Immigration lawyers, advocates prepare for federal policy shift

December 12, 2016

As a candidate, Donald Trump pledged to cut visas for skilled immigrant employees and halt temporary protections for people brought into the country illegally as children and those fleeing war and disaster.

Now local immigration attorneys and rights organizations are preparing staff, clients and communities for what could be a major shift in federal policy. Their message is clear: Be calm. Be informed. Be prepared. Be vigilant.

“We don’t want to create unnecessary panic,” said Melina LaMorticella, president of the Oregon chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “At this point we don’t know what it looks like. We’re telling our clients we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The association has been fielding calls from clients, school superintendents and community groups looking for information and reassurance.

Many agencies that receive federal funds can serve residents regardless of immigration status. The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners issued a statement last month reiterating support for all residents, regardless of immigration status. And agencies unable to serve undocumented residents are partnering with organizations that can.

Legal Aid Services of Oregon serves US citizens and many categories of immigrants including undocumented survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or trafficking. The nonprofit works closely with, and refers ineligible clients to, other agencies for concerns about immigration enforcement and civil rights.

“No matter which door you walk through, we want to make sure you get assistance,” said Julia Olsen, director of the program's Portland office.

El Programa Hispano Catolico is coordinating a local education campaign in partnership with AILA Oregon, Catholic Charities Legal Services, SOAR Immigration Legal Services and other nonprofits, churches, schools and public service providers. The trainings focus on understanding the rights and responsibilities when interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or local police. The workshops also try to spell out how likely Trump’s campaign pledges will come true.

“First thing we want people to focus on is education around how quickly -- or not -- these processes change,” said Kat Kelley, with El Programa Hispano. Some of Trump’s promises, such as cutting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, could happen immediately after his January 21 inauguration. Yet it’s unclear whether the administration would honor protections that have already been approved.

Other promises, such as deporting an estimated 11 million undocumented residents, are likely hyperbole, although any increase in immigration enforcement could impact Oregonians. That’s why advocates and experts are encouraging mixed-immigration status families to create an emergency plan.

“Develope some safety planning in the case of deportation,” Kelley said. “Create a solid plan in case a kiddo comes home and mom and dad have been deported. Get your custody papers in order. Determine who will take care of the finances.”

Monica Goracke, a managing attorney with the Oregon Law Center, said her office has seen a shift in clients’ concerns.

“We do outreach regularly to educate people around their rights, around housing, employment, consumer issues,” she said. “A lot of it is people are really concerned about what changes are coming or what they can do to prepare.”

Immigration law is incredibly complex. She cautioned families to seek advice only from state-licensed lawyers with expertise.

“Whenever there are changes in immigration policy, there are unscrupulous people who try to take advantage,” she said, referring to a Notario fraud. Sometimes it’s a well-meaning community member who volunteers advice on filling out immigration papers. Often it’s someone who scams people for thousands of dollars.

“They Promise to do things they can’t do,” Goracke said. “They take people’s money. Mess up their immigration cases. We saw it when DACA came in. I think we’re going to see it again.”

Daniela Evangelista is a community health worker with Multnomah County’s Early Childhood Program. She helps parents connect with services that will help their young children grow strong. Too often lately, concerns have shifted from health to immigration.

“Some people are really worried,” she said. “That’s because they have small children, some children have special needs. And so you’re constantly going to specialty clinics and hospitals.”

The risk is greater still for parents who care both for aging parents and U.S.-born children. In one family, the children keep asking, what will happen if you’re deported. How will we care for our grandparents alone?

Evangelista refers families to area nonprofits with low-cost immigration lawyers and those offering workshops on civil rights. But there’s little she can do to offer words of comfort.

“Sometimes I feel really, really sad,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘everything is going to be fine.’”

Help is Here

AILA of Oregon: The Oregon Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association has launched a resource page with upcoming education events in partnership with community nonprofits.

Causa: This advocacy group hosts an immigration resources page with upcoming workshops and events.

El Programa Hispano Católico: This nonprofit is coordinating local workshops for education communities and services providers about risks and rights. To attend or request a training, contact Kat Kelley, kkelley@elprograma.org

SOAR immigration legal services: Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees offers low-cost immigration representation and education to low-income families.

ICS: Immigration Counseling Services is a nonprofit law firm offering lower-cost immigration legal services and education.

Catholic Charities: This nonprofit's Immigration Legal Services office offers low-cost immigration representation to low-income immigrant and refugee families, and coordinates workshops across the state.

Immigrant Law Group: This Portland law firm hosts a resource page and volunteers at workshop.

Notario Fraud: Find legal help or report someone suspected of illegally advertising immigration legal services.

Northwest Immigrants Rights Project: published an advisory on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the 2012 federal action providing temporary protection from deportation to undocumented people brought to the United States as children.

ACLU: The San Diego office of this advocacy group publishes a Deportation Preparedness guide in Spanish and English.