The Temple Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild commenced its Week Against Mass Incarceration with a discussion on the intersection of criminal justice and immigration. The panel was held the same day the United States Supreme Court refused to lift the stay on the Trump Administration’s repeal of  DACA. Unsurprisingly, the discussion focused heavily on the changing landscape of immigration law.  Included on the panel were Temple Law Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales, immigration law specialist Peter Thompson, Esq., Lewis Rosman, who is a senior legislation attorney at the City of Philadelphia  and Erika Almiron, who is the Executive Director of the Latinx immigrant rights organization Juntos.

Professor Ramji-Nogales began by expressing her concerns about the status of immigration courts as administrative agencies within the DOJ. Due to this structure, they lack independence from the Attorney General and are exposed to a substantial amount of  political influence. Mr. Thompson shared similar concerns about the state of immigration courts, but noted that Philadelphia is fortunate to have immigration judges who “exert their independence.” Nevertheless, he observed that while regular courts have skilled defenders, an independent judiciary and “at least the idea of justice,” immigration courts have no standard rules of evidence, inefficient interpreters, and often, inexperienced trial counsel.

The panelists noted that the already limited rights of non-citizens are decreasing under the current administration, both in and out of the courts. Director Almiron explained that there “used to be a spectrum” of  triggers for determining which undocumented citizens could remain in the country after an offense, but now both violent and non-violent crimes are cause for detainment and deportation. In light of this, Juntos has begun advising non-citizens against walking with identification and opening their doors for ICE officers, whether they have a warrant or not. These are just a few of ICE’s many methods to get non-citizens to incriminate themselves and essentially “sign their own deportation orders.” Juntos is implementing a training session to help non-citizens understand their rights in the event of raids and detentions, which have risen 40% despite Philadelphia being considered a sanctuary city.

Mr. Rosman went on to highlight Philadelphia’s policy of preventing law enforcement from asking about immigration status. The goal of this policy is to make non-citizens more willing to fully participate in community life: “If people are afraid that we’re going to be participating in the immigration system, that’s a detriment.” However, this confidentiality policy puts Philadelphia and other sanctuary cities at risk of losing important federal funding. In fact, he said, the City of Philadelphia prefers not to use the term ‘sanctuary city’ at all. It has become a “catch-all phrase” that leaves cities vulnerable to this kind of government discrimination.

Immigrants have also been rendered even more vulnerable, the panelists agreed, by the apparent shift in tone from agencies like the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which recently deleted the phrase, “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. The bottom line for all was that immigration law has become a shifting terrain for non-citizens at a time when uncertainty and fear could lead to very real harm. ~ by Staff Writer Amy Dean