IJC: April 2018 Newsletter

IJC: April 2018 Newsletter

Where Are They Now: IJC Fellow Alumnus Feature – Miriam D. Lacroix

Since inception, Immigrant Justice Corps has trained a cadre of 140 committed immigration advocates and lawyers.  Upon graduation, 96% of IJC’s trained lawyers remain in the immigration legal services field.  In our ‘Where Are They Now’ feature, we chat with an IJC Alumnus about life after the IJC Fellowship, and their on-going work and commitment to immigrant access to justice.

 

MIRIAM LACROIX

 

Fellowship: Justice Fellow

 

Class: Inaugural class of 2014

 

Law School: Pace University

 

Post Fellowship Employment: Private Immigration Practitioner and Small Business Owner

 

 

Miriam Lacroix’s passion for public interest and human rights work began at a young age and continued through college and law school. As the daughter of a Haitian immigrant, Miriam’s commitment to the immigrant community stems from her father’s experience with the U.S. immigration system. It is because of this personal experience and understanding that she has dedicated her career to providing compassionate, high-quality legal services to immigrants.

 

During her third year of law school, Miriam applied and was selected as a member of IJC’s 2014 inaugural class of Justice Fellows.  As a Justice Fellow she worked at the City Bar Justice Center in New York City , for two years.  She provided high-quality, pro bono legal assistance including: naturalization, deportation defense, and affirmative applications for juveniles and victims of crime, domestic violence, and human trafficking.

 

Upon graduation from the Fellowship program, Miriam joined her Pace Law School classmate Stephanie Lynn Ramos in a law practice, Lacroix Ramos Attorneys at Law, LLP – located in White Plains, New York.  They provide a myriad of immigration services including family immigration, deportation defense, affirmative applications for asylum seekers, humanitarian visas for migrant children, and victims of crime and domestic violence.  This year, Lacroix Ramos LLP, was featured in Westchester Magazine’s 5th Annual Small Business Awards as an Outstanding Minority Owned Small Business.

 

Can you share your father’s experience with the U.S. Immigration System and the impact it had on you and your family?  How did his experience cultivate your commitment to serving immigrant communities?

 

My father was born and raised in Haiti and entered the U.S. in the 1980s.  When he met my mother, he was undocumented and unsure about how to move forward with staying in the country lawfully.  He told me that it was really hard for him to find an experienced immigration attorney that he trusted.  He basically went through the process alone, completing his own paperwork. My dad had to return to Haiti for his consular interview when I was just two weeks old, so my mother decided to take me with them to the interview. To this day, my mother truly believes that my father was approved because she was there with me, a newborn baby.  Our presence showed that my Dad had U.S. citizen family members who needed his support.  This is one story that has led to my commitment to serving immigrant communities and keeping families together.  I cannot imagine my life without my dad if the consular officer had denied his visa.

 

How did you hear about Immigrant Justice Corps?  What motivated you to apply (i.e. why a Fellowship program)?

 

My law school professor sent me the flyer and insisted that I apply.  I was worried because I was sure it was super competitive.  I knew that there were so many other students, particularly from Ivy League schools, who were qualified.  However, after my interview, I quickly learned that the law school you attended was not the most crucial factor.  IJC wanted to see your passion for the work and interest in continuing a career in immigration.  It was the perfect job for me.  I always intended to start my own practice.  The fellowship allowed me to work and obtain two years of experience before I went out on my own.  A fellowship program just made so much sense for me.  If I had accepted a job at a firm or non-profit organization, they would have expected me to stay on the job much longer, delaying my ability to start my practice.

 

What is your most memorable moment/experience from your time as an IJC Justice Fellow?

 

During my first week as an IJC fellow, we had the honor of meeting Justice Sotomayor.  It was at that moment that I realized what a big deal our program was.  As a fellow, I was given the opportunity to introduce myself to Justice Sotomayor and take photos with her.  This was my most memorable moment.

 

After you finished your two-year Fellowship at IJC, you opened a law practice. Did you always know you wanted to go into private practice?

 

Yes! My law school friend, Stephanie Ramos, and I decided in our third year at Pace Law School that we would start our own practice.  She and I were the first students to do a “semester in practice” and worked side-by-side as student attorneys the entire semester.  We saw so many people come to us after being taken advantage of by immigration lawyers in private practice.  We decided that we wanted to change the way people thought about the private bar. We wanted to serve the immigrants in Westchester County and combat immigration  fraud. 

 

How did you prepare yourself to open your own practice?

 

We had no idea how to prepare other than reading books on how to start a law practice.  There was so much that we had no clue we needed to know.  We had no idea how to charge fees or how much to charge, so there was a lot of trial and error in the beginning.  We are 2.5 years in and just now finally figuring things out. It’s definitely a process!

 

Having worked in the non-profit sector and now in private practice, how is the work different?

 

I would say that being in private practice allows me to take on the types of cases that I really want and interest me, like ‘extraordinary ability’ visas or other employment-based visas.  The biggest difference now is that I can only take on matters where the client is able to pay.  This was hard for me at first because I see so many people that need representation, but just cannot afford our help.  Unfortunately, non-profits are bogged down with work and cannot take on some of these cases as well.  It’s heart-breaking to have to turn someone down because I have to now think like a business owner.  However, I’ve learned that I cannot help anyone adequately unless I am being paid what my work is worth.

 

In your opinion, what are the benefits and challenges of having your own practice?

 

Of course, the biggest benefit is that I am working for myself.  I can make my own schedule and make the decisions about what cases I will and will not take.  I find the biggest challenge to be the fact that I am responsible for my own salary.  My income is not consistent or guaranteed, but my business is still young.  What keeps me going is knowing that I expected to hustle for a few years while my business grows and that I have faith that if I continue to do things right, I will reap the benefits soon enough!  This challenge shouldn’t discourage those who want to hang their own shingle.  There are many things you can do to supplement your income as you grow your practice (i.e. contract work).

 

What advice would you give to a young lawyer looking to open a law practice?  What do you wish you would have known?

 

I think the first piece of advice I would share with a young attorney looking to start their own practice is to know your worth.  My business partner and I started our practice when we were still brand new attorneys.  We were, and still are, very passionate about this work.  We want to see immigrants get quality legal services and sometimes we did it at our own expense.  We very quickly learned that undercharging just so that we could help more people actually hurt ourselves and our clients.  We ran out of money to submit motions by mail and to travel to court.  We were both trained by people and organizations considered to be experts in the field and it shows in our work product.  Not knowing our worth not only affected us, but also our clients.  We cannot adequately represent them unless we have the resources to do so.

 

How did your Fellowship with IJC help prepare you to open your own practice?

 

Opening your own law firm is hard enough without also having to learn how to do the legal work.  Having two years of training and experience from IJC under my belt made this process a lot easier.  When I started my firm, I was able to start taking cases as soon as I had malpractice insurance and a bank account. Because we knew how to do the legal work, we had time to focus on learning how to start a business and other key areas like marketing. Basically, we were able to quickly take cases and start saving money for a business computer, supplies and office space.

 

In your opinion, is there a need for more private practitioners that offer immigration services?  If so, how can the legal community (IJC/law schools/non-profits) interest more young lawyers to start their own practices to provide high quality immigration services?  What on-going support (if any) is needed?

 

There is definitely a need for more private attorneys.  Some people do not qualify for free legal services because their income is too high or they have very low income, but non-profits are too overwhelmed to take them on.  These people need another option.  This need is particularly strong in Westchester and Rockland Counties, where immigrant legal services are hard to find.  I think the legal community can interest more young lawyers to start their own practice by incentivizing them.  Honestly, most people are afraid of the possibility of failing or not having enough money.  I think they would feel more comfortable and secure if there was some support for them- loans, access to resources, computers and printers (even if used), and a mentor who has been through it all and understands the challenges.

 

Immigrant Justice Corps is in the planning process of launching a low bono legal practice that will offer high-quality legal services, with nominal fees, to immigrants who are ineligible for pro-bono services because of income restrictions and cannot afford a private attorney.  The goal of the practice is to help meet the demand for quality representation in underserved locations; but also, to train a cadre of committed young attorneys and legal representatives how to run their own high-quality private practice and help them transition into starting their own firms.  How would the Low Bono Practice have helped you launch your own firm?

 

I think it would have helped me learn the ins and outs of owning and running a business, for example what systems need to be created for the business to run smoothly, what to do if there is a cash-crunch month and we need to bring in more cases to cover overhead, etc.  In addition, access to a supervisor and mentor when I was not quite sure how to move forward with a case would have been very valuable.  I still need this at times and depend on the IJC listserv a lot when I have questions.

 

As an IJC Alumni, how do you stay involved with the program?

 

I like to attend events that alumni are invited to.  I also post questions on the listserv and interact with IJC staff, who are very helpful with my questions.

 

Why do you think it’s important for IJC to exist?

 

IJC’s existence is important because the program has trained more than a hundred lawyers and non-lawyers in immigration law. The majority of graduated Fellows have decided to stay in the field of immigration.  In today’s enforcement climate, experts in removal defense are desperately needed and IJC has in its alumni some of the most knowledgeable young attorneys in the country. We are all prepared to fight the good fight!

 

What are your passions outside of work?

 

Outside of work, I am passionate about music. I don’t do it as much anymore, but I enjoy singing at open mics and learning to play songs I enjoy on the piano. Once I have the time, I will definitely get back to singing!

 

A Day in the Life

To highlight the depth, breadth, and significance of the legal services IJC Fellows provide to low-income immigrants, we bring you our ‘Day in the Life’ feature where we spend a full day with an IJC Fellow and document their schedule.  While no two days are alike, “A Day in the Life” highlights a portion of the indispensable services IJC Fellows provide to their clients in just one day.  This month we spent the day with IJC Community Fellow Shuping Deng.

Immigrant Justice Corps’ (IJC) Community Fellows (CFs) are recent college graduates who play an indispensable role in increasing access to justice and are a significant part of IJC’s community.  Community Fellows are a diverse group of talented and passionate individuals from all walks of life—many have a direct connection to immigrant communities as immigrants, or the children of immigrants.  All our Community Fellows speak a second language and some speak two or three languages fluently.  The diversity and abilities of IJC’s Community Fellows are integral to the services they provide.  Frequently, when immigrants seek legal help, they first look within their own communities for a representative they can trust – someone who can understand their culture, language, and experience.  Our Community Fellows meet these needs every day by offering high quality legal services within New York’s immigrant communities and speaking a language their clients understand.

 

CFs conduct outreach, screening for various forms of benefits and provide assistance with completing benefit applications for low-income immigrants.  In a little over three years, CFs have filed more than 6,000 benefit applications with a 94% success rate.  CFs have also saved low-income clients nearly $2 million dollars by requesting fee waivers.

 

Meet IJC Community Fellow Shuping Deng

 

As a second year Community Fellow, Shuping brings a unique perspective to her work as she is familiar with the challenges her non-native English-speaking clients from China and Taiwan face navigating the U.S. immigration system.  When Shuping was four years old, her family immigrated to the U.S.  At an early age, she observed her parents frustration with the language barriers they faced as non-native English speakers.  Wanting to help her parents navigate these challenges, Shuping started learning Mandarin.  To further improve her Mandarin proficiency, she studied at Beijing Language and Culture University and was awarded a Critical Language Scholarship through the U.S. Department of State to continue her pursuit to learn Mandarin. 

 

As a Community Fellow at the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), Shuping works with vulnerable Mandarin and Cantonese speaking low-income immigrant community members in Brooklyn and Queens.  As a partially accredited Department of Justice Representative, Shuping helps her clients with Naturalization, Citizenship, Adjustment of Status, Employment Authorization, Renewal of Green Cards, and Removal of Conditions applications.  She speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese.

 

A Day in the Life of CF Shuping Deng

 

9:00 AM            Arrive at Chinese Planning Council’s Office in Queens

 

Shuping assists clients at CPC’s Brooklyn office on Mondays and Fridays, and at CPC’s Queens office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On Thursday’s Shuping works from IJC’s office in Lower Manhattan.

 

9:15 AM            Set up for the day

 

Shuping has a busy day of meeting clients ahead of her.  Before her first client appointment, she returns clients phone calls, answers text messages and emails from clients and colleagues, and follows up with clients who need to drop off documents.

 

10:00 AM          Meet with clients

 

Shuping schedules meetings with her clients’ months in advance.  The amount of time she needs to spend with each client depends on the complexity of each case – for more complicated cases, like adjustment of status or removal of conditions, client meetings can take up to 2.5 hours.  For more complex cases, Shuping generally needs to meet with her clients a couple of times to gather all the appropriate documents and information before filing immigration related benefits applications.  Today, one of the clients she is meeting with is an elderly couple eager to apply for naturalization and seeking an English language exemption due to a disability that prevents them from learning English or U.S. history and government. At their meeting, Shuping discusses their immigration history and, after identifying gaps in the information, decides to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to confirm that there is nothing in their immigration history that could jeopardize their naturalization application and result in the initiation of removal proceedings.  She plans to schedule a follow up appointment with them to complete and file the FOIA applications.

 

12:15 PM          Return client calls

 

Shuping’s client interviews wrapped up early giving her time to call USCIS to follow up on the status of her clients’ cases, return client calls, and to schedule interviews or follow up meetings.  Scheduling client meetings can be tricky.  Shuping schedules her client appointments herself – because she can’t take calls while she’s interviewing clients, and can’t guarantee that her clients will be available when she returns their calls, sometimes it takes numerous calls on several different days to arrange a single meeting.  Whenever she has an extra minute she tries to return as many client phone calls as possible. 

 

This afternoon, Shuping calls USCIS to follow up on a couple of her cases.  Unfortunately, during her third call, USICS closed the call slots (refusing to take any additional calls) for the day because of the large volume of calls.  As such, she couldn’t check on the status of some of her clients’ cases; she will have to call back tomorrow.

 

12:30 PM         Lunch time!

 

1:00 PM           Follow up with clients

 

After Shuping’s initial interview with her clients, she frequently needs to schedule follow-up meetings to go over details that weren’t clear in the initial interview, obtain additional documentation, or review the application materials with her clients.  This afternoon she is following up with a couple of her clients to make sure they received their fingerprinting/biometrics and/or interview date notifications from USCIS.

 

1:15 PM             Translation of immigration notices

 

As Shuping is making calls, one of her clients arrives at the office with a USCIS fee waiver approval notice. He needs help translating the document.  Many of Shuping’s clients are not fluent in English.  Shuping takes a couple of minutes to translate the letter to her client and asks follow-up questions to ensure that the client understands the contents of the notice.

 

1:30 PM            Meet with co-fellow

 

Shuping works with first year IJC Community Fellow, Christian Wooddell, at CPC.  Shuping and Christian work together to troubleshoot cases, or work on new Cantonese legal vocabulary words to better serve their clients.  Today, Christian asked Shuping to look over an N-684, Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions form (a request for exception to the English and civics testing requirements for naturalization because of physical or developmental disability or mental impairment) prepared by the client’s doctor.  Shuping predicts that there’s a 75% chance that USCIS will approve the waiver.

 

2:00 PM            Meet with client at 26 Federal Plaza for interview with USCIS

 

Shuping often accompanies her clients to interviews at USCIS to monitor the interviews and to safeguard her clients’ rights.  Today, Shuping’s client has a naturalization interview with USCIS.  The client is also seeking a disability waiver of the English and U.S. Civics test requirement.  She is attending the interview today to ensure that there is a translator present, as the client doesn’t speak fluent English, and that the immigration officer follows the required procedures and policies during the interview.  After the interview, Shuping debriefs her client making sure he fully understood all that transpired during the interview and advises him on the next steps in his case.

 

4:00 PM            Back to the office to conduct case research

 

Immigration law is a varied practice.  Frequently, in order to provide her clients with the best legal services, Shuping must research immigration laws and regulations that could impact her clients – gaining a better understanding of her client’s immigration status and honing her case strategy.

 

Today, Shuping is researching the Chinese Student Protection Act and how it affects a client who obtained a green card  through the Chinese Student Protection Act, enacted to protect students present in the U.S. during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989

 

4:45 PM            Organize files

 

On Thursdays Shuping works from the IJC office in Lower Manhattan where she meets with Supervising Attorney, Sam Palmer-Simon, to discuss difficult cases and review her case load.  While at the IJC office she also finalizes her client’s applications, makes copies, mail them, and inputs clients information into IJC’s case management system.  To prepare for her day at the IJC office, Shuping gathers her clients’ documents and organizes their files so they are easy to access tomorrow.

 

5:30 PM                Meet co-fellows for a snack

 

IJC’s Community Fellows are a tight group of friends.  After work, they frequently get together.  This evening, Shuping is meeting up with 2016 Community Fellows – Geovanni GutierrezKaren Normil, Susanna Booth,  and Sergio Rodriguez Camarena at Boba Guys in Chinatown for Boba tea and good conversation after a long day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to learn more about Shuping and her experience as a Community Fellow?  Follow along with Shuping this entire week as she takes over IJC’s Instagram and Insta stories!

 

A Fellowship to Fight

IJC 2018 Justice Fellows Anjelica Mantikas, Denise Feliciano, and Diana Ricaurte were recently featured in a NET-TV interview discussing their selection as IJC Fellows.

 

 

Game Changer – Sergio Rodriguez Camarena

The work of our Community and Justice Fellows change the lives of immigrants and their families every day.  Sometimes their work is a complete game changer.  Every month, with our Fellow Game Changer feature, we bring you stories from the front lines – putting the spotlight on our fellows’ fight for justice on behalf of low-income immigrants.

IJC Community Fellow Sergio Rodriguez Camarena first met his clients, Miguel* and Juan*, a married couple, in December 2016 when they came to Sergio’s IJC host organization –Project Hospitality, El Centro del Inmigrante— seeking immigration legal support.  The election of Donald Trump, the sharp increase in vitriolic immigrant rhetoric, and the administration’s anti-immigrant policies motivated the couple to try to find help.    Miguel was a DACA recipient who had entered the United States from Colombia on a tourist visa when he was five years old; his partner Juan is a U.S. citizen.  The couple wanted help filing an Adjustment of Status application for Miguel to get his green card based on his husband’s petition.  Miguel and Juan were both low-income college students and could not afford  the cost of hiring an immigration lawyer to file a marriage based petition and application.  Their ability to move forward with changing Miguel’s status was thus contingent on their ability to find a community-based organization that could provide free legal services.

 

This case, according to Sergio, is one of his most memorable experiences thus far as an IJC Community Fellow, “this case is so important to me because it touches me on a personal level. I am an undocumented Latino who also identifies as queer; hence, I saw a lot of myself in Miguel and Juan.  At the time of our initial client meeting, both men were out and proud of being gay, while I was still working on my coming-out process; I had barely told my mom and my sister, and not too many people back home (in California) knew.  I believe that my  clients allowed me to feel a little more comfortable in my own skin as an undocuqueer man and showed me that queer love is beautiful.”

 

Since Miguel and Juan were Sergio’s first clients, and they were so close in age to him, he faced the challenge of learning how to file a family based Adjustment of Status application while also gaining his clients trust and working to put them at ease. 

 

As Sergio puts it, “because this was my first case, I faced the challenge of learning all the elements that are important to include in an Adjustment of Status application and the components that need not be present.  I did a lot of research to identify sufficient evidence in providing proof that the clients had a bona fide (real) marriage.  Proving this was difficult because immigration law is so heteronormative.  However, the greatest challenge was helping my clients feel comfortable and gaining their trust – especially since they knew they were my first clients.”

 

The challenge Sergio encountered in proving his clients’ bona fide marriage in a post-Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) legal system with heteronormative regulations on Marriage-Based Adjustment compelled him to use unconventional legal evidence to prove his clients legitimate relationship to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  As queer Latinx in immigration proceedings, Sergio’s clients faced the struggle of being part of a marginalized group within a marginalized group.  They had to fight for acceptance as queer individuals and as a gay couple from their families and within their own Latinx communities, on top of this, they felt discriminated against by the immigration system.

 

A little over a year after Sergio’s first meeting with the couple, Miguel received his green card—everyone was elated. Miguel becoming a permanent resident meant that the couple would no longer live with the fear that Miguel could be deported if his temporary protection under DACA were to expire, or that the DACA program itself could be jeopardized by the way it has been used as political leverage under the current administration. This change in Miguel’s immigration status makes him eligible for federal student aid and better jobs, as well as enabling him to eventually petition his mother for a green card and travel outside of the United States.

 

“Both Miguel and I are very thankful for our resilient mothers and our wishes are the same: that someday our mothers will live outside of the shadows with U.S. citizenship, have the ability to travel the world, and pursue their dreams.” 

 

Because of Sergio’s commitment, dedication, and hard work – Miguel is one step closer to achieving this wish.

 

*client’s name has been changed to protect their identity

 

Immigration in the Media

Huffingtonpost | The DOJ Is Trying to Remove What’s Left of Justice in The Immigration System

IJC Justice Fellow Alumnus, Em Puhl, on the Department of Justice’s decision to suspend the Legal Orientation Program and the negative implications for immigration courts, non-profit immigration attorneys, and low-income detained immigrants.

 

The Hill | Worse Than a Wall – Trapping Asylum Seekers in Mexico

IJC Justice Fellow, Elizabeth Gibson, writes on due process and asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

 

New York Times | Justice Ginsburg Urges New Citizens to Make America Better

New York Times references the work of Immigrant Justice Corps and highlights a recent presentation by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to fellows, friends, and staff of IJC.

 

IJC Board Member Alina Das Honored at Immigrant Defense Project 20th Annual Gala

 

Mother Jones | Jeff Sessions Wants to Impose Quotas on Immigration Judges.  Here’s Why That’s a Bad Idea.

The Justice Department has set new quotas on the country’s immigration judges to reduce  the backlog of immigration cases.  Currently there are 680,000 cases pending in immigration courts nationwide. Unfortunately, the quotas could worsen the backlog.

 

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment