Things That Matter

An Ex-ICE Attorney Is Calling Out The Agency For Using False Evidence To Deport And Detain Innocent Migrants

A former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lawyer has revealed that in several cases ICE agents corroborated against immigrants in order to achieve their deportation. In an in-depth interview with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates those on power, Laura Peña revealed many of the behind the scenes details of the how the government agency pursued the deportation of migrants and asylum seekers. The investigative piece highlights some of the trials and tribulations that Peña has lived through as a legal assistant to the agency where, in different cases, there was a common factor: lack of evidence to accuse immigrants of any fault that prompts their deportation.

Now she’s getting to tell her side of the story. 

Who is Laura Peña and how did she end up working for ICE?

Credit: @ProPublica / Twitter

Growing up in Harlingen, Texas, which is close to Mexico, Peña was immersed in the migrant community. Living so close to the U.S-Mexico border gave her a unique perspective on what many Latino migrants endured. She went to school with friends who were undocumented and friends whose parents also worked for the Border Patrol. After graduating high school she left the area and would get a job in the State Department. 

She would eventually take her career path in the same footsteps as her father to become a lawyer. After graduating from Georgetown Law, she saw that ICE was looking for trial attorneys but the opportunity wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Peña wasn’t sold on the concept of helping see migrants get deported, especially growing up in a migrant community herself. Family and friends were in disagreement with the thought of her working on behalf of ICE. 

 But her father, who himself was a struggling attorney, consoled her and reassured her not to pass up an opportunity like this. “Do what you need to do,” he counseled her. “Don’t worry about what others think.”

 A fellow mentor, who was also an immigration attorney, also encouraged her to take the position. He said this could be an opportunity to take the job and try to make the government agency more humane. “We need people of your mindset working on the government’s side,” she told Peña.

Peña was hired in 2014 as an ICE attorney which would be the start of a turbulent and controversial time working on behalf of the agency. These are some of the stories she told ProPublica about her experiences. 

Credit: @HispanicCaucus / Twitter

One of the mentioned cases in the investigative piece was that of Carlos, a migrant who applied for political asylum. As soon as he made his request, border and immigration agents accused him of being a member of the notoriously famous MS-13 gang in El Salvador, so this made Carlos not eligible to enter to the United States. 

This is where Peña, who followed the case, started to see the ugly true side of ICE. She did not find any semblance of a connection between Carlos and the gang, not even tattoos, that are a key part of the gang’s look or even criminal record in his own country. To the contrary, Carlos even carried an official letter from the Ministry of Justice of El Salvador certifying and clearing him of ever setting foot in a jail cell. Peña demanded proof from immigration agents that he was connected to the gang but did not obtain any. Despite the lack of any evidence of his gang affiliation, Carlos did not obtain his asylum.

Another case she revealed was that of a 6-month-old baby who was scheduled to be deported because he had been separated from his mother. Peña would eventually reunite the child with his mother but the woman was accused of carrying a false document. The immigration judge used that against her and would then order her child’s removal from the country.

This would all lead to Peña taking a step back from the agency. She now works pro bono with clients seeking asylum at the border. 

Credit: @bykenarmstrong / Twitter

All of this immigration work would overwhelm Peña over time, especially during the Trump administration’s family separation policy went into effect in Spring 2018. “Everything was stacked against the immigrants. Most couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. Few would ever win their cases.”

Peña would go on to acknowledge that the immigration system refuses to provide due process to an immigrant. but also realizes that there’s not much that could be done there. She is now working pro bono as a visiting attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, helping migrants with asylum cases. She now hopes she can properly bring justice to the countless of people that have been wrongly deported or separated at the hands of ICE. 

READ: This New Border Wall Mural Features QR Codes That You Can Scan To Hear Emotional Stories Of Deported Migrants

Despite A New Law, Some New York County Clerks Say They’ll Refuse To Give Undocumented Residents Driver’s Licenses

Things That Matter

Despite A New Law, Some New York County Clerks Say They’ll Refuse To Give Undocumented Residents Driver’s Licenses

@EddieATaveras / Twitter

The “Green Light Law” passed in New York last June, making it one of 14 states to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. The passage was believed to be a landmark victory as the measure was stalled for over two decades. However, some county clerks who reside in the more conservative areas of New York have resisted the policy. Some even say they will refuse to give undocumented immigrants their licenses in protest. 

The stance seems similar to one Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis made in 2015 when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis was ordered to issue the licenses by a U.S. District Court and when she defied them, she was jailed for contempt of court. 

New York County Clerks rebel against a new law allowing undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses.

Some county clerks have threatened to even call Immigrations and Customs Enforcement on undocumented immigrants who try to obtain licenses. 

“If you come into my facility and you have done something illegal, it is my obligation to report you to the appropriate authorities, whether you’re a citizen or not,” Robert L. Christman, the Allegany County clerk, told the New York Times.

A federal judge threw out one of three lawsuits filed by the dissident clerks on Friday, claiming Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns did not prove any suffering due to the law. 

“It is apparent Plaintiff disagrees with the Green Light Law,” Judge Elizabeth Wolford wrote in her decision. “But the mere disagreement with a duly-enacted state statute does not entitle anyone — even an elected official — to seek intervention from a federal court.”

Attorney General Letitia James argued that the “Green Light Law” is a benefit to public safety. 

“The law aims to make our roads safer, our economy stronger, and allows immigrants to come out of the shadows to sign up as legal drivers in our state,” she said in a statement. “That’s why the claims made in this lawsuit not only disregarded these simple truths but were misinformed and disregarded the privacy rights of New Yorkers.”

Immigrant advocates believe the rebellion is a scare tactic to thwart immigrants away from the service. 

“This is a scare tactic,” said Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, told the Times. “They are mirroring the politics of fear we’ve seen nationally with the Trump administration.”

Clerks claim the influx of immigrants will overburden the system.

The clerks claimed that the law would overburden the system which would incur new costs like hiring additional workers and training staff to understand and process foreign paperwork. Mostly, they were outspoken about not wanting to serve immigrants. 

“You are asking me to give a government document to somebody who is in our country breaking federal law. That is 100 percent wrong,’’ said Joseph A. Jastrzemski, the Niagara County clerk. “It compromises my oath of office to defend the Constitution.”

However, proponents of the law say the revenue from the new applications would pay for the additional costs.

“The Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning research institute, estimated that the state would earn$57 million in annual revenue and $26 million in one-time revenue from driver’s licenses, new car purchases, registrations and sales and gas taxes,” according to the New York Times. 

A law over two decades in the making has immigrant advocates stunned. 

“I grew up poor and undocumented and never imagined that one day I could help change the history of our state. Gracias mami for your sacrifice. We got Drivers Licenses for all!” NY State Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz tweeted. “After today, no child will have to know the fear of emergency planning in case mom or dad are picked up by ICE.”

In 2007, Governor Elliot Spitzer issued an executive order that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses. After opposition from Senator Hillary Clinton and Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand along with bipartisan lawmakers and clerks, Spitzer rescinded the order just two months later. 

“For a long time, driver’s licenses had been the third rail of New York state politics,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “[This] put to rest the notion that you couldn’t do anything controversial around immigration.”

A driver’s license can help shield immigrants from deportation by allowing them to provide identification during things like routine traffic stops. It can also give them better access to housing, jobs, and public services. Oregon and New Jersey have begun to consider similar measures and discussions have initiated in six other states as well. 

“We are seeing momentum growing right now, especially following New York where it has been such a long and hard-fought struggle,” Vimo said. “This really changes political calculations and removes a lot of the excuses other states had not to pass similar legislation.”

A New Trump Rule Could Leave Thousands Of Asylum Seekers Out Of A Job

Things That Matter

A New Trump Rule Could Leave Thousands Of Asylum Seekers Out Of A Job

Equality Now / Instagram

The Trump administration has proposed denying work permits to asylum seekers who cross the border illegally, and any that have been convicted of a felony or arrested for certain crimes. The plan would also make it so that qualified asylum seekers have to wait longer to even apply for a permit. Currently, any asylum seeker is allowed to apply for a work permit regardless of how they entered. 

The Department of Homeland Security also wants asylum seekers to pay an application fee to obtain a worker’s permit, which would make it one of four countries on the planet to do so. The proposals are another tactic to deter asylum seekers from the southern border altogether. 

Advocates find the attacks on asylum seekers to be cruel and unlawful. 

“Asylum law explicitly permits applications regardless of the manner of entry,” an asylum officer told BuzzFeed News. “To single out those asylum seekers who couldn’t afford a visa and prohibit them from obtaining lawful employment is cruel and has no basis in the law.”

The policy would make receiving a work permit nearly impossible for any migrant who does not enter at the United States port of entry. It would also change the waiting time to apply for a permit from 150 days to 365 days from the day migrants filed their asylum applications.

“Employment authorization ensures asylum-seekers the ability to support themselves while the government processes their claims. It often means access to a temporary driver’s license that has a huge liberating impact in a ton of car-centric places,” said Andrew Free, an immigration attorney. “These changes would leave more asylum-seekers dependent, vulnerable to exploitation, and in the shadows, which is exactly where the regime wants them.” 

The new guidelines would broaden the scope of which officials could terminate work authorization for asylum seekers who have unfavorable outcomes in immigration court and from asylum officers. For example, immigration officials could request an asylum application or work permit request if a migrant missed an appointment. 

“Make no bones about it, denying asylum seekers the ability to work during the two to three years the asylum process can take—thus forcing them to starve, rely on charity, or work under the table—is arbitrary and capricious,” immigration attorney Eneida M. Román told Common Wealth.

The new policy could affect tens of thousands of people.

According to CBS News, the policy would extend retroactively, which means the government could reject work permit renewals from asylum seekers that are already authorized to live and work in the United States. 

“The effects of this would be seriously significant,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, told CBS. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of people potentially losing their jobs and hundreds of thousands no longer being eligible for work authorization.”  

Some cases can drag on for years, thus a work permit is of the utmost importance for migrants living here while they are being processed. According to Common Wealth Magazine, on average it takes two to three years for asylum to be granted.

“Because of the long delays in asylum processing, this rule means that some individuals would have to wait five or six years without being legally allowed to work,” Reichlin-Melnick said

According to BuzzFeed, the White House began aggressively pushing the policy in April. President Trump signed a memo asking U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to create a proposal for the policy which would then go through a process before being enacted. 

The Trump administration claimes asylum seekers are “gaming the system.” 

“Let’s not forget: People seeking asylum are legal immigrants,” said Doug Rand, a former immigration official under the Obama administration, told BuzzFeed. “This proposed rule sounds like another rush job calculated to scare vulnerable people in advance of inevitable lawsuits.”

However, Ken Cuccinelli accused many asylum seekers of being frauds. 

“Illegal aliens are gaming our asylum system for economic opportunity, which undermines the integrity of our immigration system and delays relief for legitimate asylum-seekers in need of humanitarian protection,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. “These proposed reforms are designed to restore integrity to the asylum system and lessen the incentive to file an asylum application for the primary purpose of obtaining work authorization.”

Following publication in the Federal Register, the new policy will have to go through a 30-day review period where the public can provide feedback. 

“When we wonder if the administration can go any lower, they prove that there is no bottom to the swamp by proposing a fee for asylum applications,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, the New England chapter head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. 

“These are people who flee their homes with little but the clothes on their back, often enduring precarious conditions because of the dangerous conditions they face back home.”