I met Juliette Gomez through a friend recently, and she graciously accepted my request for an interview about her work with the undocumented. In the interest of understanding more about the obstacles to becoming a legal resident of this country, and what our migrant brothers and sisters are suffering, here are her answers unabridged.
First of all, introduce yourself– how long have you been an immigration attorney, and what drew you to this kind of work?
I’ve been an attorney since 2011, so going on six years, and I’ve been practicing immigration law the entire time. I used to live in Durham, North Carolina, where I became very close with many folks in the Mexican immigrant community. They were my friends, my neighbors, my mentors and my co-workers. Just through being in community with so many Mexican immigrants, I saw the struggles and problems they faced first hand. Later, for other reasons, I decided to apply to law school. I enrolled at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. Influenced by my immigrant friends in Durham and elsewhere, I was drawn to the field of immigration law. (I am also a second-generation American; my father immigrated to the United States from Colombia at age 14.) I wanted to help people who were at risk of being deported; I wanted to bring stability to families who were already American in spirit, even if not in law.
For those who say that nothing has changed and Obama deported plenty of immigrants too– how have things really changed under the current president?
This is a good question. I am one of those people who is quick to remind Trump critics that he is only continuing a policy that was put into place by Obama. As some of my colleagues have said, Obama greased the wheels for Trump. That said, there are some real differences between immigration enforcement under Trump vs. Obama. The number one difference is the fear factor. Obama’s rhetoric was designed to minimize fear and to reassure and encourage undocumented immigrants who had clean records to “come out of the shadows” so to speak. Yes, he deported more people than his predecessors; he worked principally through the criminal system — people who passed through jails were then handed over to ICE for initiation of removal proceedings en masse. He also made it a policy to detain women and children at the border to “send a message” to undocumented immigrants from Central America that they were not welcome here.
Trump’s rhetoric on the other hand is designed to stoke fear, and to warn undocumented immigrants that they are not wanted here and will be taken into custody if they are encountered. He has expanded the list of ICE priorities to basically include everyone, whereas Obama had a much more targeted list. So it’s kind of a “anyone’s fair game” type of system. While in day-to-day practice, things often continue the same way, the Trump administration has generated publicity around some high profile deportations of people who would never have been deported under Obama, in order to send this message of anyone being fair game — deporting a woman in Austin, TX with several small children (all US citizens) who had been here for decades; arresting and detaining a DACA kid with no criminal record; following and arresting a “Dreamer” activist moments after she spoke publicly at a pro-immigrant’s rights rally.
In other words (sorry, I’m wordy) Trump’s administration is trying to send a message that undocumented immigrants better toe the line or else they are getting the boot. Anything, ANYTHING, they do can and will be used against them. Whereas, Obama’s administration was more flexible and was more willing to negotiate for humanitarian reasons.
What crimes have your clients committed? Are they violent or otherwise a danger to United States citizens?
My clients run the gamit, just the same as any other cross-section of the population. The only thing my clients have in common is that they are not United States citizens or (in most cases) lawful permanent residents. Some entered illegally (crossing the desert or hiding in a car, for example). Some came legally but were supposed to leave a long time ago (tourists or students overstaying their visas for example). Some are here legally now, but seeking a more permanent status. Some are not in status but are nonetheless considered to be here “under color of law” — for example, people who came here without a visa seeking asylum and who were let in to pursue their case, even though they aren’t entitled to be here; or young people who were granted deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) under Obama.
Some of my clients have never been arrested or stopped by a police officer or even ticketed. But many have at least been ticketed for driving without a license, or speeding. When you hear a politician talking about criminal aliens or bad hombres, it’s important to know that they are including these people — the ones who were arrested for failing to use a turn signal or for selling flowers on the side of the road without a permit. But of course, yes, some of my clients have been charged with more serious offenses — driving under the influence of alcohol, assault, identity theft (usually for using someone else’s social security number to work), or forgery.
Inevitably, the question of whether an immigrant is a danger to the community is always a case-specific inquiry. What I can say is that even for those who have committed offenses, there is a criminal justice system that exists to handle those offenses. And it is a problem when people — everyday Americans or politicians or law enforcement — confuse immigration law with criminal law. Because they are absolutely two different things. For example, I had a client who was charged with a crime in which someone died. My client pled guilty and was sentenced to a prison sentence of several years. But instead of allowing my client to serve his prison sentence, the prosecutor’s office arranged for my client to be handed over to immigration and deported. Imagine how the family of the person whose loved one died felt? What about my client? He was deprived of the opportunity to pay his debt to society. Some people, under circumstances like that, just come right back into the US. My client happens to be eligible for an immigration benefit that may allow him to one day, eventually, return and serve his sentence and resume his role in society as a legal immigrant. He is not here today, but knows that were he ever given the opportunity to return his first order of business would have to be to serve his time.
Meanwhile, most of the victims of immigrant crimes I see are immigrants. You asked if my clients commit crimes, but you did not ask about whether my clients were helpful to the investigation or prosecution of a criminal. The answer is that yes, many of my clients were victims of domestic violence, rape, armed robbery, gun violence, attempted murder and are the surviving family members of murdered immigrants. They often reach out to the police or prosecutor’s office; they want to see justice for themselves and their loved ones. They want to prevent a crime from taking place in the future. They want to make their communities safer. And by conflating criminal law with immigration law, we treat them as the criminals and make it harder for our fellow community members without legal status to come forward when they are victimized and have the opportunity to contribute something important to the safety of us all.