Lawyers and students fight the barriers to access for Georgia immigrants

Navigating the immigration courts is difficult. Today, immigrants and lawyers face threats by the Trump administration to end protections, legal scams, barriers to access for detainees and thousands of cases in the Georgia system alone. 

In January 2020, the first law clinic at any university in Georgia specifically dedicated to immigration law will open at Georgia State. The Immigration Law Clinic will be directed by Emily Torstveit Ngara. 

“Our current system is very complicated, it’s overburdened, it’s not working well for anyone involved, really,” Ngara said. “There’s a lot of pressure on immigration judges.”

Getting to U.S. soil isn’t the only journey immigrants have to take to becoming an American. Once they are here, there’s a second expedition that’s nearly impossible to do alone.

“The need for guidance in the immigration context is pretty dramatic,” Darcy Meals said. “People liken it to the IRS or tax code to show how complicated the immigration legal scheme is. Having assistance and support in navigating that system is critical.”

Darcy Meals is the assistant director for the Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State, the goal of which is to highlight the importance of access in the court system.

Access starts with the rights afforded to everyone on U.S. soil — citizens or noncitizens alike — by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. 

“In the immigation context, as a noncitizen, you do have the right to due process, but you do not have the right to appointed counsel,” Meals said.

The “right to counsel” may confuse some, but it simply means a person is allowed to have a lawyer. It does not mean one will be provided for them.

“A lot of times, it is inaccessible for people financially,” Meals said. “And there’s also a lot of fraud in the immigration world.”

One example of this are “notario” scams. By their very name, they take advantage of the lack of information immigrants have about a foreign legal system and the language barriers they face. 

In Spanish, a “notario público” is a legal professional, but a “public notary,” when translated directly to English, is a profession accessible to almost anyone — and it’s not someone who won’t be able to deliver on any promises to provide relief, protection or citizenship. 

Meals explained that the access the center fights for goes beyond the fight for basic rights and resources. Often, access can be inhibited by what she calls “physical barriers,” that also come into play with a language barrier.

A physical barrier can be as simple as how to physically get into a building or follow directions when signs are written in English. Further, needing to read and understand legal documents is hard enough in someone’s native language. 

In Georgia, there are currently 32,337 pending immigration cases backlogged in the courts, according to TRAC, a nonpartisan data research organization.

“A lawyer can’t expedite your claims to the top of that list, but a lawyer may know how to navigate which avenues of relief are available to you but also which ones might move more quickly,” Meals said.

One form of relief is asylum, a request someone makes when they come to the U.S. and fear returning to their home country. Another term that’s very similar to an asylee is a refugee, the main difference being that a refugee usually requests protection while still in their home county.

Many asylees have fears such as death threats, torture, imprisonment, discrimination or threats to their family. Asylum can be seen as an eventual path to citizenship because after a year under asylum, they can apply for lawful permanent residence or a green card, and then eventually for citizenship. 

Under President Donald Trump, efforts have been made to limit the number of migrants seeking asylum by restricting who can apply. Detaining migrants while they await their court proceedings has been used to serve as a deterrent for others thinking of applying. 

“There’s nothing illegal about coming to the border and saying ‘I fear for my life in my home country and I would like to seek asylum,’” Ngara said.

Each of these barriers become compounded when someone is held in a detention center while their case is pending. Meals explained access to the contacts, documents and evidence someone needs to support their claims is immensely difficult when inside detention. 

For a pending asylum claim, it’s even harder because detainees are essentially cut off from the government agencies they need to rely on to prove the conditions of their home country.

“It’s basically impossible to do that from immigration detention here,” Meals said.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, one in six immigrants detained in the Southeast have no access to legal counsel. But with an attorney, they’re 10 times more likely to win their case.

Through the Pro Bono & Public Service Recognition Program, for which Meals serves as a faculty advisor, Georgia State connects law students with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, which provides free legal representation to immigrants who have been detained or are facing deportation proceedings. 

The program allows students to work under the supervision of an attorney while they collect the necessary documents for a bond motion. This allows someone being held in detention to get out while they await their court hearing, expediting the otherwise impossible situation under detention that Meals outlined.

During spring break, the program sends at least one group of law students to the Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia to conduct in-person interviews with detainees.

“Usually, it’s for asylum claims, so this involves getting their story and figuring what their factual basis for their case is,” she said.

While Meals did say the right to due process is afforded to noncitizens, there’s one catch: expedited removal.

It’s possible for someone to be deported without a hearing before a judge under expedited removal. Three months ago, expedited removal applied only to people who were caught within 100 miles of the border within two weeks of their arrival. 

Now, under a policy change by the Department of Homeland Security in July, expedited removal applies to anyone, regardless of where they are in the country, who has been in the U.S. for less than two years.

“There’s legal precedent for being able to deport somebody without a hearing or any kind of appeal through expedited removal,” Meals said.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 83% of people deported from the U.S. were not given a hearing before a judge in 2013. 

“There are a lot of questions of when the law itself doesn’t provide for justice, but it’s still the law; it’s not illegal, it’s not a loophole — it’s just the state of things,” Meals explained. “But it’s not providing what you’d think of as due process; it’s excluding a certain category of people under certain circumstances from what is otherwise expected of due process.”

For students wanting to explore a career in immigration law, the clinic application will be open Sept. 18 to Oct. 2 to second- and third-year law students. Ngara anticipates taking on 12 students the first semester and eventually expanding to 16.

“For a lot of students, it’s their first opportunity to step into the role of an attorney,” Ngara said. “It gives them the opportunity to start building their professional identity before they even graduate.” 

On Sept. 19, Georgia State is hosting an event to kick off the clinic’s establishment with a panel to discuss the status of immigration law in Georgia.

The clinic focuses specifically on removal proceedings, the legal term for deportation, and will take cases on a referral basis, as recommended by the clinic’s community partners. For the clients, the legal work is pro bono, which is free of charge.

One area students will be providing assistance for are cases in which someone has had their protections rescinded.

One protection is DACA, formally Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This policy allows people who came to the U.S. when they were under the age of 16 to be protected from deportation and receive a work permit. 

The program has faced threats under President Donald Trump who attempted to end DACA, putting 800,000 “Dreamers,” many of whom don’t remember their home countries, at risk for deportation.

TPS, or temporary protected status, is another protection, given to individuals from certain countries that would be dangerous for them to return to.

For example, El Salvador was hit with a catastrophic earthquake in 2001, providing TPS to Salvadorans in America. There are 250,000 Salvadorans who live in the U.S., many of whom have rooted their families and careers in this country. 

TPS also came under assault by the Trump administration, with threats to end the program for several countries in which its citizens have made America their home, some for decades. 

“Both [DACA and TPS] have been threatened with disappearing,” Ngara said. “If someone has DACA and they lose it, they may be vulnerable to removal.”

According to Peter Isbister, senior lead attorney at the SPLC, the argument immigrants “should just come legally and wait in line like my ancestors did,” doesn’t hold up.

Isbister explained that until the early 20th century, there were no immigration restrictions to the U.S and for much of American history, there was no line. 

“For many people there simply is no line because family immigration only allows a pathway for certain types of relatives, not any family member,” Isbister said. 

Despite the protections afforded through legal programs like DACA, TPS and asylum, there are other ways to immigrate to America legally. But Isbister says for some, “the ‘line’ can be close to twenty years long.”