Anxiety stress and resilience seep across desks at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, troubling immigration attorneys and their clients alike. But at the same time, the strength of their clients’ human spirits inspires the attorneys to continue.
For an undocumented immigrant, the fear can start by just asking for help, but for some the fear stems more immediately from the Trump Administration’s recently proposed changes to the “public charge” rule. A “public charge” is an individual who is deemed likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.
The proposed changes could deny a visa or green card to immigrants, if they utilize certain—but not all—federally funded healthcare, nutrition, and other basic needs programs. The confusion arises over which benefits are affected—and whether an immigrant family should accept those benefits.
“The actual impact is narrow, but the chilling effect is broad,” says Hope Nakamura, a Legal Aid attorney specializing in government benefits. “It only affects the individual immigrant’s use of benefits, not a family member’s.”
Jonathan Garcia, an immigration attorney at Legal Aid, says the proposed changes have already confused clients. “Usually on benefits, the question is ‘Should my kids get off benefits?’ even though they are U.S. citizens and entitled to them.”
San Mateo County social service agencies report immigrant families dropping off free school lunch programs or CalFresh (food stamps) out of the unwarranted fear that even a citizen child’s use of a public benefit could jeopardize the immigration status of a non-citizen parent. So, the chilling effect spreads broadly, even among those not technically affected by the proposed changes, which won’t take effect until at least February 2019 and might not become effective at all if the Trump Administration is persuaded to abandon efforts to change the rule.
“Public charge has always been convoluted,” says Dana R. Peters, a Legal Aid immigration attorney who was a social worker for 15 years before her legal career. “Now the Administration is trying to make it harder for people.”
Garcia adds: “With the current Administration’s added pressure, people want a simple yes/no answer.” That puts more pressure on immigration attorneys because the changing rules require more legal analysis of uncertain and potentially shifting circumstances.
How do lawyers advise immigrant clients who are using soon-to-be-targeted benefits? A safe answer would be simply to avoid all government benefits, but for an impoverished family—Legal Aid clients’ median income is $20,220—giving up benefits can significantly dent their ability to cover basic living expenses.
The crossover between immigration law and public benefits requires immigration attorneys to learn a considerable amount about government benefits, which otherwise might be an only distantly related field.
The focus turns back on attorneys in other ways. Recently, Peters says, more clients ask their attorneys who they voted for. She considers it a proxy question for, “Do you trust this Administration on a personal level?”
The spreading fear in immigrant communities affects immigration cases in other ways. Applicants for U visas (for crime victims) are asked to get personal support letters from witnesses or friends to testify to their good character. But if their friends are undocumented immigrants themselves, they may be too scared to write a letter.
The stakes are high for clients and attorneys alike. “If you lose the legal case, the client may go into deportation,” Garcia says. The new uncertainty around public benefits creates greater risk. “Before, if you were denied an immigration benefit, you were not put in an active deportation case. Today, you get a notice to appear [at Immigration] and you must fight your case or get deported.”
Working constantly with clients prone to deportation weighs on Peters and Garcia, but they practice self-care. For Garcia, that may mean skipping the TV news when he goes home. Instead he unwinds in the great outdoors, in the gym working out, or escaping through a movie. “I like to visit my family in Southern California,” he adds. “With them, I’m just me, not the attorney with all the answers.”
Peters makes Sundays her no-car days “to take a break from the rat race.” Ask her what work she does for a living and she’ll answer, “I don’t work for a living; I live for a living.”
For Peters, a jujitsu practitioner of 3.5 years, the sport serves as another escape. “That’s the one place I can’t think about anything but what I do in the moment,” because immigration or clients or the office distract her from the opponent.
“Besides, if you choke someone out, that feels really good,” she says, referring to the act of a jujitsu opponent capitulating.
Despite the stress and fear, the attorneys find inspiration from their clients.
“The clients are very resilient,” says Garcia. “They’ve been here for 20, 30 years and they’re glad you’ve answered their questions. They’re going to find a way to stay here.” He described an undocumented client who goes to work daily under a cloud of expulsion. “I told her, ‘You are brave and strong, to go and live your life under the constant threat of deportation.’ She teared up and said thank you.”
“I’m in awe of our clients,” adds Peters. “They are much more resilient than the rest of us.” She mentions the emotional episode of taking a declaration, which involves the client telling the full story, often tearfully, of why he or she is applying for legal relief. Interviews generally end with gratitude and thank-yous.
“It recharges you because it seems like you make a difference,” Peters says.