As the Battle Over Immigration Rages On, an L.A. Attorney Explains How You Can Help

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I count myself among the demographic that had zero doubts we were headed for some serious apocalyptic clusterfuckery after Donald Trump got elected. But surely, not even the most pessimistic among us could have predicted the relentless waves of legislative shitstorms hammering the country one after the other; no one could’ve foreseen the frequency with which push notifications from the New York Times could send your stomach plummeting into your pelvic floor before you even have a chance to read the headline. And yet he’s been plopping his taco-salad-eating self onto the chair of the Resolute Desk less than a month, and every morning brings fresh, full-blown attacks on the press, the intelligence community, our potentially-not-for-long allies, the court system and the very bedrock of the American Dream. 

That last part has especially been a doozy, no? Perhaps more than anything else so far, Donald Trump’s executive order placing a temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—plus an indefinite all-out ban on refugees from Syria has been an epicenter of legal and on-the-ground confusion. After its abrupt implementation a few weeks ago and the detention of passengers coming in from those countries, many of whom had visas, protests erupted at airports across the country. Then last Friday, Judge James Robart of the Federal District Court in Seattle blocked the order nationwide on the grounds that there is “no support” for the administration’s actions. Airlines and Customs and Border Patrol agents were directed to resume operations as if the EO had never been issued, and after the Justice Department filed an appeal to reinstate the President’s ban on Saturday, the appeals court swiftly rejected it Sunday morning.

So, where does that leave us now? There’s a lot of uncertainty, and the courts are in for some heated battles. For now, travel and screening is being conducted as it was prior to the order (it's already an extensive vetting process that can take up to two years). Three federal judges heard oral arguments yesterday from both sides, but a ruling isn’t expected until later this week and the constitutionality of the executive order won’t be up for discussion in this session. The New York Times reported that the three judges expressed skepticism of the Justice Department lawyer’s defense (and if President Trump’s flabbergasted accusations today that the courts are “so political” and it was “disgraceful” are any indicator, he’s not feeling great about it). 

But that’s just what’s going down in the courtrooms. And of course, we haven’t even begun to deal with Trump’s wall or what his intentions are with our neighbors to the south. The way this has played out for the people it’s immediately affecting—immigrants and their families—has been a chaotic, frightening mess.

To get a better idea of what’s going on on the ground level, I met up with Patricia Ortiz, the Director of the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, a legal organization that serves vulnerable populations in Los Angeles. Though Esperanza primarily focuses on Central American immigrants and generally represents unaccompanied children and detained adults mentally incapable of representing themselves, Trump has made no secret of his intentions to essentially restrict immigration as much as he can along all of our borders, which signals serious changes for all of those in search of the American Dream.

Patricia’s family came to the states from Guanajuato, Mexico when Patricia was very young, and she grew up in Moreno Valley in Riverside County. She attributes her strong ties to the immigrant community to her interest in working in social justice—that, and “I was super argumentative as a kid,” she tells us, laughing. After law school, Patricia spent some time working in the private sector of immigration law, but she was quickly put off by the for-profit aspects of it. In 2013, when a position opened up at Esperanza, Patricia was brought on as a removal defense attorney, and in 2015, at age 31, she was named director. She talked with Girlboss further about how the immigrant community is reacting to these new policies and what attorneys and everyday citizens alike can do to keep fighting as the country faces enormous uncertainty. Stay tuned for further coverage, and in the meantime, somebody bring Lady Liberty a goddamn whiskey—Japanese, Irish, Scotch, whatever you got—she’ll take any and all of ‘em. In theory.

The immigration ban was rolled out largely as a surprise, and the resulting chaos that ensued is just one component of the widespread upset. What was it like in the office the day you guys heard the news?

We called an emergency meeting at work and we just tried to figure out what this meant for our clients and how it was going to affect what we do. It was so hard to get work done that day. It was hard to focus on anything other than, "Wow, he really did it." There've been threats of him doing this, but part of you always thinks, "Maybe it's just rhetoric; it's not going to happen." But it did. 

Even though the majority of our clients that we represent here are Central Americans, it's still heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking to see a specific group of people being targeted for absolutely senseless reasons. There's nothing to back up the claims that refugees are dangerous. There actually haven't been any terrorist attacks by refugees. They're super vetted. It's insane. It's so upsetting, because people are cheering on these orders and they have no idea who the people are that are being harmed by these orders. They don't know the humanity behind it. They don't know that these are 10-year-old kids who lived their whole lives in refugee camps and have never had that stable experience that we've had.

At this point, it's not really about protecting the United States; it's about pushing forward an agenda, an anti-Muslim agenda. It's just not based on facts. We know that doesn't really matter.

While there’s still a lot to be determined, California, behind Governor Jerry Brown, has taken a pretty bold stance in opposition to President Trump’s proposed policies, and cities like L.A. have been upfront in stating their intention to be a “sanctuary city.” Does this set you at east at all?

It's reassuring. We'll see, once things actually start to happen. Hopefully, they put their money where their mouth is and actually do what they say they're going to do. But [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] doesn't need the police to take certain actions. In years past, we would see raids at workplaces. We would see raids in different areas. That's all ICE doing it. They don't need the police to cooperate. Even before these orders, under the Obama administration, we saw a huge number of people being deported. We would see things like someone would have a DUI and they would go to AA classes, and once they were out, [ICE was waiting for them]. Even though there wasn't cooperation, necessarily, by L.A. police, they still found ways around it. 

I think it's good, because it makes immigrants feel like there's someone there, backing them up, but in practice, there's still going to be a lot of ways that ICE can get around it.

How much faith do you have that the courts will rule against the President’s actions if they feel it is contrary to the law?

I think we're going to rely a lot on the courts in the coming years, to shoot down these laws that aren't necessarily constitutional; they’re reactionary more than anything. I hope we can count on them. In California, we're very lucky. It's a very different environment than other parts of the United States. I don't know how it will go for other circuits.

For people who are perhaps just starting to pay attention to issues surrounding immigration, what are some of the most important things that you see get misrepresented or misconstrued?

There’s about five million [laughs]. Let’s start with undocumented immigrants using welfare benefits and government benefits. They're not eligible to do it. That's a huge misstatement and myth. Someone who's undocumented here in the United States can not request welfare. “Anchor babies” are another myth. Let's say you cross the border as an undocumented immigrant and you have a child who becomes a U.S. citizen, and that child eventually turns 21. There's really no way for them to petition for you to become a citizen.

I think we hear a little bit about how much money immigrants put into the tax system, social security, that sort of stuff. They're working and they're not getting any of those benefits back, especially, say, an immigrant who's worked here for thirty years and is now at retirement age. They're not eligible to obtain those social security benefits, because they never had status. I mean, tell me a myth and I can probably tell you how untrue it is.

In the wake of the immigration ban, the ACLU raised $24 million dollars in a single weekend, which is pretty nuts. People clearly want to help fight this battle. What can the everyday citizen do to support this cause, and in particular, what can they do to help smaller organizations like Esperanza who don’t have high-profile fundraising capabilities? 

The biggest one is of course money. We rely on grants. We rely on donations to be able to do the work that we do. We're going to see a definite increase in the need for our services, so we're going to need more money and we're going to need to hire more attorneys. One of the things that I've been trying to do as Director is to really ramp up our social services and try to help in that sense. A lot of times it's not just their legal case, but it's all the other issues, right? Especially for our clients, the majority of whom are asylum seekers and have faced severe trauma. They’ve had very difficult things happen to them in the countries they’re coming from. Sometimes they need access to social services. Sometimes when they get here, it's really hard for them to adjust to what's going on. So we ask people for donations in the form of gift cards so that when someone comes in and they don't have enough to eat, we can just give them a gift card, and that really helps, because that means that they can continue to focus on their legal case and they're not having to focus on whether or not they're going to have food that day.

In terms of volunteering, if you're a pro-bono attorney, we can definitely use you! 


Donations to the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project can be made through their website. 

-Deena Drewis

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