Local Immigration Org Expects Surge in Demand Following Title 42 Repeal
By Ryan Pitkin
With the repeal of the federal public health emergency order on May 11, residents will see a drop in COVID-19 tracking and testing, among other changes, while some non-residents face a more unsure future. Title 42, a provision that has been used to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States during public health emergencies, was also allowed to expire on Thursday.
While the expiration of the order is expected to lead to backups at the Mexican border, it may also lead to an influx in migrants in the Charlotte area, home to the only federal immigration court in the Carolinas.
The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy (CCLA) is preparing to assist Charlotte-area migrants who may be affected by the ending of Title 42, “adapting to the changing legal environment in order to address the increasing needs of the migrants coming to the area,” according to a release put out by the organization on Thursday.
“With the ending of Title 42 today, the Advocacy Center recognizes the need for urgent support to migrants who may have been impacted by this provision,” said Sharon Dove, director of the CCLA’s Immigrant Justice Program. “We are committed to the protection and support of our community and to defending all immigrants — both the newly arrived and those who have been here longer — in removal proceedings.”
CCLA is offering free legal consultations at its Pro Bono Room in east Charlotte, a small room located next to the waiting room at Charlotte Immigration Court, 5701 Executive Center Drive. The consultation aims to empower someone caught up in the deportation process to make an informed choice about whether to spend money on legal fees, which can be extraordinarily expensive, or learn how to represent themselves “pro se” if that’s what they choose to do.
It shouldn’t take 5 years for the US to help protect NC immigrants like Santos | Opinion | The Charlotte Observer
By Sharon Dove
In 2000, Congress created the U visa to provide protection from deportation and work authorization for crime victims brave enough to come forward against the individuals who violently abused them.
The U visa was designed to help non-citizens who are victims of crimes in the U.S., such as trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault, and have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse. Congress intended for them to receive a U visa within months of applying, but applicants now wait an average of five years for the promised protection.
During the extraordinarily long wait, U visa applicants — already struggling against the trauma left in the wake of violent crime — must fight grinding poverty and keep the government’s push to deport them at bay.
Many do not make it. Some are deported during the wait, some give up hope and return to their home country.
At the Center for Legal Advocacy in Charlotte, where I direct the Immigrant Justice Program, we have a client named Santos who has a young son. I am not using her full name to protect her identity. Her story illustrates by this five-year wait matters to all of us — why it matters to communities across North Carolina.
Santos called the police after 14 years of abuse that she and her children endured by her boyfriend.
One night, Santos’ boyfriend beat her with his fists and an electrical cord. Bleeding and bruised, she thought her boyfriend intended to kill her. The police arrested the boyfriend and a criminal prosecution ensued.
We filed Santos’ U visa application in December 2015, identifying a son who still lived with her as a derivative applicant. Then, the wait began. Living with the uncertainty of her U visa application status, Santos struggled as a single parent to support her family with a cleaning job that paid only $8.50 an hour. She found the job through an acquaintance who agreed to look the other way at Santos’ immigration status. Santos had no other options. She supplemented her meager income with frequent visits to the local food pantries.
In February 2019, the ground opened underneath Santos when an immigration judge ordered her son’s deportation. By then he was 16. His pending U visa application legally afforded him no protection against removal. As a result, a teenager with a solid claim to status was about to be forced to leave his family and resettle in Honduras.
Our office successfully filed an appeal of the deportation order, which allowed Santos’ son to remain in the United States pending his appeal. Other respondents are not as fortunate. Only 20% of immigrant respondents in the Charlotte Immigration Court are represented by legal counsel. Without legal counsel, it is virtually impossible for an individual to file an appeal.
Five years of waiting ended in December 2020 when Santos and her son received their U visas. Santos proudly presented her work permit to her employer, and her hourly wage immediately increased from $8.50 to $15.50. Her visits to the food pantries stopped. Within months, she was able to sign a contract to purchase her home. Her increased salary and the Social Security Number afforded by the U visa made it all possible.
Santos was lucky to make it to the end of her five-year wait. Many applicants do not share that experience.
It is inexcusable that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services takes an average of five years to provide violent crime victims the protection that Congress intended them to have within months of applying for the U visa. It is our hope that the two federal lawsuits filed by the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Legal Aid of North Carolina, the North Carolina Justice Center, and private attorney Brad Banias will put an end to the delays.
Approximately 170,000 immigrants in the United States are waiting — like Santos did — for adjudication of their U visa applications. These individuals are already cooperating with law enforcement; it’s required to get a U visa. The long delays put them — and our communities — in danger.
Sharon Dove is a Charlotte attorney who is Director of Immigrant Justice Program at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.
Two federal lawsuits originating in North Carolina could have national implications for immigrant victims of crime. Visa processing backlogs mean victims must wait years to access the immigration protections they need to assist in criminal investigations, and legal advocates say those delays violate the law.
More than 20 years ago, Congress established the U visa, a status designed for non-citizens who were victims of a serious crime, like human trafficking or domestic violence, while in the United States.
A major goal of the program is to assist law enforcement investigations by allowing cooperative victims to remain and work in the U.S.
But only 10,000 victims can qualify annually, and for years now, that cap has been easily met, explained Anna Cushman, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Battered Immigrant Project.
“I think it shows that this is a successful program. Congress has created something that is incredibly useful for law enforcement, honors our humanitarian values as a country, and assists immigrant crime victims,” Cushman said.
That success has also meant a substantial backlog of U visa applications, translating into wait periods ranging from four to seven years in many cases.
“I’ve had a client die while his case was pending,” Cushman said. “If we think about all the things that happen in five years, if any of us thought about where we were five years ago, it’ll feel like a different era.”
As of 2021, more than 170,000 U visa applications were pending with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Legal Aid of North Carolina, North Carolina Justice Center, and Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy are now suing USCIS over that backlog in Nebraska and Vermont, where U visas are processed.
Advocacy Center Files Lawsuit to Fight U Visa Backlog
United by a common cause, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy (Advocacy Center), and the North Carolina Justice Center, are working together to obtain legal relief for immigrant victims of crime amidst significant delays in U Visa application processing.
Over 150 victims of crime have filed suit in Nebraska and Vermont against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) alleging that the agency has delayed the processing of the victims’ U Visa applications for years. The victims have cooperated with law enforcement agencies to prosecute the perpetrator, making them eligible for U Visa legal status in the United States. However, significant delays in the granting of the visas have left victims without justice.
Congress enacted the U Visa for victims of crime in 2000 as a tool for law enforcement and a means to provide benefits to victims of crime who have been helpful to law enforcement. Benefits such as work authorization and legal status help victims achieve financial stability and independence. The years-long delays in processing the applications mean that victims are unable to work and support themselves and their families.
“For the domestic violence victim who just reported the crimes of their abusive partner, the very same partner that paid the rent, it’s essential that work authorization is available as soon as possible, not five years from now,” said Rona Karacaova, Managing Attorney of Legal Aid NC’s Battered Immigrant Project. “These lawsuits will improve public safety and bring financial stability within victims’ reach like Congress intended.”
Legal Aid of NC’s Battered Immigrant Project, the Advocacy Center’s Immigrant Justice Program, the NC Justice Center, and Brad Banias of Banias Law, along with assistance from local counsel, Brett Stokes and Jill Martin-Diaz of the Vermont Immigrant Assistance Clinic at Vermont Law and Graduate School, filed the lawsuits against USCIS in Nebraska on Jan. 9 and Vermont on Feb. 2, 2023.
The lawsuits seek agency action on the delayed cases, specifically employment authorization, protection against deportation, and travel documents for petitioners abroad in need of re-unification with their families in the U.S. The lawsuits are also the first of their kind brought on behalf of U visa petitioners en masse in Nebraska and Vermont.
“We support the litigation filed by Legal Aid of NC, NC Justice Center, and Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy on behalf of U visa petitioners,” said Sheriff Charles S. Blackwood on behalf of the Orange County, NC Sheriff’s Office. “Any victim who learns it will take years to receive a U visa is likely discouraged from applying. The potential benefits of obtaining lawful status through the process feel too remote and are therefore not an effective incentive to report any crime or voluntarily engage with a law enforcement officer. Reluctance on the part of any portion of the community to report crime jeopardizes everyone’s safety and complicates our ability to protect the most vulnerable members of society.”
Legal Aid NC’s Battered Immigrant Project, the Advocacy Center’s Immigrant Justice Program, and the North Carolina Justice Center advocate for immigrant survivors. The lawsuits are intended to compel the USCIS to follow Congress’s intent to protect immigrant victims of crime and provide law enforcement effective tools to investigate and prosecute serious criminal activity.
As legal issues persist, North Carolina ‘dreamers’ hope bipartisan deal saves the day | Charlotte Observer
Oscar Romero, a UNC Charlotte graduate, says it can cost $500 to submit and renew the application that allows him to remain a “dreamer.”
He is among 24,000 undocumented immigrants across North Carolina called “dreamers,” people who arrived in the United States as children and participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The DACA program keeps young undocumented immigrants from being deported and allows them to attend school and apply for work permits.
As the program faces continued legal scrutiny, “dreamers” are hopeful the latest bipartisan congressional effort to revise immigration policy, which includes DACA, has a long-shot chance in changing their lives.
“Who here has heard the question: where do you want to be in five years? Imagine not being able to answer that — with your life in this country revolving on a two-year cycle,” Romero said last week during an online news conference hosted by local DACA advocates.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina and Sen. Krysten Sinema — a former Democrat turned Independent representing Arizona — are working on a last-minute deal before Congress breaks for the holidays that creates a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
In exchange, the bipartisan deal calls for creating legislation that would add $25 billion in increased funding for the Border Patrol and border security, the Washington Post first reported.
Federal lawmakers are still hashing out the bipartisan framework. Part of it calls for extending the Title 42 expulsions until new processing centers are built for migrants. Title 42 is an arcane provision of U.S. health law, which the Trump administration used during the pandemic that allowed asylum seekers to be rejected at the border as their claims were being processed.
Rebekah Niblock, an immigration attorney with the Charlotte Center of Legal Advocacy, said it was tough to see that the bill could extend Title 42. But allowing ”dreamers” who have been here for so many years to finally get their citizenship is important, she said.
“In looking at this possible bill, I do see the huge compromise,” Niblock said. “It is very difficult, but I’m hopeful this bill will pass.”
The legislation could provide some stability for DACA recipients whose lives have been in flux over the past decade, she said.
Judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against DACA in October. That decision sent it back to U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who ruled the program can remain temporarily, with limitations, while he reviews Biden administration revisions made in August.
Niblock said the court decision has frozen applications for newer recipients. Two clients she helped apply for DACA in 2020 remain in limbo as the courts weigh its legality, she said.
“They haven’t even received a denial,” Niblock said. “Their cases are just sitting there with no decision whatsoever.”
There are many who were hesitant to apply for DACA. These people should be taken into account in any proposed bill, she added.
Hope for a promising future for clients like Kevin
Kevin greets you with a shy smile and a kindness that immediately warms your heart. His journey to the present has not been an easy one, yet he chooses to focus on the good that has brought him here and the bright future that lies in front of him.
Kevin left Honduras to emigrate to the United States with his stepfather when he was 14 years old, leaving behind his mother and younger brother. His stepfather had encouraged Kevin’s mother, Maria, to allow Kevin to join him for the arduous journey, believing that it would be easier to enter the United States accompanied by a minor.
“It is very difficult to live in Honduras. It’s very poor and there is a lot of crime and gangs. I wanted to come to this country to study and make a better life for my family.”
Kevin’s stepfather assured Maria that he would look out for the young boy, provide for him, and enroll him in school as soon as it was possible. Kevin said the journey was hard, but he and his stepfather survived without any major problems. Shortly after they arrived in the United States, things began to change.
Kevin’s stepfather began drinking and would leave him alone to care for himself in their apartment. He forced Kevin to work a grueling 6-day-a-week job in construction and would not allow him to enroll in school. One day his stepfather left and never returned.
Kevin decided to move to North Carolina to live with his uncle in hopes things would be different, but quickly life settled into a similar pattern. His uncle forced Kevin to work in construction to pay rent and cover other household expenses. He would not allow Kevin to enroll in school. One day Kevin fell from the second story of a construction job, severely injuring his back. Because Kevin was undocumented, his uncle was afraid to take him to the hospital and forced Kevin to recover on his own at home. He eventually returned to work, but he knew it wasn’t sustainable.
Maria connected Kevin with her uncle in Charlotte who assured Kevin that he could support him and would allow Kevin to enroll in school. In 2020, Kevin was finally able to start school, a memory that brings an instant smile to Kevin’s face.
Kevin describes his mother’s uncle and now caregiver as a father figure, someone who has created a home and future for Kevin. It was through his uncle and his uncle’s church that Kevin learned about Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.
“I would not have been able to afford an attorney on my own because I was not working. My uncle was willing to help me, but he was already helping me with so much: food, rent, and everything. It would have been difficult for him to also pay for an attorney.”
Sharon Dove, Attorney and Immigrant Justice Program Director, connected with Kevin and quickly learned the compelling facts of Kevin’s situation.
Sharon was able to pursue a T-Visa on Kevin’s behalf, a form of immigration relief for victims of human trafficking. Sharon demonstrated to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that Kevin was coerced to enter the United States under false pretenses and was compelled into involuntary servitude. Kevin was granted a temporary visa that will allow him to become a legal permanent resident. It will also enable Kevin’s mother and younger brother to apply for legal permanent residency, a fact that brings Kevin tremendous joy and relief.
“Finding the [Advocacy Center] was like winning the lottery for me. I never thought I could get legal status in this country.”
Kevin eagerly shares that he will graduate from high school this May. Although his mother will not be able to attend his graduation, she is incredibly proud of all that Kevin has accomplished on his own. Kevin modestly admits she admires the strength he has shown over the past few years and his dedication to finishing school. Kevin is not just passionate about learning. He also excitedly talks about his efforts to help other immigrants in the community, assisting those he can as a translator. Kevin looks forward to his future and plans to study medicine in hopes of one day becoming a doctor.
When asked to describe the Advocacy Center, Kevin simply calls it, “la casa de esperanza, the house of hope”.
Advocacy Center Welcomes Federal Court Decision to End Title 42
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy welcomes the decision of US District Judge Emmet Sullivan to strike down the controversial Title 42 immigration policy, a public health law that was manipulated to expel vulnerable asylum seekers at our border. Judge Sullivan ruled the law was “arbitrary and capricious” and faulted the US government for “its decision to ignore the harm that could be caused” by issuing the policy. He reluctantly granted the Biden administration’s request for a stay; the ruling will be on hold until midnight December 21st.
On December 27, 2022, the US Supreme Court granted the motion of states including (but not limited to) Texas and Louisiana to stay Judge Sullivan’s vacatur of Title 42 until a full Supreme Court hearing on the policy can take place. The hearing is expected to occur in February or March and a final decision is unlikely to be issued until June.
Immigrant Justice Program Director, Sharon Dove commented on the ruling saying, “We firmly believe that it is necessary to lift Title 42 to ensure safe, legal entry to migrants who qualify for asylum. Allowing this false public health measure to remain in place did not resolve the ongoing crisis at the border and we urge the Biden administration to protect those who need it the most. We advocate for policies to ensure fair and humane treatment of asylum seekers and pledge to continue our internal efforts to assist asylum seekers in our community.”
After Title 42 is lifted, those seeking asylum in the U.S. will still face an uphill battle. As of January 2022, wait times for an asylum hearing averaged five years. We must continue to advocate for fair and humane asylum policies, as well as sufficient staffing, resources, and coordination with organizations working with asylum seekers on both sides of the border. These efforts will ensure due process and the equitable treatment of all people seeking protection.
It’s hard to apply for asylum. This clinic makes it easier for many seeking protection | Charlotte Observer
When Erika Salamanca journeyed to the United States, she brought her daughter on her hip with hope for more opportunities for her child. Desperate to escape gang violence, Salamanca fled El Salvador to the United States seeking asylum. She traveled through Guatemala and Mexico last winter to find safety for her family.
“I just wanted my daughter to have a better future here,” Salamanca, 26, said.
But with a one-year deadline to file for asylum after arriving, navigating complicated forms — especially in a language different from one’s native tongue — is difficult. The process can be discouraging. Some immigrants, likely so focused on surviving, are unaware they need to apply.
Recognizing that, the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy offers a one-day asylum clinic for immigrants and pairs them with lawyers to file their applications, which would increase their chance of success in gaining asylum.
Salamanca was one of 30 participants Friday who came to the center’s East Charlotte office for assistance.
CCLA is the only nonprofit offering this type of pro-se clinic in North Carolina and South Carolina. This was the third clinic held this year by CCLA.
With federal courts jostling over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, its future hangs in limbo — affecting thousands of recipients in Charlotte and across North Carolina.
Recent activity pulled the Obama administration policy back in the headlines — judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who ruled against DACA earlier in October, said it needed more review. That decision sent it back to a lower court judge, who now ruled the program can remain temporarily, with limitations, as he reviews Biden administration revisions made in August.
For Marisela Ceniceros, a Charlotte mother of two DACA recipients, a new worry is now front and center — how a potential reversal could affect families like hers.
“Right now because it’s on hold there’s no way to determine if or when DACA will end,” Ruth Santana, an immigration attorney with Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, said. “That uncertainty for immigrants is very unsettling to say the least.”
Protecting Dreamers: Response to Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Remand of DACA Litigation
On October 5, 2022, a federal appeals court found the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, known as DACA, in violation of U.S. immigration law. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that the program was illegal and remanded the case back to the lower court. The lower court will now consider the Department of Homeland Security’s policy to codify DACA.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy calls on Congress to take action to provide permanent protection for “Dreamers”, those immigrants brought to the United States as children. Since its inception as a temporary measure in 2012, the legal uncertainty surrounding DACA has left “Dreamers” to live in limbo with precarious immigration status. The fate of the policy should be taken out of the court system and a clear path to citizenship must be created.
As Sharon Dove, Immigrant Justice Program Director shared:
“One thing we hear ‘Dreamers’ tell us is that they can’t take anything for granted. They can’t get attached. Their lives here are not permanent. And that’s just a terrible way that we make them live.”
This new court ruling will leave the current injunction in place, allowing those currently enrolled in the DACA program to renew their status. However, new DACA applications will not be approved. Those impacted by this decision are encouraged to contact their immigration lawyer for assistance.
If you believe “Dreamers” deserve a clear path to citizenship, urge your members of Congress to act to develop permanent protections for immigrant youth: