Uncertainty Sets In for an Immigration Lawyer and her Clients

Paola Uriarte

At her office in Brooklyn on the day after the election, immigration attorney Paola Uriarte and her colleagues watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech on TV and cried. Then, they started to write a statement for their clients, many of whom have been granted temporary protection from deportation under the DACA program. But the uncertainty surrounding the Trump presidency left little room for reassurance.

“I was really angry and heartbroken. I was afraid for my clients, for any person of color or minority. I walked down the street afraid for the first time in my life,” said Uriarte, who is an immigrant herself. To her the results of the election were shocking, and the thought of an impending Trump presidency even more distressing.

“The rhetoric of this campaign really scared me and my clients,” she said. “It opened up my eyes to the willful blindness in many parts of the United States, and even within many Americans who happily live in blue states, but deep down had completely biased and prejudicial feelings.”

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Growing up, Uriarte, 29, moved often between Peru, Canada, and the United States for her mother’s work with peacekeeping missions at the United Nations. Today, she is an attorney at Central American Legal Assistance, a small non-profit in Brooklyn, representing asylum seekers from Central America. Her primary clients are those who have entered the US unlawfully at the Texas border and are in deportation proceedings – almost all seeking asylum based on harm suffered due to the Central American gangs, MS 13 and 18th Street Gang.

When Donald Trump was elected, many of these clients called her office asking if and how the election affected their cases. “Even people who have won asylum already, and are lawfully here, and eventually can become US citizens,” she stated. “That’s how much fear is everywhere now. They hear the election hate speech and fear for their lives.”

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration on January 20, 2017, immigration policy has an ambiguous future, with the sweeping changes Trump proposed in his campaign and his recent leadership appointments leaving little hope.

Possible changes to deportation proceedings are also unknown. Currently, there is an option called prosecutorial discretion, where the government can decide to close or suspend the deportation of individuals by declining to put them in removal proceedings, by terminating the proceedings altogether, or by delaying removals in cases where people have long-standing ties to the community, family members who are US citizens, or other characteristics that merit a favorable decision.

Uriarte explained, “We have 11 million undocumented people and can only financially afford to deport 400,000 per year. We can’t deport everyone.  So the government has priorities of who to deport, like immigrants with criminal convictions or recent arrivals. If someone does not fall into that category, their case is often closed. The person receives no benefits, but they can live sort of ‘in the shadows.’”

Typically, Uriarte and her colleagues only seek prosecutorial discretion for cases that are not asylum-eligible or have no other forms of relief. However, government attorneys are warning them that this might not be available after January 20 under Trump’s tenure, making them consider the option in earlier stages of their cases, when usually it would be reserved until trial.

She is also concerned that Trump may make other major changes that will deeply affect her clients, such as ending DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and Temporary Protected Status (a humanitarian temporary form of relief to people from certain countries with war or environmental disaster). Both DACA and TPS have an end date for each recipient and need to be renewed on an individual basis, now every three years and 18 months respectively. However, Trump could easily choose to not reauthorize either program.

“Some Salvadorans and Hondurans have had TPS for twenty years based on environment and war issues from the 1990s.” Uriarte said. “So, that’s thousands of people who have temporary legal status, who have lawfully lived in the US for years – paid taxes, had children, and bought property – who may be deported.”

Uriarte is more focused on how the new administration will affect her clients, rather than herself, as she doesn’t see the possibility of Trump revoking the US citizenship she obtained six years ago. Instead, she and her colleagues are working with even greater determination to defend their clients. “We realized the fight keeps going, we keep doing what we need to do, we keep fighting the fight. Its going to be harder than ever before, but we (immigration attorneys) are the most equipped to fight a Trump administration in regards to immigration.”

This story was written as part of the Telling Immigrant Stories course at The New School.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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AboutChelsea Camp
Chelsea Camp is a NYC-based journalist and aspiring filmmaker. She received her B.A. in International Relations from Boston University and is a current Master's candidate at the New School, focusing on international media and documentary films.