Making an Impact

JFON Impact Litigation creates far-reaching change in the lives of immigrants

Each year, the JFON network of attorneys change, protect, and even save the lives of thousands of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They do this one client at a time, slogging through the miles of paperwork, filings, and court appearances for each case.

But what if you—through your client’s case—could change, protect, or save the life of not only one individual, but hundreds, even thousands of people?

Shane Ellison

Charles “Shane” Ellison, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska, is no stranger to high-profile cases of national importance; last year, he authored and filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He’s proud that JFON continues to engage in meaningful work of impact litigation.

“When you are able to positively change policy—and in some instances, create law—though an individual case, you can help countless people with similar cases who come after that original client,” he explains. “The potential for making an impact on the lives of immigrants through this type of litigation is extremely exciting.”

Remberto Aguinada-Lopez was in a detention center, his asylum request denied, when Shane first came across his case.

Those seeking asylum in the U.S. must prove persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had ruled that family ties could not be included in the “particular social group” category; therefore, people fearing torture and death from gangs in El Salvador due solely to a familial association were not eligible for asylum.

Remberto had been a student at a technical school. He was not a gang member, but his cousin was. Rival gangs, as a means to intimidate this cousin, repeatedly beat, shot at, and threatened Remberto. These same gang members would eventually shoot and kill the cousin outside of Remberto’s mother’s house.

The long history of murderous despots in this world tells us that this is nothing new. Whether they battle over a country, a village, or a territory of several city blocks, violent thugs do not restrict their slaughter to other combatants.  Frequently they go after family members to “send a message” or just because they can. Such is life in El Salvador and in many other violence-ravaged countries and failed states in the world.

But the Eighth Court had rejected Remberto’s claim. Remberto, his hopes shattered, began to steel  himself for a return to his homeland when JFON, the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, and the law firm of Wichmer & Groneck teamed up to take his case. Together, they filed an emergency stay of removal and a petition for rehearing.

“Our odds of winning were not great,” admits Shane. “JFON had not represented him in the earlier proceedings; we were jumping in after he had lost at every previous level.”

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit reversed its first decision and reaffirmed that persecution due to family ties is sufficient reason to make a person eligible for asylum.  Family ties joined the “particular social group” along with race, religion, nationality, and political opinion categories for asylum seekers.

A undocumented immigrant is placed in handcuffs for his plane trip back to his birthplace. Photo: International Business Times

However, before Shane and his team could celebrate this astonishing victory, they had to deal with a fresh calamity. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)  had unlawfully deported Remberto back to El Salvador.

“It was an extraordinarily reckless action,” Shane says. “The Eighth Circuit had explicitly ordered DHS to keep him here while the court weighed our petition. But DHS deported him anyway.”

While Shane’s team scrambled to get Remberto back to the U.S., Remberto was in hiding in a distant relative’s house in El Salvador, confining himself to one room for weeks. Every day, every hour he remained there he was in grave danger.

The judge who had issued the original stay ordered the DHS to bring Remberto back as soon as possible. They were forced to return him on a chartered jet.

“He knew he was coming back to the U.S. to go to jail—and yes, detention centers are jails,”—yet still he preferred jail to remaining in El Salvador,” says Shane.

The deliberate violation of the court’s order had one fortuitous consequence for Remberto that DHS had not foreseen. Remberto, as a guest of the U.S. government, had entered the country lawfully on that chartered flight.  He was now eligible to seek an adjustment of status through his U.S. citizen spouse.

“This is how you make lemonade out of lemons,” declares Shane with a grin.

Shane’s team secured Remberto’s release from detention and reopened his removal proceedings. He is now reunited with his wife and pursuing his green card application. He remains profoundly grateful to Shane and the herculean efforts of his entire legal team, acknowledging that every day of his life is an unexpected gift.

“Literally,” Shane says, “his life was saved.”

We agree that someone saved this young man’s life.  But doesn’t the credit belong to Shane himself?

Shane shakes his head.  “No, I was part of an excellent legal team. I had great support from the JFON network of staff, volunteers, and donors. I can’t take credit,” he explains earnestly, “for something I didn’t do alone. “

There will be other Rembertos. Other Felipes, Carmens, Myats, Mustafas, and Gabriels. The names may change. The countries of origin may change.

But those who are targets of horrific violence perpetuated by gangs due to their family relationships now have a chance to seek safety here in the United States.

That will not change.

From now on, when judges within the Eighth Circuit weigh asylum cases, they will be required to consider family ties as a legitimate reason for seeking asylum.  That is a direct result of the game-changing impact litigation of Remberto’s legal team.

“Yes, it’s a good feeling,” acknowledges Shane, smiling broadly. “Trust me, there’s nothing like it in the world.”

 

 

 

JFON West Michigan alone in leading “Know Your Rights” Programs at Detention Center

Necesito a alquien: I need someone

By Katrina Pradelski, Esq., JFON West Michigan Staff Attorney

I walk in, take a deep breath, and say, “me llamo Katrina, y trabajo para la Justicia para Nuestros Vecinos como abogada. No trabajo para el gobierno. Necesito a alguien para traducir.”

I’ve just introduced myself, assured them I don’t work for the government, and stated I need someone to translate.

Twice a month, this is what Tuesdays look like for me as I present Know Your Rights programs for the detained immigrants in the Calhoun County Correctional Facility in Battle Creek, Michigan.

A father of three faces deportation and separation from his children. Photo courtesy of UM News Service.

The immigrants here are in various stages of the deportation process, and many are not from Michigan; they were brought in on buses from the border, and have no idea that they’re only three hours away from Canada.

The presentations I offer consist of information on how to navigate the court system, what their rights are in the court process, and what remedies they may be eligible for. The information I provide helps guide them in the right direction, without taking the immigrant on for full representation.

Currently, JFON West Michigan is the only agency that does these presentations at Battle Creek. Without us, the only sources of information detained immigrants have are the government, a small law library (all in English, mind you), other inmates, or, if they are lucky, family on the outside who can hire an attorney.

They need someone on their side. Someone to explain this biased system and our laws, just like I need someone to explain their language for me. They need someone to commiserate with them about being treated like criminals, even though they only wanted safety and fled for their lives. Someone to tell them how long they can be detained after they are ordered to be deported. Someone to assure them that being here doesn’t make them a bad person, a bad spouse, or a bad parent.

Right now, that someone is JFON.

Knowledge is Power

JFON attorneys lead expanded “Know Your Rights” workshops

Photo courtesy of Ava Benach.

You kiss your daughter goodbye and send her off to school. You wish her luck on her spelling test, and tell her you can’t wait to hear all about it later that evening.

But you won’t see her later. She’ll come home to an empty house and not know where you are.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knocked on your door just as you were leaving for work. They searched your house and now you are being detained.

What do you do now? What happens to your daughter?

 Do you know your rights?

At Know Your Rights workshops, immigrants—whatever their immigration status—can learn their rights as residents in this country, prepare for the possibility of a raid, and create a safety plan for their family.

These informational sessions are not a new thing, but the sense of urgency and the number of communities clamoring for them feels different from previous years. Hateful campaign rhetoric, multiple executive orders, subsequent cases filed to combat them, and the inundation of fake news on social media have all contributed to create an atmosphere of confusion, worry, and fear.

JFON attorneys across the country have responded to this heightened demand by leading more workshops, not only in their home churches, but in other houses of worship, schools, libraries and community centers.

This card was designed to be presented to the ICE agent, while the at-risk immigrant stays silent. Determined silence reduces the chance of altercations, blunders, and attempts at intimidation. Source: Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

If knowledge is power, it is also a weapon, and it is the best defense our immigrant communities have against the Trump administration’s new enforcement priorities. Some of these new priorities give sweeping power to local officials, many of whom do not have a full understanding of immigration law. Armed with knowledge, our communities can make informed choices regarding their interactions with ICE agents and local police officers and can best protect their rights at home, in their car, on the street or in their workplace.

Know Your Rights workshops can help, says TJ Mills, NJFON consulting attorney and site attorney for New York Justice for Our Neighbors, “assuage the concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order to deport undocumented immigrants without regard to number of years they have lived in the country or whether they have criminal records.”

Some undocumented immigrants may feel safe from the threat of deportation because they are misinformed or unaware of new and aggressive immigration enforcement policies. Source: Immigrant Defense Project.

Being prepared for the worst-case scenario

“Safety planning” has become an integral part of all the Know Your Rights workshops led by JFON attorneys, who help immigrants in danger of deportation and separation from their family compile the documents they will need if they are suddenly detained by ICE. These documents need to be kept in a secure place, one known to other trusted friends or family members. They include:

  • Caregiver’s Authorization Affidavit—so the person taking care of your child has authority to make school-related and medical decisions.
  • Special Power of Attorney—for the person who will be making long-term decisions for your child’s well-being.
  • Limited Power of Attorney—for the person who will be handling your financial assets.

Planning for the possibility of being forced to leave your family—even just thinking about it—takes courage. It’s confusing and scary, and it’s a task best not attempted alone.  JFON attorneys can walk their at-risk immigrant clients through the planning process, explaining every step along the way, and providing them some ease and assurance that, even if the worst happens, they and their family will be better equipped to deal with it.

“They are very grateful for our help,“ says Dominique Poirier, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Just Neighbors, our JFON site in Northern Virginia. “From what I’ve seen, people leave the workshops actually feeling encouraged and hopeful.”

“We have never been more proud,” adds Melissa Bowe, program and advocacy manager for NJFON, “to serve our immigrant family members, neighbors and larger community in teaching about our constitutional protections and other best practices under American immigration law.”

JFON on the Border:
Imperial Valley JFON celebrates Grand Opening and First Clinic

The Border is just different…

It was meant to be a desert. Modern irrigation, however, turned the valley into the second-largest agricultural area in California. An aerial view shows a vast expanse of light and dark green checkerboards; 80 percent of our nation’s salad greens come from these fields.  Take a closer look, however, and see the weather-beaten faces of men and women, their bodies bent and stooped as they move through the neat furrows. These are our immigrant neighbors who make all that lettuce possible.

Workers harvest winter lettuce in Imperial Valley. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Much of the work in this valley is agricultural and, therefore, seasonal. Unemployment hovers at 20 percent, among the highest in the nation.

Most of the inhabitants—80 percent—are Hispanic, some living here for generations, even before it was part of the United States.

The town of El Centro—the home of First United Methodist Church and Imperial Valley JFON—is the county seat.

To the west and north are mountains, blocking the valley off from the major cities of Southern California. To the east are the extraordinary Algodones sand dunes, where parts of The Return of the Jedi and The Scorpion King were filmed. To the south, of course, is Mexico.

Once you cross the border into the United States, you will likely see U.S. Border Patrol agents again. There are checkpoints at every road north, east, and west of El Centro. For U.S. citizens and lawful residents, these frequent checkpoints are a hassle and inconvenience. For the undocumented, they are a danger zone that limits freedom and opportunity.

“Your whole world is contained,” explains Kelly Smith, site attorney for the new Imperial Valley JFON.  “You can get a job in El Centro or Yuma, and that’s it. Every road out of here has a checkpoint.

“There’s just no way to get out of this valley.”

Nobody should have to go through the system alone…

Non-locals express surprise to learn that most of the detainees at the Imperial Valley Detention Facility do not come from Mexico; they are just as likely to originate from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. Some are asylum seekers, fleeing violence or destruction. Some are victims of sex-trafficking or other crimes. Many are already in removal proceedings, waiting out the long days until they are deported back to their home countries.  Few have access to an attorney. Without an attorney to guide and advocate for them, even fewer will be allowed to stay in the United States.

 Imperial Valley Detention Center houses a minimum of 640 men and women, whose average length of stay is 124 days. Photo credit: Desert Sun.

“There are very few lawyers available to begin with,” Kelly says, “but for those with little money, there just aren’t any options.”

The largest and most well-known charitable organization in the area—Catholic Charities—doesn’t do detention work. But for Kelly and Imperial Valley JFON, it’s a natural fit.

“We’ve already made inroads at the facility,” says Pastor Ron Griffen of First UMC El Centro. “We met with the warden and took the tour.”

“It’s where I practiced originally,” adds Kelly. “And I think that’s where there is the biggest need.”

You are welcome here…

First UMC El Centro is a busy, active church, whose members strive to make a significant difference in the lives of people around them. “Your better life awaits,” is the promise you find on their website. ”You don’t have to watch others change humanity; you were born to do this, too.

At the church’s Olive Street Center, there are support groups for parents of autistic children, LGBTQ individuals and their families, and those grieving a loss of a loved one. There are also classes in music, ESL, and citizenship. And now there is a JFON clinic!

On Kelly’s first visit, she admits, she was “church shopping,” searching for a comfortable place to worship with her husband and young daughter.

Kelly did not grow up in the United Methodist Church. She was   immediately struck by the open and inclusive message coming from both Pastor Ron and the congregation, and the warm welcome she and her family received.

“I knew we had found our church home,” she says simply.

That was in 2014, at the height of the unaccompanied migrant children (UAC) surge, when El Centro was processing 130 kids per day, before sending them on to housing. There were no problems in El Centro; in fact, most of the town appeared sympathetic to the children’s plight. It was, however, a different story in other California towns, where residents protested, blocked buses, and shouted vitriolic remarks.

“What in the world were these people thinking,” Pastor Ron asks, shaking his head at the memory. “These were just kids.”

Pastor Ron organized a forum on the issue at a local community college. He announced the forum from the pulpit on the day that Kelly was visiting. Intrigued, Kelly let Pastor Ron know that she was an immigration attorney who wanted to help.

So here was Pastor Ron, with a congregation that wanted to make a significant difference in the lives of immigrants. And here was Kelly Smith, who was just the person to help them do it.

A better life awaits.

You have a place to go where you will be safe…

Kelly was volunteering her services, part time, for the church’s occasional immigration legal clinics when she first heard about National Justice for Our Neighbors, a ministry of the United Methodist Church. It was almost a moment of divine revelation: NJFON provides resources, expertise, and guidance to JFON sites across the country, exactly what Kelly and Pastor Ron needed if they were going to expand and grow.

They began the process of joining the JFON family. The launch and first clinic were planned for the last weekend of February.

The community was abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm. Nowhere was a JFON site more desperately needed.  But many of the local immigrants, Pastor Ron worried, were also desperately afraid. He read news reports of aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions—including one that had targeted a UMC Mission church in Northern Virginia. Would that happen here, in California, he wondered? Would people stay away, afraid to come out of hiding?

Kelly, while conceding the existence of a tense climate of fear and uncertainty, remained cheerfully optimistic. “It’s not for nothing that my friends call me Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” she says, grinning.

El Centro Mayor Alex Cardenas with Pastor Ron Griffen and Imperial Valley JFON’s site attorney Kelly Smith at the IV JFON Grand Opening. Many elected officials, dignitaries, and community leaders also came out to show their support. Imperial Valley Press Photo credit: Julio Morales.

Kelly’s confidence was well-founded. The launch of the newest JFON site—and the only one in close proximity to the Mexican border—was, by any definition, a great success.

Most exciting, for Kelly, is the number of people who want to help. Their first volunteer training attracted 12 people and more are signing up to attend the next training.

Best yet, Kelly reports that three local attorneys have also volunteered their legal services.

The story made the front page of the local paper and was also featured by the local Spanish television station. Kelly noticed the difference immediately.

“Today I am a bit overwhelmed,” she admits. “The church is being inundated with calls. But it shows you how much we are needed.”

There are three other UMC churches in the area that are interested in holding immigration legal clinics. Part of Imperial Valley JFON’s eventual goal, says Pastor Ron, is to have clinics all over the region, going everywhere and anywhere people need immigration legal services.

“We want people to know that we really are here, we really are legitimate, and we really can help,” explains Pastor Ron.

“We want them to know that now they have a chance.”

Tarek’s Story

This is where I belong

Roughly a week after the new administration announced its travel ban, indefinitely prohibiting any Syrian refugee from entering the U.S., Amnesty International released a report detailing the execution—by hanging—of 13,000 Syrian civilians at Saydnaya prison, some 40 kilometers north of Damascus.

The number of dead is so staggering, the cruelty so monstrous, that we shake our head, unable—unwilling—to comprehend such evil acts.

“It is shocking, but it’s not surprising,” says Tarek, a JFON client and Syrian asylum seeker living in Chicago. “The Assad government proved to me a long time ago that there is nothing they won’t do to stay in power.  The people executed at this prison were just ordinary people. Yes, they opposed the regime, but they didn’t do anything about it. They were just normal citizens.”

Tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians have disappeared over the last four years. They are taken from their homes, schools, offices, and markets. There is always some place where they were last seen. But they are never seen again.

Tarek almost became one of the legion of disappeared himself.

Smart, studious, and serious-minded, he was an engineering student in Damascus before the war started. As a university student, Tarek had attended a few peaceful protests. He had also—using a fake name—complained about the regime on Facebook.

Such a silly, simple thing, and yet it could have cost him his life.

Tarek got out of Syria three and a half years ago. With the help of Northern Illinois JFON’s supervising attorney Jenny Ansay, he applied for asylum.  He completed his studies in Illinois and now has a good job, a girlfriend, and friends. He has not, however, been able to visit the parents and sisters he left behind.

Tarek worries that his asylum claim will be rejected. He worries he won’t be able to stay in his new country. He would like to be able to meet his family in a neighboring country—Turkey, perhaps, as going back to Syria is out of the question—but he doesn’t see how that is possible. The administration’s travel ban has thrown a menacing shadow over so many lives.

Yet the events of the past week have also led to something surprising—an unintended outcome that President Trump and his supporters simply did not foresee.

Belonging. 

“When the ban was first announced, I didn’t really imagine that a lot of Americans would care about people from those seven countries,” Tarek explains. “But then I saw the number of people coming out to protest. It really surprised me until I realized that what Trump did was truly against American values. The people protesting were telling the world that this action is un-American.”

Tarek—only 25 years old—has seen a lot of despair and misery in his short life. But it hasn’t changed who he is. A travel ban—even a Muslim exclusion ban—isn’t going to change him, either.

“Right now, I feel very lucky,” he says, smiling.  “I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of Chicago.”

To learn more about Northern Illinois JFON’s Syrian clients, please read Jenny Ansay’s Do y’all even know any Syrians?

Damascus protest photo courtesy of Al Jazeera. 

Standing in Solidarity with Refugees at DFW Airport

Thousands of Americans streamed into our nation’s airports this past weekend to both protest President Trump’s mean-spirited and ill-conceived exclusion ban and to support our Muslim immigrants, refugees, and neighbors.

 Heidi Ortiz, a volunteer from Justice for Our Neighbors Dallas-Fort Worth was there. This is her story:

On Sunday morning, January 29th, we received the message via Facebook. People with valid visas and permanent residency cards (green cards) were being detained at DFW airport.  We decided instead of attending service at our local United Methodist Church, we should immediately go to the airport to show our support. Rumors were circulating that officials were pressuring the detained to waive their rights and get on an 11 AM flight out of the country. We loaded the kids into the car, said a prayer, and were on our way.

At the airport, there were people of all different types, and many families with kids. The airport police were visible and courteous.  As long as protesters did not get in the way of passengers or airport workers, we were able to chant and hold signs.  One of the chants that caught my attention was “free my Grandma”.  Later I learned via the Dallas Morning News that a number of the detained were elderly with health issues.

Someone had brought supplies to make posters.  For myself, I made a sign that says “Jesus stands with Refugees”.  In addition to being theologically sound (indeed, Christ loves all people), I wanted our Muslim brothers and sisters to know that as a Christian, I was standing with them.  Jesus himself was a refugee, fleeing to Egypt after an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.

For my two-year-old daughter I wrote “Toddlers Stand with Refugees”. She has a friend her age whose parents are from Yemen.  While their exact status may not be refugees, the mother told me they cannot go back because of the dire situation in that country.  Toddlers don’t care much about borders—they just love people!

No one wants terrorists in this country. Unfortunately, so many people are unaware of the different types of immigration to the U.S.   Refugees are fleeing war.  Lawful permanent residents have already made their home in the U.S.  In both cases, those detained are our neighbors AND they had legal permission to enter our country.  This sudden action did not stop terrorists.  It was wrong and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to oppose it personally.  Before we left the airport, we stopped to pray as a family.

My prayer for you is the same as the one at the airport — that God will open our hearts to be more like Him and that He would show us how to love our neighbors as ourselves in these trying times.