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A School of Law Spotlight on the Changing Landscape of U.S. Immigration Law

“The fear was palpable,” said Sarah Pleban, J.D. (Law ’81), describing the scene at one of the workshops she conducted for local immigrants as a volunteer for Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry (CLAM). 

Advocating for Our Immigrant Neighbors

CLAM, a program under the Catholic Charities of St. Louis agency St. Francis Community Services, is housed at Saint Louis University School of Law and staffed with multiple alumni. It also serves as an immigration law and family law clinic for students.

Following the heated rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign and the subsequent crackdown on undocumented immigrants living in the United States, CLAM began hosting a series of “Know Your Rights” and “Power of Attorney” sessions in the community, which address child custody and property ownership issues in the event of a parent or guardian’s sudden detention or deportation.

According to CLAM director and managing attorney Amy Hirsch Diemer, J.D. (Law ’88) the workshops have served more than 500 families in St. Louis churches and nonprofit organizations, and have utilized the services of around 125 volunteer lawyers and interpreters, many of them SLU grads.

Even the attorneys who have stepped up and taken cases for free – even they’re maxed out. There’s just not enough."

Hannah Sullivan, J.D. (Law '07), Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry (CLAM)

Pleban is not an immigration attorney but works in family law as a guardian ad litem; she got involved as a volunteer because she wanted to help people she believed would be vulnerable, particularly children. She detailed an example of a case she found particularly gut-wrenching.

“One family was a couple who had been here for about 16 years. The oldest child was severely disabled and the parents were just crying about what would happen to her – and their other three children – if they were detained. They brought with them a woman they’d met through the school system; she had taken this family under her wing and was going to be their power of attorney, but she was 70 years old and didn’t feel like she could handle their oldest child. And so they’re all crying, the interpreter starts to cry, I start to cry. I asked if their daughter would be able to tell someone her name, and they said no. I thought, ‘What is going to happen to this child?’”

Unbeknownst to many in St. Louis, CLAM is one of just two agencies in the region that offers legal services to undocumented residents. Diemer sees it as central to their mission as a Catholic Charities agency: to welcome the immigrant and protect the vulnerable. “We’ve been the face of addressing those needs,” she said.

Notably, through CLAM, SLU LAW represented almost half of the total number of Central American asylum-seekers and migrants who sought legal assistance from Jesuit law schools in the U.S. in 2014.

And according to immigration attorney Hannah Sullivan, J.D. (Law ’07), the Godfrey and Virginia Padberg Equal Justice Fellow at CLAM, the Latino population makes up only about a third of their current clients: another third are refugees – Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian – and the remainder is more random, comprising natives of Kenya, Somalia, Cuba and other countries.

Sullivan receives approximately 300 phone calls a week requesting assistance. Calls may be from new or current clients or other social service agencies; she estimates they hear from about 10 potential clients a day. In some ways, this isn’t new: phone calls seemed to peak during 2014-15 when there was a rush of Central American children fleeing violence in their home countries.

“Now there’s just a lot more anxiety among people who already have status,” said Sullivan. “If we’ve helped clients get their permanent residence or even their citizenship, depending on their background, what country they’re from, what their religion is, they’re calling and saying ‘Am I really okay? Are you sure I’m okay?’ Unfortunately right now we don’t have the information to calm them down like we could in the past, so that’s why we’re doing the workshops.”

As far as taking on cases both affirmative (applying for citizenship, green cards) and defensive (filing for asylum, fighting against deportation orders), CLAM is jammed, as are the other nonprofits in St. Louis that do immigration work.

“We are all maxed out,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard because people will say ‘Please, I have a case!’ and are really desperate, but we cannot take another case. Just saying no to people has been one of the hardest things, too. I hit up the private attorneys to take free cases for me sometimes, but even the attorneys who have stepped up and taken cases for free – even they’re maxed out. There’s just not enough. For most of our people, they’re working on an income between 0 up to an average of $20,000 a year, and that’s usually for a family of four or more. And it’s not just the attorneys here defending them, but the courts are overloaded, the judges’ calendars are overloaded, so it’s just the whole system that’s kind of maxed out right now.”

What Has Changed?

Richard Middleton, Ph.D., J.D.
Richard Middleton, IV, Ph.D., J.D. (Law '09), adjunct professor at the School of Law and practicing immigration attorney.

“There’s not been much change in terms of statutory law as it relates to the three primary avenues for a person to immigrate to the U.S. [family-based, employment-based, diversity lottery],” said Richard Middleton, IV, Ph.D., J.D. (Law ’09) adjunct professor and practicing immigration attorney.

“What you’re really seeing is a change in enforcement priorities. Under the Obama administration, emphasis was placed on removing individuals who presented a significant threat on the domestic home front, those who have been convicted of serious crimes. Under the current administration, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of uniform policy as it relates to who is going to be high-priority for purposes of removal, but the current attorney general has emphasized that ICE should bolster its enforcement activities and attempt to remove individuals who have committed any range of criminal infractions – this includes misdemeanors.”

According to Middleton, the June 26 U.S. Supreme Court per curium decision regarding the stay on President Trump’s revised “travel ban” executive order failed to provide any manageable criterion by which one can determine whether a person has a “bona fide relationship” to a person or entity in the U.S.

“So what ultimately happens is it’s decided on a case-by-case basis by the courts, or in this case, what we suspect will be by bureaucrats – by individuals with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and perhaps USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services),” Middleton said, “which ultimately may be challenged then and answered by the courts. What it can create is – quite frankly – disparate application, or what some observers are calling ‘potential chaos.’”

What does that chaos look like on the ground level?

Middleton says that some environmental challenges for local immigrants are common – language barriers, transportation issues to and from work and doctor appointments, feeling at home in the community.

“But I would say also that individuals face the challenge of the fear of the unknown,” Middleton said. “There’s certainly a need for individuals to feel that their domicile, their residency, their status here in our community and in the U.S. at large is not in limbo.”

DACA Rescission

The feeling of being in limbo is now more pronounced than ever for some nearly 800,000 persons enrolled in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Established in 2012, DACA allowed for certain individuals who entered the United States as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation as well as eligibility for a work permit. At the time of enrollment, these individuals must have been in school, a high school graduate or honorably discharged from the military and not have been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanors.

On Sept. 5, 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the program, announcing a delayed six-month implementation, with the idea that Congress will be able to come up with a more permanent solution for those previously eligible in that time. On Twitter, Trump declared that if Congress did not act, he would revisit the issue.

Saint Louis University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., denounced the rescission, stating in an email message to the University that “We will take every action within the law to protect all members of our community,” and that SLU will not allow access by ICE to student records without a subpoena or other legal requirements, nor will SLU Department of Public Safety officers be asked to act as de facto ICE agents in enforcing immigration law.

“I will continue to advocate to lawmakers so that our collective voice is heard. I invite all of our campus community … to implore Congress to act in the best interests of all who call the United States home, now and in the future,” Pestello said.

Christopher Collins, S.J.
Christopher Collins, S.J., assistant to the president for mission and identity at SLU.

“The position of the Catholic social teaching perspective is that every individual person is made in the image of God and merits respect and reverence,” said Christopher Collins, S.J., assistant to the president for mission and identity at SLU, “especially when, if a vulnerable person is right in front of you, regardless of the legality of the situation, the obligation is to meet those material and social needs for that person, in the immediate.

“It’s also the case that we live in a society, and we have to engage in the political process to try to sort out some of the most just policies and structures for a society for all of us to live in. To me, the call right now given the decision is for people to engage robustly in that political process and make the arguments that need to be made to our elected officials and participate in the political process, with those who are vulnerable in society in mind.”

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) also issued a statement decrying DACA’s rescission, which it says forces affected students and young professionals to become “pawns of political maneuvering,” and states that “the nation's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities will make every effort to protect the Dreamers among our students and alumni.”

A National Perspective

Elizabeth Grant
Elizabeth Grant, J.D. (Law ’13), field officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

On the national level, Elizabeth Grant, J.D. (Law ’13), a field officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), sees parallels with CLAM’s situation.

“What we’re seeing is an increase in people applying for naturalization: people who have been eligible for years and have never applied who are suddenly applying,” Grant said. In her role, she reviews, interviews and adjudicates applications for adjustments of status (green cards) and naturalization (U.S. citizenship).

Grant takes pride in the fact that through her work at USCIS, she can help people navigate a very complex system.

The legal system is supposed to be accessible for everyone, but the truth is it’s very difficult to navigate, so as an attorney, I look at it not as being an authority but as a servant."

Elizabeth Grant, J.D. (Law '13)

“That was the thing I believed in most at SLU: that we should be working for people who can’t necessarily do it for themselves. In my role at USCIS, we get people who come in with attorneys who cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and others who filled out the applications themselves, and they get the exact same treatment.

“Immigration is so complicated: anytime you change one thing, you’re going to be inadvertently changing something else,” she continued. “The legal system is supposed to be accessible for everyone, but the truth is it’s very difficult to navigate, so as an attorney, I look at it not as being an authority but as a servant. I realize what a privilege it is to live in the United States and how it’s something that we should not take for granted. I think until you’re exposed to people who are so desperate to share that privilege with you, it’s hard to wrap your head around.”

The SLU LAW Response

Following President Trump’s first iteration of the controversial executive order in January, SLU LAW mobilized quickly to convene events analyzing its authority and scope. Student organizations such as the Justice Equity Collaborative (JEC), the International Law Students’ Association (ILSA) and the American Constitution Society all hosted workshops in the weeks following to discuss various aspects of immigration and constitutional law and how to help immigrants at the local level. Dean William P. Johnson, J.D., issued a message to the entire law school community expressing solidarity with the University’s immigrant students and encouraging students, faculty, staff and alumni to lead with empathy in these conversations and actions.

On Feb. 27, the School of Law hosted a day-long conference, “Understanding How the Executive Orders Have Impacted Our Immigrant Neighbors – Part I,” co-sponsored by SLU LAW, Saint Louis University and St. Francis Community Services: CLAM and Southside Center, attended largely by local attorneys and social workers.

In addition to these direct responses, SLU LAW continues a tradition it has been carrying out twice a year for several years: hosting a naturalization ceremony in the John K. Pruellage Courtroom, complete with congratulatory speeches and singing provided by students, faculty and staff. The most recent ceremony, hosted by the Center for International and Comparative Law (CICL) and the Legal Clinics, took place Oct. 27.

Hannah Sullivan & Amy Diemer

Hannah Sullivan, J.D. (Law '07) and Amy Hirsch Diemer, J.D. (Law '88), attorneys with CLAM, help give current law students legal experience working with immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers.

During the last academic year, the Legal Clinics had six students working at CLAM, and managing director Diemer says they’re a vital part of the operation.

“We couldn’t manage without them,” she said. “They help with everything from intake interviews with potential clients to helping us prepare documents for filing in court as well as helping us prep for settlement conferences and trials. They aid us with brief writing and research, and if we are lucky enough to have a bilingual intern, they act as an interpreter, too. We’re in court most of the morning into the afternoon, and they go to court with us; we take great responsibility in helping establish them in their legal career and giving them the experience they need while reinforcing Saint Louis University’s commitment to social justice.”

David Cruz, a third-year clinic student who is pursuing an international and comparative law concentration, is one of the recipients of the Public Interest Law Group fund. He is bilingual and since joining CLAM in January has dedicated much of his time to individuals seeking asylum.

“It’s been humbling working with clients whose dangerous experiences in their home countries caused them to flee and seek refuge in the U.S. in the hope of building a new life,” Cruz said. “It’s been a pleasure working with the amazing CLAM attorneys and obtaining positive outcomes that ultimately result in our clients’ ability to stay and work in our country. While working with CLAM I've integrated what I've learned in Professor Richard Middleton's immigration classes and have also been exposed to family and traffic law along the way.”

This year, SLU LAW students will also have the chance to apply for the newly established Simon Family Clinic Fellowship, created to directly provide services to the local immigrant community while giving students the chance to get hands-on experience in immigration law. This exciting opportunity will allow for more students to expand their knowledge, skillset and capacity to make a difference in the lives of fellow St. Louisans.

And according to Diemer and Sullivan, SLU LAW alumni have a standing invitation to get involved at any level, whether through facilitating workshops, taking on individual cases or providing interpretation assistance.

“For the Know Your Rights sessions and Power of Attorney workshops, if you wanted to come to those and you’re a licensed attorney, you don’t need to have any background in immigration law or family law,” Sullivan said. Even for alums who are not practicing or have let their licenses lapse, there are ways to help immigrant families get stable in St. Louis.

Diemer says the support of the entire SLU LAW community has been crucial to helping their clients succeed in finding a better, safer life.

“It is inspiring to see so many of our alumni answer the call to help us protect and defend the most vulnerable in our community and beyond.”

— By Maria Tsikalas

This article originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of  the Saint Louis Brief, the School of Law's alumni magazine.


Listen to the SLU LAW Summations podcast episode on immigration with law professor Richard Middleton