Image 01

The Golden Door

News and views on immigration law

Posts Tagged ‘immigrant’

Lawyers for detained immigrants

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Immigration law is a strange beast.  Immigration is usually civil law, with the penalty for violations ultimately being deportation, that is, not being permitted to stay in this country.  While certain immigration violations are classified as criminal offenses, the majority of immigration laws fall into the civil arena.

In the world of immigration enforcement, “detention” (a value-neutral way of saying “imprisonment”) of immigrants is all-too-common and devastating to the individuals detained and their families.  It is a deprivation of liberty, a penalty that we reserve for our most serious criminals, and yet it is used routinely for alleged immigration violations.  I’ve said it before on this forum, but it bears repeating:  Immigrant detainees are caught in a Catch-22 because these individuals are treated as criminals but not given the rights of the criminally accused.  We should either treat immigrants accused of violating immigration laws as being accused of civil violations, with civil penalties and only civil protections and rights, or treat these immigrants as criminal defendants, with the concomitant protections of the criminally accused.  Straddling the middle of these categories – given only civil protections but faced with criminal penalties – exacts a high toll in human suffering (for the immigrant and the immigrant’s family) and economic resources, as we lose the value of that person’s contribution to the labor market and spending in our economy, and imprisoning unauthorized immigrants costs us about $2 billion a year.

Immigrant advocates have long pointed out this inequity, and now a new pilot program in New York City, funded by City Council, aims to ameliorate at least one aspect of this problem.  The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project is a one-year program aimed at providing pro bono counsel to detained New Yorkers.  Immigrants in deportation proceedings are told by judges that they have the right to counsel, but only at no cost to the government.  For low-income immigrants in proceedings this is a hollow right.  It is meaningless when one cannot afford to pay for competent counsel, and finding a good lawyer from prison… Well, try it yourself and see how far you get.

Like all sectors of the population, immigrants include good apples and bad apples.  For immigrants found to be dangerous to the community imprisonment is appropriate.  But for those accused only of non-criminal violations of immigration law, incarceration often unnecessarily rips apart families, prevents a parent from being able to look after and provide for U.S. citizen children, removes a needed employee from work, and costs about $164 a day (that’s $59,860 a year) to house and feed that individual on the federal dime.  Think of this just in terms of the cost of foster care for children left without a parent to look after them ($36,000 a year in New York City), and you start to get an idea of the real costs of unnecessarily jailing those accused of civil immigration violations.  Having a good lawyer in this situation often makes all the difference, according to the 2011 New York Immigrant Representation Study, which found that the percentage of detained immigrants who win their immigration cases without representation is 3%.  Having a lawyer, and being free from detention, can increase the chances of success to 74%.

The estimated cost of providing competent counsel for a detained immigrant is $3,000.  If this is the cost of proving that an immigrant should not be detained while defending against a deportation action then it will save the federal government about $60,000 a year per immigrant, and save in the costs of families having to rely on public support systems because a vital breadwinner is incarcerated.

I will keep an eye out to see how this pilot program fares.  It is a step in the right direction and I wish it the best.

A tribute to a Vietnamese mother on Mother’s Day

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

One of my favorite news magazines is The Week.  I was an early subscriber, when it was a very slim compilation of the week’s news, opinions, and reviews  from diverse sources, and had very few ads.  It has bulked up since then – mostly with ads, but still retains its essential character of delivering relevant snapshots of what’s happened in the past week.

This week, The Week excerpted some tributes to mothers from This I Believe (“The invaluable weight of a mother’s gifts”), a collection of essays from youths and adults about their core va;ies and beliefs.  The third story is about a single mother of two little girls who set off to escape Communist Vietnam, and the courage it took to make that decision and see it through to completion – acceptance into the United States as political refugees, and building new lives here.  For those of us who were once boat people ourselves it will bring back poignant, wrenching memories of journeys marked by fear, uncertainty, and also strength and bravery.  For others, it will provide a glimpse into what it means to be part of the Vietnamese diaspora known as the “Boat People.”

“Crossing a Cultural Gulf”

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

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