Vanessa Merton is tired. Not end-of-a-long-day tired, but rather the deep exhaustion from a day that never ends. Professor Merton directs a small team at the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Armed with caffeine and the rule of law, they offer free advice and representation to eligible immigrants seeking to prove their legal status. “Things are massively different than a year ago,” says Merton, and not just for undocumented immigrants.
Merton tells the story of a Marie (not her real name), a client who went through the immigration court system years ago. Marie has worked legally for over a decade, but now fears being deported. “She had a classic asylum case,” Merton says. Before coming here, Marie ran a bakery in Haiti. Government officials demanded that she fire her experienced staff and hire politically connected replacements. She refused. “One night,” Merton says, “they drove trucks into her house. Banging and shooting. She threw her children under a mattress. She doesn’t know how they made it through the night.” Marie had a valid visitor visa, and used it to come to the United States to apply for asylum. Immigration Court granted her a “Withholding of Removal” status, allowing her to stay. Her children are citizens, and she is being sponsored for citizenship. “She’s 59 and works as a home health aide for disabled persons,” Merton says. “Old, settled cases like hers are being re-opened daily. Many don’t even know they have become illegal.”
These re-opened cases are being added to an already crowded court calendar. At the end of 2017, 4,789 Westchester residents were awaiting immigration hearings, part of a national backlog of over 667,000 cases. In Greenburgh alone, 321 residents are waiting an average of 3.2 years for their cases to be processed.
To Merton, this docket is a sign of “the endless struggle to get the federal government to follow its own laws.” Some people being deported have legal status; some are even citizens. She describes one 17-year-old boy who cried out to her in a detention center. “Lawyer! Lawyer! They are going to deport me. I don’t know how this can be happening.” The boy’s father, an American citizen who had raised him here, had recently died. Born in Guinea, his birth certificate listed only his mother’s name. Merton had “a video of him delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral. Innumerable affidavits. Finally, I told them we’re going to exhume his father, do DNA testing, and you’re going to pay for the whole thing. Only then did the court agree he was a citizen. It would have cost him over $15,000 if he could even find a lawyer to spend seven years on one case.” Merton worries about the hundreds calling her clinic that she cannot help. She knows that some of those callers have, or could prove, legal status but may be deported without a lawyer.
Increasingly, a lawyer is no guarantee of an orderly process. In January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued new guidelines expanding the ability to make arrests at courthouses, including of people appearing for their legalization hearing. Westchester County District Attorney Anthony A. Scarpino, Jr. reacted to this change, “We need members of the immigrant community to feel they can be fairly processed and be willing to come forward as both witnesses and victims of crime. If they cannot feel confident in their treatment in our courts, justice will not be served.”
Willingness to come forward is also a major concern of local law enforcement. President Trump has raised the profile of MS-13, a brutal gang preying on youth from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Town of Greenburgh Police Chief Chris McNerney says that while there may be residents of Greenburgh associated with the gang, none have been identified. He believes “community partnership is key. If we have open lines of communication with the people we serve, who likely can identify a gang problem before law enforcement, it will improve our chances of eradicating the problem before it gets established.” Open communication is the best immunization for a healthy community.
Greenburgh is not the only police department pursuing this best practice approach. Carola Otero Bracco, Executive Director of Neighbors Link, a non-profit organization working with immigrant families, praises the Westchester County Police Department. “Someone’s status is not important when public safety is at risk. A gas leak for example,” says Bracco. “The Westchester Police have worked for years to build relationships and trust. Six police officers participated in our five-week parent education class alongside immigrant parents and their teens. We provide cultural awareness training at the Police Academy. It makes such a difference.”
County Executive George Latimer agrees, citing the need for confidence around the information shared with all County departments. Latimer considered strengthening immigrant protection by executive order, but believes the Board of Legislators will pass more lasting protection. The Board is gathering input on how local law enforcement can work with ICE and other federal agencies within the framework of federal immigration law without creating fear in the immigrant community.
That fear is not confined to those without legal status. The non-immigrant community has been impacted as well. “I get so many calls from upper middle class households to save the person who has been raising their kids for the last 20 years,” says Merton. “Working hard, paying taxes, no run-ins with the law. Makes zero difference.” She sighs, “The complexity of the truth. People say ‘Do it legally. Get in line.’ There is no line. There is a confusing system of rules based on relationship, employment and a limit per country.”
There may be no line, but there is a common theme. When Jose (not his real name) comes to the Immigration Justice Clinic, his hands and face are always dirty. He works three jobs: sorting and dismantling garbage for recycling, dishwashing at a restaurant, and a 4:45 am shift moving pallets with a forklift. “He is so exhausted,” says Merton. “He looks 75 but he’s only 45.” Somehow, he made time to raise two children who have done well in school, speak fluent English and give back to the community. Despite the dust from his never-ending work, his face glows. His son has received Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and is graduating from high school. Merton worries for Jose, but says, “He doesn’t care. For so many, it’s about the children. I guess that’s what I heard from my own family going way back. The quintessential American story.”