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On Immigration: To Help Immigrants, Targeted Response Is Key

By Michael Lukens

January 25, 2018

To chants of “Build that wall,” President Donald Trump thrust immigration policies to the forefront of a very heated national debate. Should we protect our borders more aggressively? How do we walk the line between compassionate policy and needed reform?

One year into the administration, D.C. Bar members and immigration law experts will examine the issues from both sides of the aisle in a new column, “On Immigration,” running every other month.

Below, Michael Lukens, pro bono director of the CAIR Coalition, reflects on his organization’s work a year after Trump’s first travel ban was issued.


Michael Lukens, pro bono director of CAIR CoalitionA year has passed since the Trump administration issued its first travel ban. During those long days at the airport, working together with volunteers and other advocates, we at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition had little time to reflect on the year to come. Now that we have a moment to reflect on what we have seen so far from this administration, the question I arrive at as the most important is this: Have we grown numb to the repeated attacks against immigrant communities by our government?

When the first travel ban was issued on January 27, 2017, people across the nation stood together and loudly denounced the measure as un-American and an affront to the rule of law. Lawyers rushed to help the affected individuals and to file suit against the ban, and protesters made their voices heard. So great was the frenetic energy the ban engendered that advocates secretly wondered whether the support would burn out.

In addition to the travel bans, of which we are now on version three, it is helpful to think back on all we have seen this year from the Trump administration. First, the same slate of executive orders that gave us the travel ban also gave us other insidious new policies. From a renewed program to deputize local law enforcement to act as federal immigration officials to the redefinition of government priorities as to which immigrants to arrest and deport to include anyone who has ben charged (not convicted) of a crime, these new policies envisioned a system designed to deport as many immigrants as possible.

Then, the government set its sights on individuals who were brought to the United States as children by their parents. By revoking the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Trump administration went back on the government’s promise and put a generation of immigrants at risk of deportation to an unknown land.

Less publicly trumpeted, the Trump administration also took steps to separate and detain families that arrived in the country together, made it easier to deport people without access to an immigration judge, vilified immigrants at every turn, and amped up raids and other efforts to instill fear in immigrant communities.

Finally, just a few weeks ago, the government revoked Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who have been in the country for decades.

This is, sadly, just the beginning, and with each new challenge the breadth and depth of the public’s response seems to fade.

So, have we grown numb? Have we normalized this anti-immigrant behavior?

I do not believe so. We will never accept as normal this type of targeted attack under the guise of the law. But we have learned to temper our initial reaction to ensure a more targeted response to each new outrageous attack . We do not rally en masse at every new anti-immigrant policy, and we do not rush headfirst, full of fire and fury, at every new challenge. The past year has taught the advocacy community that we must be strategic in our responses, and that we must use our resources intelligently and collaboratively. To do anything else would lead to burnout.

In the Washington, D.C., area, examples of tactical responses abound. With each new legal maneuver by the government to arrest, detain, and deport more people, advocates and lawyers have filed lawsuits challenging the move. Each challenge is supported by advocacy groups around the country through advice, data sharing, and amicus briefing.

For example, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that he would be issuing an opinion on whether immigration judges may continue to administratively close cases. The call for amicus briefing went out to the advocacy community, and collaborations between nonprofits and law firms sprung up instantly to answer the call.

So far, this team effort litigation approach has been mostly successful in holding at bay the most insidious of the attempted legal maneuvers. Simultaneous with the legal challenges, the lobbying arms of national and local organizations are banging on the doors of Congress, demanding legislative action.

The fight, though, is not just in the courts or the halls of Congress. It is also in communities and with individual clients. Around the country and in the capital region, legal and advocacy groups that work with immigrant communities are collaborating in new and strategic ways. We have formed a kinship that sets aside territorialism to ensure that immigrants and their families are protected. All of us recognize that we must work together to avoid duplication of effort and to put together the strongest possible response to government action.

A prime example is the DMV Immigration Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits, law schools, law firms, and advocates working together to assist immigrants in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia under threat of deportation. Come to a DMV Immigration Alliance or D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Immigration Clinic, and you will find attorneys and advocates from multiple organizations and firms working together to screen and advise immigrants of their rights.

Organizations are also creating new programs and initiatives to tackle the growing need. In October, CAIR Coalition launched the Immigration Impact Lab. Through impact litigation in federal district and circuit courts, the Lab aims to change the law for the better for immigrants throughout the mid-Atlantic region. In the short time it has been running, Lab attorneys have argued at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on whether Maryland theft is a deportable offense, and co-counseled a federal class action in North Carolina to protect the rights of immigrants to bond hearings.

All of these responses to the Trump administration’s targeting of immigrants show that we have not become numb. We are diligent and smart in our responses so that we can keep fighting. We may have many years of fighting ahead of us, but we must keep up hope that we can make a difference.


“On Immigration” is a forum for D.C. Bar members to address immigration issues important to them and that would be of interest to others. The opinions expressed are the author’s own. If you are interested in writing a column, contact Thai Phi Le, associate director of digital content, at tle@dcbar.org.