of men and women at federal detention centers in Haskell and Rolling Hills, Texas. The inmates, with roots in some 147 different nations, get the chance to ask the attorneys questions through the interactive broadcast.  

“About 90 percent of the people we address are going to be without a lawyer,” said Elizabeth Cedillo-Periera, an attorney who chairs the Dallas response team . “They’ll ask us to explain how long it will take to litigate their case. They have no access to legal research. Some will ask us to contact their families.”

ICE’s View Versus the Association’s

Since October 2007, federal agents have arrested about 3,700 immigrants at worksites across the country.
ICE officials say the arrest numbers represent a ten fold increase over arrests in the same period five years earlier. The agency’s literature states that such enforcement strengthens national security and reduces criminal activity, such as identity theft and document fraud.

“ICE has placed an increased priority on targeting illegal workers who have gained access to critical infrastructure worksites around the country — including nuclear plants, U.S. military installations, airports and seaports,” an agency release declared.

The immigration attorneys, on the other hand, paint a different picture : The majority of those arrested are workers simply trying to support families. Their options for working legally are severely limited under current law. However, they provide labor vital to the U.S. economy. 

The Postville Raid

The association considers the response by immigration lawyers in the Postville, Iowa, raid in May to be a model on how to help immigrants after a raid.
Many Postville residents panicked after agents swept the community in a pre-dawn raid that captured 390 workers . More than 300 other immigrants who feared arrest took refuge in a church. The church became the hub, too, for families seeking information to help those in detention. 

The attorneys, meanwhile, acted on their plan. One group of lawyers met with jailed clients and their relatives, advising them on their rights in an administrative hearing or “immigration court.” However, after ICE took the unusual step of charging some detainees with identity theft in the state’s criminal courts, the attorneys found themselves advising court-appointed criminal defense attorneys on the nuances of immigration law. A second group of attorneys served as liaisons with the news media, and a third communicated with ICE agents and social service providers to help the affected families.

“The people locally, both AILA members and other immigrant advocates, have done an unbelievable job,” said Lori Chesser, an immigration attorney and shareholder with the Davis Brown law firm in Des Moines, Iowa. “Responding to this raid has been quite an experience. Everybody has had so much to do. Some attorneys worked a whole week pro bono.”

Chesser said the association’s members share a compassion for others as well as a concern that the justice system work properly.

“It’s clear that lawyers care very much about seeing things done with fairness and according to the rule of law,” she said. “We care that our system works the way it’s supposed to.”

Anna Marie Macías is a freelance writer based on Dallas, Texas.