Department of Homeland Security

To grow up American in all ways but one – having proper documentation – is what it means to be a dreamer. Being undocumented renders one nearly incapable of functioning as a regular member of society. It means calling in sick during the day of a school field trip that asks you to bring a form of government ID. It means being unable to get a job to fund and pursue higher education. It means being ineligible for most healthcare benefits during a pandemic.

Last week, in partnership with The Door, we hosted a virtual Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) clinic to assist 10 pro bono clients with preparing their initial DACA applications. The DACA program provides eligible, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16 with a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation, along with work authorization and the ability to apply for a social security number.

In late June 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced two regulatory changes intended to deprive asylum applicants of the ability to work lawfully in the United States while they await the adjudication of their asylum applications.  By increasing the obstacles asylum seekers overcome to obtain an Employment Authorization Document, commonly known as a “work permit,” the new rules endanger the health and safety of asylum seekers and their families.

The first rule change, effective August 21, 2020, eliminates the requirement that USCIS must process employment authorization applications within 30 days of receiving the application.  This rule change allows USCIS to adjudicate work permit applications for an indeterminate period of time, which will inevitably result in delays.  The government claims this move will deter immigrants from filing “frivolous, fraudulent, or otherwise non-meritorious [asylum] claims.”  But the rule change is more likely to force asylum seekers further into poverty and informal economies, thereby making it more difficult for them to meet their basic needs.

Pervasive anti-LGBTQ violence around the world causes many individuals to flee their countries of origin in search of safety. The past few years have been tremendously difficult for immigrants of all walks of life, but especially so for LGBTQ and HIV-affected asylum applicants who have fled to the United States

It is either a crime or fundamentally unsafe to be LGBTQ in more than 80 countries around the world. For the LGBTQ individuals forced to flee such conditions, seeking asylum in the United States is an opportunity to lead authentic lives safe from emotional harm and physical violence.

However, due to recent legal and policy developments, LGBTQ asylum seekers are facing new challenges as they struggle to navigate the U.S. immigration system. During a recent panel presentation at Proskauer’s New York office, Immigration Equality—the nation’s leading LGBTQ immigrant rights organization—teamed up with Bloomberg LP and Proskauer to educate pro bono lawyers about these developments and enable them to represent LGBTQ asylum seekers.

Immigration Equality’s Executive Director, Aaron Morris, began the program by describing the harmful effects expected to result from the “Presidential Memorandum on Additional Measures to Enhance Border Security and Restore Integrity to Our Immigration System” issued on April 29, 2019. This memorandum orders the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security to impose a filing fee for asylum applications and initial employment authorization applications filed by asylum seekers. At present, there is no fee for these applications. The memorandum also directs that asylum applicants who “entered or attempted to enter the United States unlawfully” should be barred from receiving employment authorization while their asylum applications remain pending. These policy changes, if implemented, will cause significant hardship for LGBTQ immigrants fleeing persecution, many of whom are unable to afford filing fees and will struggle to support themselves in the U.S. if they are not permitted to work lawfully here.

U.S. immigration policy has changed quickly and substantially in the past two years. While a handful of policies have received the majority of media attention—such as the separation of families at the border—the Department of Homeland Security has implemented numerous, far less visible changes that have dramatically impacted the ability to seek immigration relief in this country. These policy changes have transformed the way in which lawyers and their pro bono clients must navigate the immigration system.

Accounting for Unpredictability

As a result of the exceedingly fast changes to immigration policy, it has become increasingly challenging to predict a client’s likelihood of obtaining certain types of immigration relief or to assess the risks associated with attempting to do so.

For example, in October 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began implementing a new policy that mandates USCIS to issue Notices to Appear (NTA) in immigration court removal proceedings upon making an unfavorable decision on an immigration application where the applicant is an undocumented immigrant.  This far-reaching guidance would, for instance, encompass vulnerable undocumented victims of domestic abuse seeking humanitarian-based relief, thus creating a perverse disincentive for them to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement.  In June 2018, the Attorney General’s decision in Matter of A-B- purported to make it harder for immigrants to qualify for asylum based on gang or domestic violence, a decision that was, in turn, blocked in December by a federal judge in Washington, D.C.

A recent change in immigration policy is adversely impacting a vulnerable population, and is likely to have a chilling effect on immigrants reporting crime and cooperating with law enforcement. Undocumented immigrant victims of domestic abuse, who prior to the updated guidance could freely file petitions for U Nonimmigrant status or Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitions without fear of bringing on deportation proceedings, now may suffer the very real repercussions of an unfavorable petition or application.  If unsuccessful, they now face a mandated issuance of a Notice to Appear (NTA), which is the charging document that initiates removal proceedings.

In a letter dated June 28, 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued “Updated Guidance for the Referral of Cases and Issuance of Notices to Appear (NTAs) in Cases Involving Inadmissible and Deportable Aliens.” Policy Memorandum 602-0050.1, in pertinent part, provides updated guidelines regarding USCIS’s issuances of NTAs in Immigration Court. The new guidelines serve to ensure conformity with Executive Order 13768, and replaced, in its entirety, Policy Memorandum 602-00550 published in November 2011.