The recent immigration directives from the Trump administration and Department of Homeland Security widened the net of undocumented people in the U.S. considered a priority for deportation. Immigration attorney Charlotte Alvarez said that is changing how she offers advice.
"We're advising anyone who is undocumented to seek legal counselor to see if there's any options for adjusting or changing their status," said Alvarez.
Alvarez is a staff attorney in the Bloomington-Normal office of the Immigration Project, a non-profit providing immigration and legal services in central and southern Illinois. She said some undocumented people have no ability to become citizens or to even to be on a path toward citizenship. But others who may not think they have options, might.
"Some might have a claim based on being a victim of prior abuse, or have some other legal protection they didn't know about. So we're advising people to see immigration attorneys to see what their options are," said Alvarez.
She said attorneys with the Immigration Project are holding "know your rights" presentations at various venues in central Illinois to advise people on their legal rights.
"For example, if ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) knocks on your door, you have the legal right to ask for warrant, and not permit ICE to enter, whether or not you are undocumented," said Alvarez. "Because Fourth Amendment protections apply to everyone."
Even before the new directives were announced last week, Alvarez outlined how documentation status has had many shades of gray. She said many people either don't know their status, or their status has changed or can be changed. For example, students with visas could fall out of status if they had to violate the terms of their visa.
"And some people are undocumented but they have a work permit and protection from deportation because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is DACA. A large percentage of the undocumented population are actually in line for the visa to be available based on a family petition, but the wait times are so long they're stuck in limbo. So they don't have any legal protection from that pending family petition, but they are on the road to documentation," said Alvarez.
Under DACA, illegal aliens are offered two years of amnesty ("deferred action"), are given a social security number, and are allowed to apply for a work permit. Undocumented people can apply if: (1) They are a child who arrived before age 16 and were under 31 years of age on June 15, 2012. (2) Are in school or possess a high school diploma (3) have lived in the U.S. for at least five years (4) have not committed a serious crime. Alvarez estimates 750,000 people nationwide have DACA status, and says it's very unclear what will happen to them.
"Currently DACA is in effect and renewal applications are being accepted," said Alvarez. "But that is a program created by the President (Obama) so therefore can be modified by the president at any time. And President Trump has made no clear indications on what they're going to do with DACA."
Alvarez noted many DACA clients of hers are in nursing school, are already nurses, or already in other professional jobs. She said they have relied on DACA status to advance their careers and afford them protections in the U.S. She says moving forward, the Immigration Project is not doing initial DACA applications for new clients.
"In this uncertain time, putting that information to the federal government is not advisable until we get clear guidance from the president," said Alvarez. "But we are doing renewal applications. If you have DACA and it's about to expire, then we are working with you. We're suggesting anyone with a criminal history or immigration history to talk with an attorney before renewing. From there, we'll just have to wait to see what happens."
Alvarez acknowledged that advising clients who may soon have their families separated or are now prime targets to be deported to their home country, some of whom have only known the United States as their home, can affect her emotionally. Both positively and negatively.
"In immigration law I can help them make a huge difference in their life, or I'm the one telling them there's no options and there's nothing they can do. So on the days it works, it's great, and on the days it doesn't, it's not so great. I see my job as understanding this crazy bureaucratic system and all the rules and regulations, then taking the individual in front of me and saying, 'How can you get through that process?' And help be their guide from the start of that to where they can go," said Alvarez.
But she conceded that sometimes there is no path to getting someone from their current status to anywhere else.
"Let me explain that you have to leave the country for 10 years, then apply for a waiver that you might not get, then maybe you'll be allowed to come back," said Alvarez. "I find it rewarding when it works, but there's a lot of uncertainty and unknowns happening, so we'll see where it goes."
The Immigration Project will have a "know your rights" presentation at the Western Avenue Community Center in Bloomington every other Monday night at 6 p.m., beginning February 27.
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