Help for Refugees : Activist Attorneys Battle INS to Protect Rights of Immigrants
At a recent meeting of immigration lawyers in San Francisco, a top Immigration and Naturalization Service official flashed his INS badge and jokingly asked Peter Schey to show his “green card” proving legal status in the United States.
Minutes earlier, Schey, an immigrants’ rights attorney originally from South Africa, had accepted an award from his peers for “excellence in the field of immigration litigation.”
Schey did not laugh--especially since he and other immigration attorneys, who believe their role is to police the INS, sometimes think they should also carry badges.
Schey, who represents mostly indigent, Central American clients as founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Center for Immigrants’ Rights Inc., is part of a closely-knit band of about a dozen activist attorneys who aggressively attack the way the INS treats immigrants, particularly those from war-ravaged Central American nations.
One of them is Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the ACLU Foundation, a tax-deductible arm of the ACLU that includes research and education. In an office decorated with posters supporting the United Farm Workers and the sanctuary movement, Rosenbaum said he and his colleagues are working on what they believe is the civil rights issue of the 1980s: protecting the rights of immigrants detained by the INS.
“The government comes down most brutally on the refugees,” Rosenbaum said. His view is that the INS represents “all that is mean and tawdry in American government.”
In Southern California, most immigrants’ rights attorneys work for public interest law firms or legal aid groups dependent on private donations and modest state grants. The attorneys, many of whom are now close friends, frequently work together on cases to stretch their limited financial resources.
The most active among them are politically liberal men and women, many of whom previously handled civil rights and labor cases. One attorney noted that every male immigrants’ rights attorney she knows has a beard as a kind of tribute to the 1960s.
Some work with multi-service organizations such as El Rescate (The Rescue) and the Central American Refugee Center, both in Los Angeles. These groups offer free legal aid, organize English classes and provide services and information for refugees adjusting to life in Los Angeles.
Most said they moved into the low-paying field because of concern about the rights of refugees fleeing conflicts created, in part, by American foreign policies.
Their zeal frequently raises the ire of government attorneys, who say the immigrants’ lawyers exaggerate their clients’ horror stories of life back home and rely on tricky legal maneuvers to delay deportation.
“When they say they have won, you have to compare what they asked for and what they finally got (in court),” said George Wu, an assistant U.S. attorney who represents the INS. Wu said that in recent years the INS has only lost one major immigration case in the U. S. Supreme Court.
Other government attorneys said that unless there are major shifts in public opinion and Congress, the United States will never give aliens the same rights as criminals who are U.S. citizens.
“Our opponents are zealous and we respect them,” Robert Bombaugh, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation, said. “But we intend to be just as zealous on the other side.”
The government’s philosophy is articulated by Harold W. Ezell, the agency’s outspoken western regional commissioner.
“In my opinion, illegal immigration will destroy what we know as a free society in the next five to 10 years. . . .” Ezell has said. And in a recent letter to The Times, Ezell wrote that “our country is facing a national crisis when we are on the brink of apprehending 2 million illegal aliens this year.”
The application of these views is challenged in court by the Southern California immigrants’ rights attorneys. In recent years, they have obtained federal court orders that:
- Prohibit the INS from putting “no-work” provisions as a condition of bail for about 150,000 aliens facing deportation.
- Require the INS to inform every Salvadoran apprehended that he or she has a right to apply for political asylum.
- Require the INS to inform aliens that they have the right to counsel before they are questioned about the time, place or manner of their entry into the United States.
- Require the INS to provide aliens with a list of free legal services and allow all unaccompanied children access to telephones.
Other pending cases allege that the INS uses the children of illegal immigrants as “bait” to trap their parents and contend the INS should pay attorneys’ fees to people who win their deportation cases.
“No one should have to file a lawsuit to escape death,” the ACLU’s Rosenbaum said.
Although the immigrants’ attorneys have won victories by forcing the INS to modify specific practices, many of the broader, class-action cases are pending at the appellate level and destined for the Supreme Court.
And, Bombaugh points out, in the past two years, at the appellate level, the INS won 92% of the cases brought against the agency.
A common thread tying the attorneys together is their commitment to the underdog, they said.
“My clients live in garages, work at minimum wage jobs and have no access to medical care,” said Paula Pearlman, an attorney with San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services in Pacoima. Her first job out of law school was providing free legal help to aliens detained by the INS in El Centro.
Now, she said, because of the efforts of the lawyers who fight the INS, the government knows that no matter what happens on individual cases, “there is someone watching them.” Pearlman said her husband’s comfortable income allows her to do the kind of work she does.
Linton Joaquin, an attorney for the Central American Refugee Center, switched from labor law to immigration law in 1979. Although he initially represented Mexicans, Joaquin said that “in 1981, it changed dramatically. Now the majority of my cases are for Salvadorans and Guatemalans.”
‘Lot of Abuses’
Joaquin said he fights the INS because there are “strictly outrageous things to be challenged. There are a lot of abuses--the basic ideas of due process have not been observed.”
“It seems to me the area of greatest exploitation (of people) is in the area of immigration,” said Sandra Pettit, directing attorney of the Immigrants’ Rights Office of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “The message is, the United States is definitely hostile to immigration.”
Government attorneys disagree, saying Congress has imposed strict limits on the rights afforded illegal aliens.
“They (the attorneys) would like deportation proceedings modeled after the criminal justice system, but that is not what Congress imposed,” Bombaugh said.
He acknowledged that a “basic philosophical difference” exists about how aliens should be treated. As a result, he said in a recent telephone interview from Washington, legal battles will continue.
Turns Down Cases
Schey, who said he turns down nine out of ten cases because the people should probably be deported, rejects the INS contention that Central Americans come to the United States strictly seeking economic opportunity. Schey and others insist the people are here to escape destructive civil wars in their homelands.
“The great majority of refugees we represent express trauma at having to leave their homes,” Schey said. “They are depressed at having to work in an East Los Angeles sweatshop 12 hours a day, six days a week. They don’t experience it (the United States) as Disneyland.”
A volunteer interpreter in El Rescate’s legal aid clinic said that 40 or 50 people arrive each week, seeking advice on how to deal with the INS. Most people speak little or no English and work as maids or day laborers.
Out of Character
Immigrants’ rights attorneys said it would be out of character for Reagan Administration appointees to grant asylum to refugees from countries whose governments are supported by the United States.
The Department of Justice’s Bombaugh hotly denies the charges. “I think it’s frankly false--the fact is there are Salvadorans and Nicaraguans who are granted asylum.”
(Between October, 1985, and April, 1986, 55 Salvadorans and 604 Nicaraguans were granted asylum nationwide, compared with 989 Iranians and 329 Poles, according to INS statistics.)
Bombaugh and other government attorneys said people who are genuinely afraid of persecution should immediately apply for asylum--not wait until they are arrested by the INS.
“Central American refugees may not be familiar with our legal system, but they are not dumb,” Schey argues. “You cannot reject 98% of all asylum petitions from one nation (El Salvador) and keep that a secret.”
Second Hearing in 2 Years
INS attorneys said the Los Angeles Immigration Court is so backlogged that a person making a first appearance in an asylum case this week will not have a second hearing on his application for 2 to 2 1/2 years. Every month, about 1,000 new cases are filed. Seven immigration judges are attempting to handle about 20,000 cases.
“People are receiving de facto asylum simply by filing the forms and staying here to the end of the process,” said Bill Odencrantz, regional counsel for the INS. He said a typical asylum case takes five or six years to complete.