With the Trump administration moves to enact strict limits on immigration, family law and immigration attorneys are helping undocumented immigrants put contingency plans in place in the event a parent gets picked up by federal authorities.
“There has been a change in the Trump administration that is fundamental to what’s going on with immigrant families,” said immigration attorney Jonathan Greene on a recent webinar on family contingency planning. “The key issue is the priorities have changed for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”
Immigration officials in the Obama administration did not prioritize undocumented family members, Greene added during the webinar, hosted by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.
“All of that has changed,” he said.
One large concern among immigrants – which in many cases is a misconception –is that they may face removal or deportation for using the court system.
“I get calls every week from clients who are terrified of going to the courts,” said Daniella Pozzo, a family law and immigration attorney with the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant women and children who are victims of gender-based violence.
The primary concern undocumented immigrants express to attorneys and organizations is what will happen to their children if the parents get picked up by authorities.
There are several informal steps people can take to prepare, Pozzo said, such as writing down a childcare plan that includes the children’s names, birthdays, food allergies and blood type. The plan should also include names of people they trust, she said.
The next step is to go to an immigration attorney to discuss options. Some people may be entitled to immigration relief by way of the U visa, which can be granted to a person who was a victim of a crime and cooperated with authorities, or who is a battered spouse of a lawful U.S. resident, Pozzo said.
For Cate Hulm, who focuses on unaccompanied children at the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland Inc., concerns about families of undocumented immigrants had been on her radar long before the Trump administration took office or issued executive orders.
“In the nonprofit world, we already were in crisis mode,” Hulm said. “I do think that the executive orders certainly did make people who are not involved in immigration law day in and day out become more motivated to learn more about the day in and day out about immigration law,” Hulm said.
For an area of law that is very complex and has growing demand, this a good sign.
To educate undocumented immigrants about their options, the Pro Bono Resource Center is putting together a one-page primer on family preparedness and contingency planning.
“When it comes to family law, there aren’t a lot of immigration experts,” said Michelle Mendez, an attorney with CLINIC, whose recent family contingency webinar was aimed at attorneys, social workers, teachers and anyone else who is interested in helping undocumented immigrants.
One issue that comes up with family contingency planning is at the nexus of both immigration and family law: assigning guardianship.
“We encourage parents to do this now, because we don’t know when it’s (removal or deportation) going to happen,” Pozzo said.
Parents have to balance assigning a trusted adult to make decisions for their children with not giving up their parental rights in the event that they return to the U.S. Among the more serious options include custody, which is a long and sensitive process, and kinship care, which is reserved for blood relatives and more formal than a verbal agreement, Pozzo said.
As demand grows, the Tahirih Center is looking for pro bono attorneys, who serve as co-counsel on cases from start to finish.
Whether an immigrant has an attorney can have a drastic impact on whether an he or she is granted asylum. In 2016, 90 percent of asylum requests were denied in cases where the asylum-seeker did not have an attorney, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse Immigration Project, a data gathering service based out of Syracuse University. Conversely, 50 percent of asylum requests were denied when the seeker had representation, according to TRAC.