Immigration Attorney Feels Frustration

You think your week was depressing? Try this on for size, "My Hands Are Tied, by Brian Lonegan in Sunday's New York Times Magazine:

I'm an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, the only free legal-service organization in New York City that provides assistance to people who are in ''removal proceedings,'' what used to be called deportation, because of a criminal conviction. There are crimes people should be deported for -- murder, robbery, rape -- but the way the law is written now, people are being deported for shoplifting or for jumping subway turnstiles or for possession of a joint of marijuana. New York's detainees are held in county jails in New Jersey. There are several hundred immigration detainees in these jails at any given moment. And there's only one Legal Aid attorney available. That's me.

Here's what it's like:

These guys all want to tell me their life stories, but I have to cut to the chase with potential clients and figure out what legal remedies they have. Most have none. Detainees call me collect from jails, and I give them advice. My hotline number is now in every jail cell between here and Pennsylvania.

Here's how it got that way:

Before 1996, if an immigrant was living in this country lawfully and he committed a crime that made him eligible for removal, he could go in front of a judge and tell his story, and the judge would balance the positives with the seriousness of the crime. If the judge thought you deserved a second chance, your green card was restored. I'm talking about people who have lived in the United States, some of them all their lives, who are about as American as anybody else. Then some pretty ugly anti-immigrant forces got together -- organizations out to limit immigrants' rights or declare a moratorium on immigrants altogether -- and got legislation passed that essentially deprived immigration judges of their ability to review cases. More and more green-card holders are now subject to mandatory removal.

The number of those deported has exponentially increased in the last 20 years, from 2,000 in 1986 to 79,000 in 2003. It's good news to Homeland Security and some ultra-conservative Congresspersons, because everyone loves to bash immigrants:

When I was a criminal-defense attorney, I used to think I was working for the most publicly despised clientele. Criminal defendants, nobody cares about them. But immigrants who are criminal defendants -- people care even less.

Distaste for immigrants is not limited to those convicted of a crime. Arizona voters just passed Prop 200 which would prevent illegal immigrants from voting or receiving some government services.

Proposition 200's provisions include a requirement that Arizonans provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote and that they provide ID when voting at polls. It also would require proof of citizenship or legal immigration status to obtain some government services. Finally, it would make it a misdemeanor for public employees to not report illegal immigrants trying to obtain some public services.

Having successfully passed in Arizona, backers of the measure likely will take it to California and other states.

Unfortunately, there may not be enough Brian Lonegan's around to care.

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