By Ryan M. Leach
Under the administration of President Trump, both documented and undocumented immigrants are facing challenges that were not present during the Obama administration. While there are limited resources to help immigrants with an uncertain legal status determine their continued ability to remain here, one thing is certain: the discretion previously given to judges, officers, and prosecutors is no longer available in the age of Trump.
Within five days of taking office, President Trump signed his “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” order. This executive order effectively removed the discretion that border-enforcement officials had in the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. While more people were deported from the U.S. during President Obama’s administration than in any previous administration, Trump’s order makes it even more challenging for immigrants to remain in the country.
“Deportations and the criminalization of undocumented immigrants has always existed, even in the past administrations,” says Adonais Arevalo-Melara, an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the states at age 12 with his mother. He is currently living under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “Trump’s affirmation of racism and his anti-immigrant agenda promises to criminalize and put all undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation.”
Local immigration attorneys affirm this assessment of the new administration. Raed Gonzalez of Gonzalez Olivieri LLC, a Houston law firm that specializes in immigration law, explains that “Obama gave a lot of discretion to judges, officers, and prosecutors on which cases to pursue or not. The priorities of this administration are different. Humanitarian issues are no longer taken into consideration when reviewing cases.”
“It is a whole new world out there these days. I am seeing things as an immigration attorney that I have not seen in 21 years of practice,” says John Nechman of Katine & Nechman L.L.P., another Houston law firm with a focus on immigration issues. “[Trump’s initial immigration] ban was so overreaching, [and] immediately created such chaos. There were people in the air that had boarded planes legally, who then landed and were put into detention centers or sent back home.”
Nechman is referring to Trump’s first immigration executive order issued in January. Entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” the order was halted by the federal courts for violating the U. S. Constitution. The administration’s second pass at the order was issued on March 6 and was subsequently blocked by a federal judge for also violating the U.S. Constitution.
Individuals who find themselves in a precarious immigration situation do have options, even if those options are becoming a little more difficult to assess. Gonzalez has this advice: “If you are undocumented, you need to get legal counsel immediately so that you can understand your options. There are many people who initially came into the country who received documents that they thought were papers granting them legal status. In reality, they were simply documents requiring them to come to court. These people likely have outstanding deportation orders and do not even know it.”
“Under the new administration, I am a priority for deportation because I have had an order of removal since I entered the country. It is important to understand that DACA is only a temporary relief and has no pathway to citizenship. Essentially, you continue to live undocumented but protected while the program lasts,” says Arevalo-Melara.
Publicity surrounding the Trump administration’s immigration orders has created a lot of confusion, some of which has been generated by misinformation from the media. “The problem with many of the stories you may see in the news regarding these executive orders and the effects they are having is that they do not tell the complete story. A headline might read that a student was denied access to return to the country for school. What is not written is that the student was here on a tourist visa and not on a student visa. Misinformation can further complicate an already confusing process for many.”
“Living as an undocumented person for over 10 years, you learn how to navigate the system with no access to resources to get documentation. The immigration system is broken, and there are essentially no paths for undocumented immigrants to access a pathway to legalization. It is part of a broader conversation of why many undocumented immigrants like myself had to choose to escape violence from our country and cross borders and rivers to be here,” adds Arevalo-Melara.
Fair access to legal help is not the only barrier for immigrants. For LGBTQ people, there are additional issues to consider. In 75 countries, homosexuality is considered a crime, and cultural condemnation of LGBTQ people also poses a challenge. LGBTQ immigrants may shy away from alternatives like marriage because they do not want to come out to their family. Gonzalez shares a story about a gay client who came into his office seeking counsel. “He was so burdened by how his family and culture would see him that he actually left his partner in the lobby so that they would not be seen together when they came to visit me.”
When marriage equality was determined to be a constitutional right in 2015, same-sex couples suddenly had access to the same marriage rights as their straight counterparts. This includes the right of an immigrant to marry a U. S. citizen and remain in the country. However, transgender individuals continue to face even higher levels of discrimination as states like Texas target them with legislation like Senate Bill 6, which bans transgender people from using the appropriate restroom. This hostile atmosphere compounds existing challenges, including immigration.
“The government has traditionally been cooperative when it comes to transgender individuals who are detained based on their immigration status,” continues Gonzalez. “Transgender women would be detained with women, or special accommodations [would be made] if necessary. We have no idea how the Trump administration will handle the issue.”
“It is very important to understand that being an immigrant and being LGBTQ are two identities that we have to carry around, and basically two closets we have to come out from,” says Arevalo-Melara. “As an undocumented immigrant I fear for deportation, [especially since] the country I came from criminalizes people based on gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression.”
Limited resources are available to immigrants seeking legal counsel. The best option is to contact an attorney who practices immigration law in Texas. Many attorneys offer consultations for a small fee, usually between $50 and $100. This will provide an initial assessment of their current status, and what steps they need to take to get paperwork current or corrected. Many attorneys will offer to create an affordable payment plan based on their resources for people who can’t afford the usual fee.
“Houston is not the best city, as far as an organized resource bank for LGBTQ immigrants,” says Nechman. “We have good [immigration] services, but none that are focused on this community. That being said, [the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center] has immigration clinics, and the ACLU has a hotline that is staffed by attorneys that can help.”
“I always try to work something out with clients if I can, [and there are also] resources like Immigration Equality and Catholic Charities,” says Gonzalez. “Those resources are limited, however. I have also participated in two Facebook Town Halls conducted by Univision. They have a panel that includes immigration attorneys and the sheriff’s office, and we help answer questions. I think the last one had 1.5 million people watching.”
Activist organizations also provide help to the LGBTQ immigrant population. The Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (QUIP), a program of United We Dream, is a group that seeks to organize and empower undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and allies to address social and systemic barriers that affect the broader LGBTQ and immigrant community. The organization does this through individual leadership coaching and advocacy, according to their website.
“The most important thing that people have to keep in mind is that they need to know about where they stand and what their options are,” Gonzalez says. “They should be prepared in case something does happen. This is a different environment than before.”
Ryan M. Leach is a community activist, lawyer, professor, writer, and humorist. You can email him at [email protected].