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CAIR Expands Work Fighting for Immigrants’ Rights

By Debra Bruno

January 12, 2018

David Laing and Adina Appelbaum of CAIR Coalition

Advocating for immigrants who have been detained and are about to be deported might be one of the more difficult jobs in these fraught times. But the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, known as the CAIR Coalition, has now stepped up its work for immigrants who need legal help.

This fall, CAIR rolled out the Immigration Impact Lab, a two-attorney program that zeroes in on appellate litigation. The appeals cases, many of which are argued in front of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, have been handled by CAIR in the past, but always on an ad hoc basis, says senior attorney Adina Appelbaum.

Now CAIR wants to expand its impact, says Appelbaum. Much of the litigation comes as a result of the 1996 federal law that created a category called “crim imm” – or the law that overlaps immigration law with criminal law, says Appelbaum. In fact, that is the main reason immigrants (both those here legally and illegally) are deported.

They might get charged with some kind of minor misdemeanor, including shoplifting or refusing to roll down a car window when stopped by the police (which, in Virginia, could be termed obstruction of justice), and that attracts the attention of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Then, says Appelbaum, even if immigrants are found innocent of the misdemeanor charges, they are on the radar of ICE and can be deported. One recent case involved a young man who had used an outdoor outlet to charge something outside someone’s house, which in Maryland was considered theft.

Even before the lab was formed, CAIR has had success with a few Fourth Circuit cases, including one that recognized that a mental health disability is a basis for asylum protection, and one that found that involuntary manslaughter is not a crime involving “moral turpitude” and thus not a basis for deportation.

Since it was formed as a nonprofit in 1999, CAIR has offered legal services to immigrants who have been detained and can’t afford legal counsel, says Appelbaum. Immigrant detention is considered a civil case and not criminal, which means there is no automatic right to counsel. “Most of the people who are detained are actually in county jails with criminal defendants,” Appelbaum adds. “It looks, smells, and feels like a jail.”

Now the Immigration Impact Lab will more formally take on cases like the recent one of a woman from Mexico, who had been in the U.S. for many years and who had five children born in this country. The woman was convicted of stealing some baby clothes for her child, says Appelbaum. That is considered a crime of moral turpitude, and she was deported.

Without that charge, says Appelbaum, “she would have been eligible for a defense, allowed to stay with her children, and would have gotten a work permit and . . . a green card.”

The Immigration Impact Lab also works on habeas petitions in district court, arguing that the prolonged detention, sometimes for years, of immigrants picked up for illegal entry is unconstitutional. One habeas case, involving detained immigrants facing deportation who are waiting for their case to be reviewed by a judge, was considered in October by the U.S. Supreme Court. The question before the Court was whether those detained could be released on bond as they wait for that hearing. (A lower court had mandated a six-month deadline for a bond hearing.)

David Laing, the second attorney hired for the Immigration Impact Lab, will handle litigation in both federal court and the Board of Immigration Appeals. While his years of both private practice and government work at the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission had involved antitrust litigation, he has done pro bono work on immigration for nearly 20 years, he says.

With the change in administration, “I decided it was time to take a stand and do something that was directly related to my pro bono interests,” he says.

Why immigration law? “I’ve never seen a client population that I’ve admired more,” Laing says. “Many immigrants are small entrepreneurs who are just trying to find some better life for themselves.” He notes that he’s never seen a population with “greater need and fewer assets.”

When immigrants are detained until their case is resolved, “people will often spend more time in immigration detention than they otherwise would for the offense,” Laing says.

The Immigration Impact Lab expects to work with other immigration agencies such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Immigration Council, and the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition, the lab will be seeking pro bono help from law firms in the area, including Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, Wiley Rein, Mayer Brown, Hogan Lovels, and Perkins Coie, that have already been involved in CAIR’s Crim-Imm Pro Bono Project.