Despite America’s history as a country founded and built by immigrants, we’ve long had a complicated relationship with newcomers trying to make a home here. In 2016 this cognitive dissonance took center stage as Donald Trump won the presidency on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, and it’s led to rapid-fire changes in U.S. immigration policy.
In an effort to gain a better understanding of how such changes are affecting those on the path to citizenship, we reached out to two immigration law firms here in Pasadena, Lum Law Group and Fong and Aquino.
Justin Lum and his father, Albert, run Lum Law Group. The elder Lum got his start in the field in the 1960s helping restaurant owners in Chinatown bring chefs to the U.S. to work in their kitchens. His son followed in his footsteps and they opened their practice in 2011. When Trump was sworn into office, the firm waited cautiously to see what the new administration would do. It didn’t take long before the president began pushing policies aimed at fulfilling his campaign promise to stymie immigration.
In previous years, when United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rejected an application, the notice was sent citing reasons for the rejection, per government mandate. When Trump removed this mandate, rejections skyrocketed, arriving without explanation as to why the applicant was declined. In cases where more information was needed for approval, the firm was given no indication as to what was missing.
“In the end, if an officer is not required to tell you what you’re missing, they can just deny it,” Lum says. “So it all comes down to how transparent the administration will be. Okay, you’ve denied it, but can you tell me why? And if they’re not required to, then it becomes a situation of how will you ever know if they denied it for valid reasons or not? Because they don’t really have to tell you.”
Lum and his team have been forced to comb through every rejected application trying to work out the reason it was kicked back. Oftentimes they find that the culprit was a minor error that in past years would have been noted but still passed through.
In August 2017, Trump threw another wrench into the system, announcing that all green card applicants would now need to appear for an in-person interview. Under previous administrations, interview requirements were waived for low-risk candidates, usually skilled workers with employers petitioning on their behalf. These exceptions made sense, considering the limited resources at the USCIS’ disposal and its ability to evaluate a candidate’s risk likelihood without an in-person meeting.
Predictably, wait times for green card interviews have increased dramatically, well past the customary six months. Some applicants wait for more than a year before being granted an appointment with a USCIS officer.
Even the paperwork is being overhauled to be more demanding and labor intensive. The application to register for permanent residence, for instance, once eight pages long, has more than doubled to 18.
Romben Aquino of Fong and Aquino has been working in immigration since his early career in New York. Like many immigration lawyers, he is seeing firsthand the human impact of Trump’s policies. Many of the firm’s clients are still in their home country, trying to navigate a path to citizenship from there; others are already here, building a life in America, and fighting through the byzantine immigration system is becoming increasingly difficult as the threat of deportation looms large over their heads.
“I think for that particular group of folks, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety,” Aquino says. “Because the former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director, Thomas Homan, was on record in several interviews [saying] ‘If you’re in this country without permission or you’re here illegally, you should be looking over your shoulder. We’re coming after you.’ He made it very clear that that was the administration’s priority.”
Under past administrations, ICE’s priority was directed at those who had committed crimes or were otherwise a threat to society. Those who were here undocumented but obeying the law and staying out of trouble were mostly left undisturbed. This changed quickly under Trump, but many press on, and seeing them succeed is what makes immigration law rewarding for Aquino.
“It’s not a particularly lucrative field, but that smile and hug you get at the end of a case from a very appreciative client who, prior to the decision being made, lived in fear and they were constantly worried about immigration showing up at 5 in the morning to cart off their father or mother or sister or brother is amazing. When the government grants lawful permanent residence, that fear suddenly disappears—nothing is like that huge smile.”
The administration continues to claim that the more stringent approach is necessary to protect us from violent criminals set on crossing our borders, although study after study consistently shows that immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than native-born citizens. There’s also the argument that keeping immigrants out reduces the financial drain on our system. But according to reports from the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants pay somewhere north of $11 billion in state and local taxes every year and about half file federal taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number in lieu of a Social Security Number. And yet despite their contributions, they aren’t eligible for a vast majority of taxpayer-funded welfare programs.
It is unlikely that we have seen the end of the current administration’s anti-immigration policies. There are sure to be more. But between the president’s tweets and the talking heads on cable news, it’s important to remember that all those numbers and statistics have a very human face behind them.