On September 22, 2018, the Trump Administration released proposed harmful changes to the “public charge” rule. These changes would strongly raise new high barriers for prospective lawful permanent residents if they are poor or have used government benefits like Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), Medicare’s Part D with prescription medication costs for seniors, or housing subsidies.

Trump Administration moves to bar migrants from seeking asylum

Houston’s legal community is gravely concerned about the consequences of the latest efforts to shred asylum law, a critical pathway to legal immigration

Today, President Trump issued a final rule and presidential proclamation that places severe restrictions on individuals seeking asylum through the southern border of the United States. In so doing, the Administration is effectively shutting down asylum as a pathway for legal immigration for many immigrants. Under current U.S. law, anyone newly arriving or who has been in the United States for less than one year can ask for asylum if they have a fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

This marks another executive action attacking refugees and asylum seekers, following the precedent set by the 2017 Muslim Ban and decreasing the number of admitted refugees to a mere 30,000 per year. The Administration is relying on the same authority to bar immigrants from Muslim-majority countries as justification for this new rule.

Andrea Guttin, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative’s Legal Director said:
The President is trying side-step our laws which allow anyone on U.S. soil to seek asylum when they fear they will be threatened, harmed, or killed because of who they are or what they believe. The Administration has tasked itself with dismantling asylum law since it came into power. The President is using the caravan as a scare tactic to justify his long-standing agenda to close our border to the most vulnerable. This new proclamation will lead to mothers, fathers, and children whose lives are in danger being turned away, despite our country’s moral and legal obligation to provide refuge.

American asylum law recognizes not everyone can come to a border crossing point, such as bridge or another “port of entry,” in order to seek asylum. As such, our laws permit anyone in the country to seek asylum – regardless of how they enter. Alarmingly, however, border officers have used threats, lies, and outright denials to keep out asylum seekers who do exactly what the President is asking them to do: ask for refuge at a port of entry. The government’s own Ombudsman investigated and reported earlier this summer that asylum-seekers have been turned back at the arriving port of entry, leading some “who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally.”

Lauren Fisher-Flores, an immigration attorney with the Tahirih Justice Center who is currently in Mexico City providing consultations to adults and children in the caravan, said:
Yesterday, we met a significant number of transgender women, pregnant women, and children traveling without their parents, many of whom appear to be eligible for asylum based on their past persecution. We met people fleeing violence, including a police officer, his wife and two children who were threatened by his own colleagues and the gangs for refusing to join a corruption scheme; a gay man who has suffered years of persecution because of his sexuality; and a transgendered couple who have been shot at and threatened. This group is representative of many migrants seeking asylum in the United States and deserve the protections of our established laws.

In addition to limiting the number of people eligible for asylum, this proclamation paves the way for the prolonged, indefinite detention of asylum seekers. Increased detention further traumatizes those fleeing persecution and makes it more difficult to access legal representation and community support. The only beneficiaries of indefinite detention are private prison companies and the President’s political agenda.

Julie Pasch, Managing Attorney with HILSC’s Deportation Defense Houston, a project that provides legal representation to immigrants in four Houston-area detention centers, said:
It is difficult to win an asylum case because asylum law is extraordinarily complex and it nearly impossible to navigate the immigration court process alone. The Administration is using the fact that many asylum claims end up being ‘non-meritorious’ as justification for this policy change, but in fact, the two biggest factors determining whether an asylum claim is granted by an immigration judge is whether the person is represented and whether they are in immigration detention. Asylum-seekers who are detained and not represented by an attorney win their cases only about four percent of the time.

The Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative stands with asylum-seekers and refugees in opposition to this action by the Trump Administration. We urge Houstonians to speak out against these policies by calling their members of Congress. Individuals, including attorneys, can volunteer with our partner organizations. We also welcome donations supporting legal representation for asylum seekers in the greater Houston region.

Members of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative call on Congress to take action to restore funding for the efficient and effective LOP program

On Tuesday, April 10, 2018, news broke that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is pausing the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) “legal orientation program” (LOP)  while it conducts an “efficiency audit.” Contracts with the 20 immigration legal services provider nonprofits around the country will end on April 30. This means that, starting May 1, 53,000 immigrants will no longer be provided with information regarding their due process rights, leading to increased deportations and family separations. The nonprofits who provide these services, have a mere 20 days to determine alternative methods to getting vital legal information to detained immigrants as there is little to suggest that this “pause” will be anything but permanent.

Across Texas, five nonprofits provide legal orientations to more than 30,000 immigrants in 11 facilities in the border region, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. Through the Legal Orientation Program, unrepresented detained immigrants learn about the removal process, find out about potential immigration relief, discuss their situation with an attorney and, in some cases, obtain referral to pro bono attorneys and other nonprofits in Houston. The Program is administered nationally by the Vera Institute of Justice.

In the Greater Houston Region, the YMCA International Services has been the only provider of legal orientations to detained immigrants since 2007. Through the LOP, they provide legal orientations to more than 6,000 individuals annually in three detention facilities: Houston Contract Detention Facility (Houston); Joe Corley Detention Facility (Conroe); and Polk County Adult Detention Center (Livingston). A new facility will open later this year, also in Conroe. These detention centers have some of the lowest legal representation rates of any in the country: only 27% of the approximately 3,000 detained immigrants have legal representation at any point during their case.

Elizabeth Sanchez-Kennedy, Immigration Legal Services Director, YMCA International Services said,
“Ending the Legal Orientation Program will dramatically decrease immigrants’ access to the information they need to be able to make informed decisions about the deportation process and further reduce the number of immigrants represented in immigration court. Our staff at the YMCA have passionately participated in legal orientation programs for many years and have developed an expertise in navigating the murky system for which there is no guide.”  

The Legal Orientation Program was created during the George W. Bush administration as a mechanism to improve immigration court efficiency. The program does not provide direct representation for individuals, but is the primary pathway for detained immigrants to get referrals to attorneys and organizations who can represent them.

Kate Vickery, Executive Director, HILSC, said,
“We believe that it is fundamentally unjust for anyone living in the United States to face a judge without an attorney to help them navigate a complex legal system or to face deportation without ever being informed of their rights and options. It is our assumption that without advocacy, this temporary pause of the program will be permanent, as the current administration has shown little regard for due process and access to legal counsel for immigrants in removal proceedings. The end of LOP will certainly result in a decrease of representation and an increase in unjust deportations. This is another tactic – along with immigration judge case quotas, increased court hearing speeds, and family separation at the border – to deny immigrants access to counsel.”

The LOP program allows providers such as YMCA International Services to have a regular presence in immigration detention facilities, where they can reach out to detainees who have limited English proficiency, financial resources or cognitive capacity who will otherwise be unable to access any legal assistance. Without the EOIR’s LOP, each Houston detention facility will be left to decide whether or not, or to what extent it will allow legal orientations to detainees, diminishing detained immigrants’ only access to legal assistance.

A 2012 EOIR report to the Senate Appropriations Committee showed unequivocally that facilities run more smoothly when people are informed and court dockets move more quickly when people understand their rights and eligibility for relief. Overall, the savings to the government due to LOP was more than $17.8 million, and the system improves efficiencies for immigration judges, ICE, and facility staff while simultaneously increasing chances of detainees winning their case and making dignified decisions.

Members of the Collaborative stand opposed to this latest attack on immigrants and are calling on our community to call members of congress to state their support for the Legal Orientation Program. 

To learn more about the Collaborative’s efforts to provide justice to immigrants facing deportation, visit Deportation Defense Houston


YMCA of Greater Houston
United We Dream
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
Tahirih Justice Center – Houston
Justice For Our Neighbors – Houston
The Alliance
OCA-Greater Houston
Mi Familia Vota
Chinese Community Center
Human Rights First
Access Justice Houston
Terri Burke, Executive Director, ACLU of Texas
Law Office of Teresa Messer.
Powers Law Group, P.C.
Justine K. Fanarof, JD, MPH
Brandon Roché, JD
Rosemary Vega,  Attorney at Law