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Immigration Battles: Human Trafficking Beyond Borders

Aug 21, 2023
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Angela Alvarado, a career-changer, discusses her role as an immigration lawyer with a legal aid organization in south Texas. She sheds light on the complexities and challenges faced by victims of human trafficking, the importance of empathy, and how she helps clients navigate the immigration system. Angela discusses the intake process and goes into detail about T visas. Angela is a recent graduate of St. Mary's School of Law.

Transcript

Narrator:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Kimber Russell interviews an immigration lawyer at a legal aid nonprofit in South Texas.

Kyle McEntee:

Hey listeners, this is Kyle McEntee, the show's executive producer. Before we get to the episode, I need to point out something that may or may not be obvious to you as you listen. This episode was taped during the earlier stages of the pandemic, during the Trump Administration. Later in the episode, you'll hear our guest, Angela, discuss something she refers to as the NTA memo. NTA stands for "Notice to Appear." A notice to appear is the document that initiates immigration court removal proceedings for noncitizens. The 2017 NTA memo from President Trump significantly expanded the situations in which USCIS was directed to issues NTAs against people applying for immigration benefits. On the first day of the Biden Administration, President Biden rescinded this memo, resetting executive branch guidance to what it was from 2011 through 2017. Despite the law and facts changing, we decided to release the episode for a few reasons. It's important to realize that the law is ever-evolving. The work of immigration lawyers like Angela is particularly subject to political winds. What's key, however, is that immigration lawyers look at the law and figure out how it impacts their clients. On to the episode!

Kimber Russell:

We're joined today by Angela Alvarado, an immigration attorney with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. Now while Angela is a 2017 graduate of St. Mary's Law School, her path to practicing law has been a long and winding road. You first graduated from undergrad back in 1995. So was a career in the law - and immigration law in particular - always on your radar? Or did it take you kind of a while to get to that point?

Angela Alvarado:

Now, it was actually always on my radar. I have friends to this day ask me, "why did it take you so long to be a lawyer? You always said that that's what your dream was." So it was always on my radar to do immigration law. It just didn't happen the way that I had anticipated it would.

Kimber Russell:

What sort of things did you do before you became an attorney? And are they the kinds of things that fed into your desire to finally be a part of the legal profession?

Angela Alvarado:

Nothing I did had anything to do with the law. And yes, everything I did fed into what I do today. From undergrad, I actually came out as a teacher. Loved it, but I hated that the law wasn't caught up with making sure that they had what they needed to be successful in the classroom. You had to allow them to fail if they had any type of disabilities that you thought would render them unsuccessful. They had to be tested for nine to 18 weeks before any accommodations would be allowed. And I thought this is so wrong. And seeing parents frustrated at home thinking they weren't trying hard enough, and the discipline that would come with it. I just didn't see myself in that role any longer because I felt that I was hurting children more than I was actually helping them.

So I left teaching and I actually went into managing a parenting program. And I've worked with parents on how to understand what it is to raise your children, what skill set should you be looking at every year in their life. And so I did that for a few years. And I started working with housing counseling. So I went from parenting and education to housing counseling, which was so far out of my league, I had no background. But they ended up placing me in the training program. We created a training program, so I was responsible for training HUD counselors throughout the United States, putting on a national training certifying them, and understanding the issues that people were having in the housing industry. And that did tie back into the education. And that did tie back into the family. And the issues that I was hearing from parents in general. If you don't have a house to live in, that really sets the foundation for these children and their future.

As I was working for National Council La Raza and going to their conferences and listening to many Hispanics talk about coming from humble means, becoming attorneys, becoming journalists. I thought, why can't I go back and do what I thought I could do> And I had an epiphany. And I said, You know what? That's it. I'm going to sit for the LSAT. And so to answer your question, every single job that I had, while was not legal, absolutely helped me get to where I am today. Because now as an immigration attorney, all of my clients have these issues. They don't have credit, many who don't have social security since so when they get them, they don't know where to start. They have issues with their children in school, especially those children who don't know if their parents are coming home tonight because they're not documented at the moment. And so, every single one of those issues that I had already dealt with on the outside of law helped me to really understand my clients and their needs outside of trying to help them get some type of immigration benefit. It really did help me see them as a whole person and really helped to help them in different areas that they were suffering.

Kimber Russell:

After law school, you began your legal career with a fellowship with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid through Equal Justice Works. Can you explain a little bit more about how the fellowship program works and why a lot of new graduates actually do begin their their legal journey this way?

Angela Alvarado:

So there were maybe like 70 of us throughout the United States that were selected for this particular fellowship in victims of crimes. It's a cohort where we meet monthly via web chats like you and I are talking today. Then there's actual in person conferences where we all get together for about three or four days and really share the work that we're doing. It's phenomenal because it really is geographic.

So I might be facing an issue that my partner in California isn't facing, or my partner Chicago isn't facing. And so really talking about what people are doing on the ground to get the results that they need, sharing ideas, collaborating. It is an amazing, amazing way to start I would say anybody's leg into law, because when we graduate law school, everybody's kind of like, I don't know what I'm gonna do. I'm just got to go wherever I go and hopefully I like that, you know, that field of law. And it doesn't always happen that way. And so I think this is a really great way to start because you are really encompassed with a lot of help, a lot of support, a lot of camaraderie, and you have experts that are involved in these fellowships. There was a group that I could go to and I wasn't alone. And in the legal field, you usually are alone because it's just you and your client.

Kimber Russell:

I want to know more about the legal aid organization that you currently work for. What particular kinds of clientele do you serve?

Angela Alvarado:

So we work with a with a variety of clients from civil issues, human rights issues, immigration, family, consumer law, education, housing, and even some criminal law. My focus, however, is on immigration law. And I do some family law as well.

Kimber Russell:

And how many, how many employees do they have at this particular legal aid organization?

Angela Alvarado:

We're probably over 300.

Kimber Russell:

And does that spread throughout the entire state, like in various counties?

Angela Alvarado:

Yes, it is. We serve 68 counties. And so that is spread throughout the different counties.

Kimber Russell:

How many attorneys do you personally work with?

Angela Alvarado:

It really depends on the case that I'm working with. So on the immigration team, there's might be like 30 of us. But if I'm working on a family case, I could be working with maybe three on a family team. My client might have employment issues as well, I might be working with another set of attorneys on an employment team. And so it really varies from day to day and case to case how many attorneys I'm working with on a particular case.

Kimber Russell:

You did mention that there's just a wide spectrum of types of cases and clientele that you serve. But do you particularly specialize in one area? Or is there one particular area that you have been honing your expertise in?

Angela Alvarado:

I would say human trafficking. That is where I'm honing my expertise in. Through my fellowship, that was the only type of legal issue I dealt with.

Kimber Russell:

Many people are aware of human trafficking when it comes to sex trafficking. But that's just one element of what human trafficking encompasses. Can you explain more about what the whole breadth and depth of human trafficking actually entails?

Angela Alvarado:

Sure. Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to have someone perform labor so that you benefit from it, whether that's commercial sex trafficking or labor trafficking. And a lot of times, you know, we think it's what you see on TV: young girls, adolescent, males as well, being pushed into prostitution. That's not what human trafficking only encompasses. We see it, especially in the immigration world, through families. And maybe in home country, it's not considered human trafficking, it's considered way of life. Someone needs to work, everybody puts in their part to make sure that there's food on the table. But in the United States, we would consider that human trafficking, because we're not talking the normal chores, the cleaning the yard or helping with the dishes. You're talking much more. And so even immigrants who come legally with work visas, being made to do things that they didn't agree to, that they didn't sign in on with their contract. And then when they try to speak up, they don't know the laws here. They don't understand their rights. And then they find themselves being targeted with, "you're going to get set back," "we're going to pull your visa." So that income that they're making isn't going to go back home or they change their pay scale. And now these people are forced to do extra work, longer hours, horrible conditions, but that money is like a carrot dangled in front of them and so they continue to work so that they can make something to take home. Those are the type of things.

We also see domestic violence and human trafficking together, which is still something being talked about, explored. There's a movement to help, especially USCIS, understand how to not differentiate that they're different that they are sometimes one in the same. What we've seen are couples that marry and it becomes a, "I need you to do this type of work in the house." And it's not your normal chores, it's, I want you to cook and you need to cook in this way. And it needs to be done at this hour. And if it's not done, they get beat, or they have to work to have their basic needs met. Buying toiletries, toilet paper, toothpaste, or having money to eat when the breadwinner goes off to work. When we see domestic violence, we see, "He beat me because I didn't iron his clothes the right way on the date of the week that he told me they needed to be done." And so we are seeing human trafficking in areas that weren't explored much because people weren't talking. And so as victims start to speak, we're starting to see that human trafficking is more than just commercial sex.

Kimber Russell:

The pandemic has definitely put a damper on people's ability to seek legal counsel. How has your organization been able to continue to provide services during the pandemic, and especially with respect to human trafficking?

Angela Alvarado:

One we're not seeing a slowdown of clients, they find us. COVID has not affected our ability to render services. That I can say without a doubt. We get calls, if it's not from clients themselves, it's usually from services like Catholic Charities, refugee services of Texas. So the calls are coming in, the referrals are being made.

Obviously, we're not seeing people face to face because we don't want to put them at risk or put us at risk, right, and our family. But we haven't seen a slowdown in intakes coming in. Now, have we seen an exacerbation of what's happening to clients? I'm seeing, especially with with females, they are being taken advantage of in the sense that they don't have work now. Some of them are outside of work and at home. So they're with their trafficker 24/7. Beforehand, they would go out work and so they weren't with that trafficker at all times. We've had other clients who are at a loss. Who are they supposed to complain to? Many of the government offices are closed. So it is harder on victims to find their way out of human trafficking situations because of COVID. Some of the locations that maybe these people would be sent to, there more precautions, there's less space available. So yes, COVID is really hurting victims, but not so much the legal services that we're able to render.

Kimber Russell:

So can you walk us through what the intake process is at your legal aid organization?

Angela Alvarado:

We have an intake team. Some of them are law school students that work part time. And so, call in to the one 800 number and their information is taken: name, date of birth, social security, things of that nature. So there's some screening that happens, aside from just that basic information, when you have to qualify for our services. So the amount of income you have is taken. Some of our grant will allow for, you know, 125% of the poverty line, limit others 200%. And so that information has to be taken depending on what team and what attorney's going to take that.

The other thing is, if you don't have legal status, there's another step that goes beyond that. Are you a victim of crime? Things of that nature. So though we can't just take every case for somebody who isn't documented, you have had to be a victim of crime. And there's certain other nuances that that have to be reviewed before that case can be taken. So usually, the 1-800 number is just like the gatekeeper. They don't make the determination whether we take the case or not. Then it's given to an attorney who's on duty that we're in each team. And that attorney will investigate further whether that person qualifies for our services and, second, will look to see if there's conflict of interest. And so once they jump those hurdles, then it goes to, "do we have a capacity to take this particular legal issue on?" If we do it gets vetted out and sent to an attorney. An attorney will start to do that work with that individual client. If it's a case we cannot take on because of capacity, we usually reach out back to the client and ask them when we think we could take it on at a later date. "Would you like to wait?" If it's something that's urgent, we can't take it on, we need to get on a phone with that client pretty quick to let them know this is something we're not going to be able to do for XYZ reason and then give them a referral to another attorney so that they can get their legal needs met. And so when an attorney's on duty, it's pretty intense because you have who knows how many calls coming in on your plate for that week and your job is to make sure that they get divvied out and either closed or referred or handed off to attorney for immediate attention.

Kimber Russell:

Angela, one of the things that you do in your daily practice is you work on T visas. Can you explain to us what that is and what the overarching goal is in extending the protection of that visa to a client?

Angela Alvarado:

So a T visa is something that the USCIS approves for clients who are victims of severe forms of trafficking, whether it's labor trafficking or commercial sex trafficking. When that has been approved, it authorizes a work permit for that particular individual. It also allows that particular individual to petition for beneficiaries -- their spouse, children under 21, and maybe an adult parent who would face retaliation. But in the process of waiting for the T visa, they don't have any legal standing. They're continuing to be undocumented. Once I apply for their T visa, they do get a receipt from USCIS. We ask them to carry that. That way, if they do come into contact with an ICE agent, at least the ice agent knows they're not in the shadows, the government knows they're here because now they have a file with USCIS. That usually staves off any type of deportation because they already know that some arm of the immigration office is working with that client.

Kimber Russell:

So when a client has been issued a T visa, I mean, this sounds to me like there's a bigger justice at stake. And it seems like we really want to prioritize stopping human trafficking and that we definitely want to let people who were either witnesses to it, or who experienced it, or who are family members of it, to avoid deportation so that they can assist the prosecution. What other goals are there to the T visa that you can enumerate?

Angela Alvarado:

it also allows that particular person to stay in the country for four years with authorization, and no longer be undocumented. The four years is to allow law enforcement to work with that individual to bring that trafficker to justice, should the government decide to do so. Their idea is about four years of work is what it takes probably to bring somebody to justice. That's the reason that visa is for four years. Year three, however, does allow path to residency. So in year three, our clients could then adjust their status and seek legal residency, or some may call it a green card, for themselves and their family members. And so it does allow for stability of the family during the process that they're working with law enforcement, allows them to work, no longer continue to be vulnerable to victimization because now they have a social security card and a work permit and can work in the world legally and not face those type of vulnerabilities that they faced before. It also allows them the comfort of having the family with them, and not being desperate to find any type of work. And so it really does allow for protection and security and a path to legal residency.

Kimber Russell:

What are some of the challenges that your clients face in seeking these types of visas? Because it sounds to me like everybody has a different story and a different background where they might potentially have some criminal infractions or they might have been previously deported or come into the country illegally. So how do you balance that when you're seeking these visas for your clients?

Angela Alvarado:

When we meet with our clients and interview them after the intake is done, you do a deeper dive. How many times they've had come into the country? How many times have they had interactions with border patrol? Have you had any interactions with law enforcement? Because all of that does come into play because you do have to disclose that on your application. And those are bigger questions because sometimes clients don't understand, "Oh, I got a ticket." They forget about it.

What we normally do is we ask for a FOIA, Freedom of Information Act. We want the immigration history on that client before we even begin to move forward because we need to know everything about that client. We cannot go in blindly because you could hurt a client by not disclosing something that should have been disclosed to the government. Let's face it, the government already has everything on this client, but they want this client to be forthcoming with all the information and they're not hiding anything as they apply for this benefit. And I'll say clients don't hide things, they forget. The government has a fraud and misrepresentation prong that could come into play if our clients aren't forthcoming with everything. And so as attorneys, we have to do our due diligence to ensure that we have everything on that client. So if the client ever says, "Well, yes, I did talk to Border Patrol, yes, I talked to police officer," those are red flags for us that say, Okay, we need their history before we move forward. Because we can't give them their risk assessment until we know everything we're dealing with.

Second, if you have clients that have come to you and already are in deportation proceedings, and then during the interview, realize, wow, you are a victim of human trafficking. Sometimes our clients don't know they're victims of human trafficking. Sometimes it's somebody else hearing their story and then it interplays with now they have a deportation court hearing. So we have to work through the nuances of having the judge understand that this kind of victim, and please hold off their deportation and court hearings until we can finalize the T visa. And that's a whole 'nother battle.

And then if you have clients that are not in deportation proceedings, if they have a lot of criminal history, or immigration history, that's very risky. Sometimes it's not wise to take their case because, in this day and age, we have what they call the NTA memo, which means notice to appear. If your case is rejected, or even if you decide to pull it from USCIS, the client is automatically placed in deportation proceedings. So you might have a client that's flying under the radar. The government doesn't know they're here. And the minute you put that application out there, you have already told the government they're here.

So as an attorney, if you know, after thorough investigation, this client is at risk, maybe their case is weak, because we were not able to find all the supporting evidence or they're not at a place that they can fully tell you the trafficking story in a way that you can really bring justice to them, then you know that this isn't the time to take their case. And it's sad to say that because before this administration, that wasn't the case. Somebody could come out of the shadows, apply for T visa, and if they were denied, they just went back into the shadows and they were left alone. So we have to think, this person might have a family, young children, they could be elderly. Having them deported could be much more detrimental to being even in the vulnerable state that they're in. And that's a hard balance and a hard call to make.

But keeping people safe is of utmost importance to us. And sometimes it is holding off a case until things in this administration change that are safer for this client. Because we can't guarantee that even a strong T visa case is going to get approved.

Kimber Russell:

I want to switch gears now because we've talked a lot about the types of clientele that you serve. And a lot of the help that they need is because they have been victims of crimes or they've been a victim of something quite traumatic. How do you manage the intake and investigation process to limit the amount of, you know, re-traumatizing that happens for your clients?

Angela Alvarado:

I wish that I could say that's an easy balance, because it's not. We honestly as attorneys do go through lots of training to help us understand how to deal with our clients, how to be sensitive. But at the same time, depending on the work that you're doing with them, you will have to delve in deeper into their particular story that's tied maybe to the immigration benefit that they need. And so there is no going around, I need that information in order to tell their story to the officer who is going to ultimately review and adjudicate their case.

Before we go into that type of deep dive, we make sure that they're connected to a counselor. We will not just go right on and say. "Okay, today we're going to talk about XYZ." We want to make sure that these people have the support system in place before we start getting into the meat of their story. And before we know we are going to re-traumatize them. And we're honest with them. We let them know upfront. The meetings with me are going to be painful. I'm going to bring up memories. I'm going to bring up memories you didn't even know you had. And so I let them know that ahead of time. Before we even start those conversations and I get them into counseling. I get them into a center that's going to provide support services to them, because they're going to need it. It's a it's a lengthy process before you hand off an application to the government. And so it will be months of conversation. You have to make sure your client is secure, emotionally and mentally and ready for that journey with you.

Episode #55 Episode #57

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