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The Golden Door

News and views on immigration law

“Crossing a Cultural Gulf”

May 10th, 2012 by Djung Tran

Here’s a story that I found interesting.  It is about the Vietnamese American community in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: (see cover story in the Fall 2011 NAPABA newsletter).

Although I have not met Mai Phan in person, we have spoken on the telephone and she has always done her best to be helpful when I need insight into a California legal issue.

I visited New Orleans recently, and got a superficial glimpse of the tight-knit Vietnamese American community in New Orleans East (also known as Versailles).  It was interesting to see a place in the United States where Vietnamese was as ubiquitous if not more so than English on storefronts and signs everywhere.  However, in reading “Crossing a Cultural Gulf,” I was also troubled to think that this community, whose roots in the Gulf Coast go back to the Fall of Saigon (1975), may still consist of long-term immigrants who have not learned English and thus are dependent on charity and language access services when they need to access services outside of their ethnic enclave.

Let me profess my ignorance here.  I don’t know the make-up of the Vietnamese American community on the Gulf Coast.  That is, I don’t know what percentage of the population are first wave immigrants, and what percentage are more recent immigrants who have not yet had the time and opportunity to learn English.  But, for the immigrants who have long established their homes here, to fail to learn English along the way is folly.  You become dependent on others, and vulnerable to scam artists who promise to  help you.  I have heard sob stories about Vietnamese “guides” who help people open bank accounts and apply for government benefits only to steal money or identities.

Over and over again, I have heard immigrants tell me (sometimes through interpreters) that they are too busy working to learn English.  I do not doubt that these individuals lead busy lives, working hard trying to make ends meet and raise their families as best they can.  But to fail to learn English is a failure to invest in the future.  Not speaking English means you must either work a labor-intensive job that does not require strong communication skills, or you work in a family business where it doesn’t matter that you cannot communicate in the common language of society around you.  Either way, you are limited in your options.  Too many immigrants, especially older immigrants and those with children who can speak English, decide that it will be the next generation who will move to that next level of prosperity that requires fluency in English.  These immigrants don’t believe that they themselves can progress any further.

Another handicap of not speaking English is that when you need legal help, if you are not eligible for legal aid (free legal services to the indigent) then the chances of your getting free interpretation services along with your legal services are small.  In that case, you need to find a lawyer who already speaks your language; and if you can’t find a lawyer specializing in the matter you need help with then you have to find an interpreter.  Maybe you have a family member who is old enough to have been raised in your native language but young enough to have learned English as a child and thus is fluent in both languages.  But the skills of such interpreters vary wildly, and interpreting legal terms can be tricky.  Chances are, you will not get the full import of what your lawyer is trying to tell you, and may make important decisions based on an imperfect understanding of your rights, obligations, and options.  Paying a professional or certified interpreter can add significantly to the cost of addressing the matter.

I speak Vietnamese, and I value that skill.  In our world today, the more languages one can speak the more doors are open to you.  Immigrants who live in an English-speaking country but fail to learn English are refusing to cross a gate to more opportunities.  Which is a sad irony, because don’t most of us immigrants move to a new country in search of new opportunities?  (And hence the name of this blog.)

In the Philadelphia area, several nonprofit organizations provide English language classes to immigrants, free of charge.  All it costs is your time and effort.  The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians is one such resource, as is Boat People SOS, Delaware Valley Branch.

Tran Law Associates helps Vietnamese immigrants file for immigration benefits.  If you need assistance with an immigration matter, please contact us at (215) 690-1933, or at

The elusive tourist visa

March 16th, 2012 by Djung Tran

I am repeatedly surprised by stories of denials of B-2 tourist visas.

In one case I came across, the reasoning of the consular officers who repeatedly denied this application confounds me.

I heard about this case from my friend, a U.S. citizen originally from El Salvador.  She has invited her elderly father to come visit her and her family here in the United States.  He has applied for his tourist visa twice, and be denied twice, and the only reason given is “lack of sufficient ties to home country.”

Her father was turning 75, and for his 75th birthday my friend and her brother, also a U.S. citizen, wanted to take him on vacation in the U.S.  My friend’s father has been retired for several years now, and before that had been an assistant principal at a junior high school.  He was married and lived with his wife, my friend’s stepmother.  He had retired to the countryside and lived in what sounded like an idyllic little cottage.  His income was his pension; rental income from his house in the city, which he had rented out; and a little extra income from the produce that he and his wife grew in their orchards.  He is not wealthy, but he was comfortable.  All this information was presented at his second visa interview, along with a letter from my friend saying that she had invited him to come visit her, and she would be looking after him and, incidentally, she could petition for him if he wished but he did not wish it.

It is true.  If my friend, or her brother, wanted to, they could petition for this gentleman to immigrate to the United States as the father of a U.S. citizen and, barring any issues in his background such as certain criminal conduct, he could be here as a legal permanent resident in  six months to a year.  But this gentleman has no interest in living in the United States.  He is happy where he is and, at this late stage in his life, he is not interested in uprooting his comfortable situation to relocate to a new country.  He would like to visit his children and grandchildren in their homes, however.  Unfortunately, he has been denied the ability to do so.

Consular officers deciding tourist visa requests are tasked to keep in mind — through the guidance provided by the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Manual — that the general policy of the United States is to encourage tourism and the building of cultural and economic ties with people from other countries.  So, the default position, when evaluating an application, should be:  Let this person come to the U.S. to see their friends and family, visit tourist destinations, and spend money on our economy.  It is only when the applicant fails to show strong ties to their home country, and thus by implication is more likely to want to stay in the U.S. rather than return home, that the possibility of denying the visa should be contemplated.

However, from my experience with contesting denials of B-2 visas, the default premise often seems to be opposite to that propounded by the Foreign Affairs Manual.  The thinking of too many consular officers seems to be:  “Prove to me why I should let you be a tourist in America,” rather than, “You should be a tourist unless there’s a good reason not to be.”

In this particular case, the denial of this gentleman’s tourist visa application was even more surprising because of his age, as most tourist visa denials seem to be to people who are young, single, not too well off, and who don’t yet have spouses or children to tie them to their home country.  The rationale for most denials seems to be that this young (or relatively young) single person without family obligations and/or a good job and/or very comfortable home to come back to will most likely overstay their visa and maybe marry a U.S. citizen as well.  Sometimes it seems like you have to be at least two out of the three:  older and married, older and wealthy, or maybe just wealthy, to pass the visa issuance test.

Even under this rubric, my friend’s father doesn’t fit in the mold because, although he is not wealthy, he is older and married.  The most reasonable explanation I can think of for the denial is that the consular officers both must have separately concluded that he is desperate to move to the United States, despite his age, comfortable retirement, happily married status, and the fact that he could legally move here without being put on a waiting list if he wanted to.  Why they could have reached such a conclusion is beyond me.  The end result, whatever the reasoning, is that my friend cannot host her father in return for all the times that her father and hosted her and her family in his home.  It saddens her, but she can always go and visit him, and spend her tourist dollars in El Salvador rather than have her father spend his tourist dollars here. The efforts of a qualified El Salvadoran immigration attorney may shed new light on the situation, but for now they’ll simply have to work with this arrangement.

“Do you have anyone I can marry?”

February 3rd, 2012 by Djung Tran

For those of you have who found true love with a foreign national, it can be bewildering how much paperwork you have to file to get permanent resident status for your spouse so that you can both live together here in America.

You may think, “We love each other and want to live together.  This is a real marriage.   Just how much evidence do we have to submit to get this done??”

Well, I just got a call the other day from a gentleman who was offering himself up for marriage, asking if I knew of any foreign ladies in distress in need of a green card.  This gentleman was a little surprised that my office was not interested in his services, and responded to my “Thanks, but, no thanks,” with a playful, “But who will ever know?”

Hah!  For those with real marriages whose green card applications are stuck in immigration limbo, you know that US Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of State aren’t such pushovers when it comes to proving a real marriage.  There are plenty of real marriages where husbands and wives have been living separately for years waiting for immigrant visas to be approved.  I’m sure these applicants would have plenty to say to the gentleman who was so ready to enter into a fraudulent marriage.

So, for all you international couples in love, let me warn you:  You may know that your love is real, but there are unscrupulous scam artists out there marrying for money who make proving the validity of your marriage that much harder.

If you would like expert assistance with the immigration process, Tran Law Associates is happy to help you out.  We understand what counts as strong evidence of a valid marriage and can help you make the best possible submission for your application.  You can contact us at (215) 690-1933, or check us out at

The spirit of the immigrant

February 1st, 2012 by Djung Tran

Following is a speech that I delivered last Friday at the Lunar New Year Banquet held by the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association of the Temple University Beasley School of Law.

I want to take advantage of this forum tonight to ask you to think about the spirit of the immigrant. As you may know, immigration is a theme that runs through my life. I practice immigration law, I am an immigrant myself twice over, and I work with APABA-PA on community outreach programs that target local APA immigrant communities.

Immigrants are my clients, my family, my friends and colleagues, and are a large part of the community that I strive to give back to in my pro bono work.

So I want to tell you a personal story.  It is about my family, but most of all about my father.

Last October, my parents came back from vacation, a cruise to New Zealand and Australia. They had visited friends and family and had had a good time and were in high spirits. By November, my husband remarked to me that my father was looking ill, and I had to agree. By December, my father had been diagnosed with advanced and aggressive colon cancer, which has metastasized and is attacking other parts of his body. Over the course of a few weeks, he transformed from an active person, a medical doctor with a bustling practice, an avid tennis player, gardener, tinkerer around the house, and jolly grandfather to my son, to a skeletal, bedridden figure whose voice had become labored and breathy with frequent pauses, someone who needs painkillers to get through the days and the nights. His life expectancy is in months, not years.

My father has handled this situation with a combination of stoicism and some quite understandable depression, but overall with grace and competence. He has not railed against his illness, or become defeatist and given up hope of a recovery. He has borne the pain of his disease, and the discomfort of medical treatment, without complaint. My husband has said to me that my father has handled this situation particularly well, much better than most members of his family would, and he added that it is not so surprising, considering what my father has experienced in his life.

So I have come face to face with the impending death of my father. It has made me think about his accomplishments and regrets, and of what he might want to do before he leaves this world. I have tried to put myself in his shoes, thinking back over the major decisions in his life, and get a sense of what it was like to be him.

My parents were childhood sweethearts who married in Saigon, Vietnam, shortly after dad finished medical school and mom finished law school. Their marriage began a few months before the fall of Saigon, and I was born a year later. Dad was a surgeon and the assistant medical director at a local hospital, and mom worked as an administrator at the same hospital. When I was three, we packed up our lives and fled Vietnam and communist rule on a rickety, overcrowded boat, joining the tide of Vietnamese known as boat people. We were lucky in that although our boat was raided by pirates, the pirates only took our belongings. They did not rape or kill. We ended up in a refugee camp in Indonesia, along with both my mom’s parents and siblings and my dad’s mother and siblings.

At times in my life when I was most at odds with my dad, mom would tell me, you don’t know how much your father loves you, and how much he’s sacrificed for you.

“When we were on that boat, your father and a few other young men spent hours bailing seawater out of the bottom of the boat so we wouldn’t sink, in exchange for drinking water, and after he exhausted himself doing that, the captain refused to give any of them drinking water,” my mother told me once.

The few photos that we have from the refugee camp show everyone in my family as stylishly thin, with prominent cheekbones and sucked-in cheeks, except for the young kids, like me, who were pleasingly plump because we were given the choicest foods.

After spending a year in the refugee camp, it turned out that although both my mother’s and my father’s families had been accepted to come to the United States, we could not come with them. Instead, we were on a waiting list, with no guarantee of when our number would come up. So, when my parents were offered the chance to leave the refugee camp and come to Australia immediately, or await their turn to come to the States where their families had already been accepted, they opted to strike out on their own and leave the refugee camp sooner rather than later.

My parents and I arrived in Australia with no family support, but the kind sponsorship of a Christian church group which helped us find housing, jobs, and provided us with what would nowadays be termed tastefully vintage second-hand clothes. (I loved those clothes!) In the years that we lived in Australia, we went from being the objects of charity to being a comfortable middle-class family, from refugees to citizens. My brother, Thai, was born in Australia, making us a family of four. My parents went from sorting mail at the local Australia Post mail center to white collar jobs. Dad’s resume runs from driving a cab to washing dishes to being a medical science officer. Mom at one point made hand-knit sweaters for pocket money when my brother was a baby, and eventually got her degree in computer programming and worked for the government. When mom was struggling to pass her classes because of her weak English skills, dad enrolled in her program so he could tutor her. He ended up collecting a degree in computer programming that he never used.

Although mom and dad had comfortable lives in Australia, dad had never been able to get back to the practice of medicine, his first calling. Dad has always been book smart, a constant reader. He graduated at the top of his high school class and did well in medical school, but he was never able to pass the foreign medical graduates exam, which he took several times.

Then, ten years after they built new lives from scratch in Australia, my parents were given the opportunity to emigrate to the States. Again they faced leaving what they knew, comfortable lives and good friendships, for the opportunity to reunite with their families and give my father the chance of obtaining his dream – to be a doctor again. Again, they chose to take a risk for the chance of greater gain.

Once we landed in the United States it took six years for my dad to get fully accredited as a medical doctor, which included passing the foreign medical graduates exam, obtaining clinical experience in the U.S. – a prerequisite before he could be admitted to a medical internship program – doing his internship, and then his fellowship. This included a stint where he lived in Newark, NJ, for two years, while we stayed in Philadelphia. Let’s just say, for those of you aware of the habits of drivers in Newark, NJ, that he came back a different driver after this temporary relocation. In any case, he became a fully fledged doctor – again – and opened his own practice so that he could be his own boss and not be dependent on others.

It has been 15 years since my father opened his practice. He had to close it down last month. He had planned to retire in a few years, and the sudden onset of his cancer forced him to abruptly shut it down. It is not what he would have chosen, but since there is no other choice he has accepted it and moved on.

In immigrant communities, my father’s story is not that unusual. Immigrants tend to open small businesses in larger numbers than native-born residents. They are more willing to take risks in pursuit of their dreams. And immigrants usually have faced and overcome significant hardship on the road to their new homeland, and maybe because of this, are often more persistent in pursuing their goals than native-born residents, more willing to push issues and not take “no” for an answer.

Many of you here tonight come from immigrant families, if you are not yourself an immigrant. So, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the spirit of the immigrant, many of whom, like my father, are brave risk-takers willing to endure hardship to forge a better life for themselves and their families. For those of you who, like me, owe a great debt to parents who were willing to start over in a foreign land to provide greater opportunity to their children, please don’t forget to show your appreciation. Too often we assume that our parents know that we love them and that we are thankful for the sacrifices they have made for us. Sometimes they do know. But it never hurts to say it and show that we mean it.

As law students in this economy, with the downturn in legal hiring, it may seem that law school might not have been the wisest choice. But whatever your long-term ambitions, one thing a legal degree and bar admission will allow you to do is to hang out your shingle. It can be intimidating to open your own business. It is a big risk. If you open a solo practice the buck stops with you and there is no safety net. But, drawing on the spirit of the immigrant, let me say that sometimes you have to take risks to achieve your dreams. That doesn’t mean you jump in with your eyes closed, and hope for the best. It does mean that whatever your goal is, there will often come a time when you have to give up a measure of safety to go after it. When that time comes, remember the immigrants who have come before us, who helped to create the opportunities we have today.

Thank you for allowing me to talk about my father tonight.

If you or your family is struggling with the naturalization process, trust an experienced immigration lawyer who has gone through the process herself. Learn more about Djung Tran, Esq. here.

Words matter: unauthorized immigrant versus criminal alien invader

November 1st, 2011 by Djung Tran

Being a practicing immigration attorney and someone who routinely interacts with immigrant communities on a pro bono basis, certain themes and questions recur in my experience of dealing with immigrants and the policy issues that immigration law raises.

One recurring theme that may seem technical and boring but  plays out in important ways is the status of immigration as civil rather than criminal law.  Immigration violations are not generally criminal violations, and thus foreign nationals who fail to maintain their lawful immigration status or who enter the country without permission are not per se criminals.  Although in the past I have tried to equate immigration violations to other civil penalties like a parking violation such as an expired meter, or not maintaining a proper business license or zoning permit, such as running a hair salon on property zoned for office use, this never felt accurate.

The fact is, an immigration violation is a different animal than a parking or zoning violation.  Although each type of regulatory regime – immigration, motor vehicle, and zoning – purports to regulate individuals for the greater public good, regulation of the use of personal property such as cars or regulation of the use of real property is different from regulation of where people can live and work.  The latter regulatory scheme can have a much more significant impact on people’s lives, controlling whether you can live with your spouse if you happen to fall in love transnationally, or whether you can work for a company that is more attractive to you than those in your home country.  Immigration laws have prevented clients of mine from attending a wedding in the United States, from working for a mom-and-pop business where the owners want to bring a foreign-national family member into the workforce, and from living in the United States with a foreign-national spouse.  Immigration laws have mandated the deportation of clients who have lived here since early childhood, established families here and sunk down deep roots here such that being returned to their “home” country would be akin to moving to a foreign country.

In addition to the way that immigration law regulates where foreign nationals can live in this country and whether they can can lawfully work here, once a foreign national falls out of lawful immigration status (or maybe never had lawful immigration status) he or she can be “detained,” a watered-down way of saying “thrown in jail.”  Although immigration detention is supposedly merely a means to an end, that is, making sure that the detainee is available for deportation if warranted, detention is a punishment – taking away an individual’s freedom – that is criminal in nature.  Some immigrant detainees are even housed with a prison’s criminal population.  Being detained means you don’t have  access to your important documents and cannot collect evidence to help build your case for relief from deportation but rather must rely on the goodness in the hearts of friends or family to act for you, and the effectiveness of your attorney.

But immigration laws in America maintain the fiction that detention is a civil penalty, and thus detainees do not have the rights of criminal defendants such as the right to counsel, regardless of ability to pay, or the right to confront adverse witnesses.  It’s a Catch-22.  You can be treated as a criminal, demonized as an “illegal” human, but once you are in custody the fact that immigration is a civil scheme of laws is used as the reason why you cannot claim such rights as are routine for criminal defendants.

Another recurring question in immigration is what to call foreign nationals who are present in America without proper authorization.  Some of these foreign nationals entered the country lawfully but then overstayed their temporary visas.  Others entered unlawfully, bypassing all checkpoints.  Others lost their permanent resident status due to a variety of reasons, including criminal convictions, findings of fraud on their original applications, etc.  If you an advocate for immigrants, you refer to this population as “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants” or, simply, people “without papers.”  If you feel that unlawful immigration is a scourge that is dragging our country down, you call this population “illegal aliens” or, more dehumanizingly, “alien invaders.” These latter labels suggest that this whole population becomes something to be eliminated, end of discussion.

Words matter.  Someone without papers is a very different person than an alien invader.  A person without papers can exist in a broad range of circumstances, and can be a good person or a bad person, or, like most of us, a complicated combination of characteristics, some admirable, others not.  An alien invader or an illegal alien is a person – or rather a thing, a criminal, a bad element – that should be summarily ejected, and need not be treated with basic human decency.  If we label this population “illegal” aliens, why do we not call parking violators “illegal” drivers and zoning violators “illegal” business owners?  The use of the word “illegal” acts to deem the entire person “illegal,” and therefore disposable, rather than just the person’s actions.  There is a difference between being unlawfully present and being an illegal human being.

Hector Tobar’s “The Barbarian Nurseries”

October 31st, 2011 by Djung Tran

Just finished Hector Tobar’s new novel, The Barbarian Nurseries. I’m an avid reader, but usually of fantasy and science fiction.  This novel, set in present-day, real-life Los Angeles and its suburbs, was a change of pace for me.  Its protogonist, a Mexican domestic employee and undocumented (or unauthorized) immigrant, is also a change of pace in terms of my leisure reading.  Maybe because I handle immigration matters on a daily basis, I usually look for topics far afield when I want to relax with a good book.

But I saw this title on the new books shelf at the library, and thought I would give it a whirl.  I’m glad I did.  So many observations in this book were dead on and familiar, putting in words things that I’ve noticed before and never bothered to parse out myself.  It kept me riveted from beginning to end, and now I’m looking for more by this author.

Here’s the set up:  A suburban couple, Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson, have laid off two of their three domestic employees due to money issues, leaving only the quiet, hardworking, standoffish, non-child-friendly housekeeper, Araceli.  After an argument,  Scott and Maureen each quietly and without word to anyone else exit the home thinking the other spouse will look after their two young sons, leaving Araceli as de facto guardian of the children in their unexplained absence.  Not being able to reach either husband or wife for days, Araceli decides to take the boys to the only other relative within hailing distance, Scott’s Mexican American father.

Thus begins a journey that will bring upheaval to each member of the household.  The novel does a wonderful job of painting a three-dimensional personality for Araceli and her yuppie employers.  As might be expected, the housekeeper’s undocumented status informs her every potential encounter with authority figures.  For those who need reminding, the novel also provides a portrait of an undocumented immigrant as more than just a statistic, more than just a stick figure  conveniently labeled as “illegal”  and “criminal” so that such individuals can be dismissed as not worthy of basic human considerations.  It presents us with a complex person with a past full of unfulfilled dreams, her own idiosyncratic hopes for the future, distinct quirks and dislikes, and very little in the way of resources except her own strength of character.

This contemporary novel takes a keen, unsentimental look at the everyday lives of people you feel you know already, and leaves you feeling like you’ve taken a tour into their inner lives.  Highly recommended.

The Meaning of Prosecutorial Discretion

September 26th, 2011 by Djung Tran

In the last few months, there has been a shift in the tenor of prosecution of immigration removal proceedings (deportation, in not-so-euphemistic terms).  Whether this shift is merely a superficial veneer that attempts to appease immigrant advocates but signifies nothing, or is an unlawful run-around of Congress that is allowing countless undocumented immigrants off the hook depends on who you ask.

The shift began with what is now known as the Morton Memo.  John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), has issued several official memoranda during his tenure, but this memo has such potentially wide-ranging significance to ICE personnel and undocumented immigrants that it has been dubbed the Morton Memo.  In a nutshell, Director Morton’s June 17, 2011, memo directs all ICE personnel to take into account two factors when deciding whether to place a suspected undocumented immigrant into removal proceedings:  (1) that ICE has limited resources to deport everyone who is theoretically deportable and thus must pick and choose who to deport, and (2) that in deciding who to prosecute for deportation there are specific factors that will favor putting that person in removal proceedings and specific factors that favor leaving that person alone.  This is not new policy, but it shows a newfound boldness in announcing the policy and inviting immigrants and their advocates to request favorable prosecutorial discretion, and a renewed emphasis on the importance of implementing the policy.

The Obama Administration then followed up, through a letter dated August 18, 2011, from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to Senator Dick Durbin, by announcing that a review would be conducted of ALL individuals currently in removal proceedings to determine whether they fall within DHS’s high priority categories for removal or whether they would merit the favorable exercise of discretion under the Morton Memo’s specific factors.  For the latter group, removal proceedings would be suspended.

When I was asked by WHYY reporter Elizabeth Fiedler what I tell my clients as an immigration lawyer when they ask what this policy shift means to them, I told her that, “This is not a total out.  It does not get them out of the removal situation.  It is like a suspension of an ax over their heads.”  The new policy can make a difference when an undocumented immigrant is in removal proceedings – or threatened with removal proceedings – and has not committed any crimes or otherwise shown a lack of good moral character.  The policy helps if the immigrant came as a child, and has established deep roots here, such as having U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident spouses or children, or if the immigrant have served honorably in the military or is a well-educated individual ready to contribute to society, and so on.  But the Morton Memo and the shift it represents can change with the next presidential administration, and does not grant undocumented immigrants any new rights, such as work authorization or the golden ring, a green card.

So, while the new emphasis on prosecutorial discretion is a positive development for undocumented immigrants who, aside from their undocumented status, are free of criminal histories and are just trying to build good lives for themselves and their families, this policy shift is not any kind of amnesty, and can be revoked with the next change in administration. If you have concerns regarding the policy, you should consult your immigration lawyer. Pennsylvania residents can contact Tran Law Associates.

834 Chestnut Street #206
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 690-1933

Backlog in the immigration courts

July 20th, 2011 by Djung Tran

Anyone routinely involved in immigration in the United States is aware that cases moving through the immigration courts take a long time.  Sometimes, cases take years to be adjudicated, and by years I don’t mean a year or two, I mean three or four or five years.  A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which I am quoted gives some idea of the backlog in the system.

Depending on where you stand, this backlog can be a good or a bad thing.  If you are not in immigration detention (which is a sugar-coated way of saying you are in jail), and you are fighting removal (which is a sugar-coated way of saying deportation), then it is a good thing because it gives you time to gather evidence for your case and lets you live your life in the United States for a longer period if you do not have a good chance of winning your case.  If you are in immigration detention, it means you languish in jail while your case plods through the system.  While you are in jail, it is difficult for your lawyer, if you have one, to communicate with you, and you are not free to gather evidence yourself but must rely on friends and relatives to do it for you, if you can persuade them to.

If, however, instead of being in removal proceedings you are affirmatively (rather than defensively) applying for an immigration benefit, such as asylum or permanent resident status based upon marriage to a permanent resident of U.S. citizen, but the government contests your eligibility for the benefit, this backlog in the immigration courts prevents you from getting on with your life.  You cannot make long-term plans while your immigration status is in limbo.  In addition, although you usually have work authorization while an immigration application is pending, this is not always the case so some applicants are faced with the question of how to support themselves while their case is being adjudicated.

Resolution of immigration court cases means that foreign nationals who have no legal right to be here are actually deported, while those who do have the right to be here can then concentrate on moving forward to build good, stable lives here, including contributing to their communities and the economy, rather than spending their time, efforts, and money on long drawn-out court proceedings.

One root cause of the backlog is that more people want to live in the United States than there are currently legal avenues for admission.  Comprehensive immigration reform that takes into account the factors that drive people to immigrate and promotes lawful immigration of the people who we want to welcome to our country would reduce the immigration court dockets and free these people to become contributing members of society.  Another cause is that while enforcement of the existing immigration laws has significantly increased since 9/11 and also under the Obama administration, thus funneling more cases into the immigration courts, the courts have not correspondingly been increasingly funded and enlarged.  While we can debate the pros and cons of ramped-up enforcement, the simple truth is that if we are putting more people in removal proceedings we need to also put more resources into processing these cases or else a huge bottleneck develops.  This means that more immigrants are held in detention for longer, on the federal dime, while their cases ooze through immigration court.  It’s pretty simple math, if you ask me.

If you are in immigration court proceedings and need a Philadelphia immigration attorney, contact us at, or check out the website at

834 Chestnut Street #206
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 690-1933

U.S. citizenship abroad, by birth – update

July 19th, 2011 by Djung Tran

As promised, here’s the update on the client who couldn’t renew his license to carry concealed weapons because he could not produce a U.S. birth certificate even though he is a U.S. citizen by birth.

The Philadelphia Police Department’s Gun Permit Unit re-considered its position, and this gentleman has been issued his license to carry, despite not being able to produce the mythical birth certificate.

When this client first came to me, I asked him out of curiosity what he carried and he answered, almost sheepishly: “Nothing.  But I want to be able to carry if I want to.  And now, it’s about the principle of the matter.”  Principles satisfied, case closed.

“Can I send her home?”

May 16th, 2011 by Djung Tran

The flip side of marriage-based immigration is when the marriage goes sour.

For couples who have been married less than two years by the time the petition for permanent resident status is filed, the immigrant spouse gets what is known as conditional permanent residency for a period of two years.  At the end of this two-year probationary period, the couple must show that the marriage is still intact to have the conditions removed and full permanent resident status granted to the immigrant spouse.  If the sponsoring spouse refuses to help the immigrant spouse apply to remove these conditions, it becomes a much harder process for the immigrant spouse to obtain full permanent resident status on his or her own.  During this two-year probationary period, then, the sponsoring spouse’s help to remove the conditions on residency can be used as a lever for the good behavior of the immigrant spouse.

Not infrequently, I get calls from men (and, so far, they have all been men) who, after jumping through the sometimes considerable hoops needed to get their fiancées or wives into the country legally, then become disenchanted with these women.  Maybe the women are not as nice as they were when the couple was courting.  Maybe the women used these men to get their green cards.  Maybe the men expected someone more servile and grateful for the privilege of bringing them into the country and are unhappy to be confronted with a person with strong views and desires of her own who is unwilling to merely be a housewife, mother, and housekeeper.  Whatever the reason, the marriage falls apart.  And then, the men ask me, “Can I send her home?”

“No,” I tell them.  “You don’t have the right to send her home.  You have the right to tell Immigration that she has left you and that you don’t want to live with her any more, but you do not have the right to decide whether she stays or goes back home.”  If the callers are interested in the why of this, I tell them that the decision as to whether someone who obtained  immigration status through marriage gets full permanent residency depends on whether that marriage was entered into in good faith and not  to obtain an immigration benefit.  And a child born of that marriage is pretty strong, although not definitive, evidence that the marriage was entered into in good faith.

I also get calls from women, and occasionally from men, who are being threatened by their sponsoring spouse with being “sent home” if they don’t “behave.”  And I tell them the same thing:  “No, he does not have the right to send you home.  That decision belongs to the government.  But he does have the right to refuse to help you get your permanent green card.  If you entered the marriage in good faith, you can apply for your permanent green card on your own and you may get it, if Immigration believes you.”

So, please, if you are thinking about filing a petition for a potential spouse, remember that while the decision to marry that person is yours, the decision as to whether that person can stay in America should you tire of him or her is not. You can save yourself the process of hiring an immigration lawyer to sort through such issues by thinking carefully before making such a decision. Please visit us at our address below if you have questions.

834 Chestnut Street #206
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 690-1933