Here's What Immigration Attorneys Are Telling Their Terrified Clients About a Trump Presidency

Nelly Siero, originally from Nicaragua, holds an American flag as she becomes an American citizen during a ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Kendall office on November 10, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Photo via Getty

This is a brutal and bewildering time for so many people in the United States, but immigrants have particular cause for terror. Jezebel spoke to several immigration attorneys about conversations they’ve had with their panicked clients since Donald Trump was elected. The attorneys themselves say they’re concerned a Trump presidency will involve not just mass deportations, but erratic, unpredictable enforcement of existing immigration laws.

Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office are an absolutely demonic set of policy proposals, ones that will promptly fuck the environment, healthcare, and trade. But it’s also uniquely fixated on making life as hard as possible from immigrants. From the official plan he released at the end of October:

* FOURTH, begin removing the more than 2 million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won’t take them back

* FIFTH, suspend immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur. All vetting of people coming into our country will be considered extreme vetting.


In the wee hours of November 9, immigration attorneys started receiving panicked calls and texts from their clients.

“I got my first one at 5:53 this morning,” says Ava Benach, a founding partner at Benach Collopy LLP, an immigration law firm based in D.C. “It was a text from someone who has DACA.” That’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA is meant to let people who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 apply for a two-year work permit and also exempts them from deportation. A split decision on the Supreme Court in June effectively froze both DACA and DAPA, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents. Trump has promised to revoke both programs within his first 100 days in office, after President Obama created and tried to implement them through an executive order.

“He was asking what’s going to happen to him,” Benach says of her client. “He’s about 29. He says he’s been working for a company for a few years and is working on getting his MBA, with his company’s help. [He asked], is he going to continue to have deferred action? I said I don’t know.”

But not just her DACA clients are terrified, Benach adds. “It’s everyone who’s got something pending; if you’re Middle Eastern, Muslim, LGBT, Hispanic. People are terrorized. There’s no other way to put it. They are horrified.”


Frank Guerra is an immigration attorney with offices in Houston and San Diego. He got four texts from clients in the early hours of November 9.

“The anxiety is so high right now,” he says, even among people applying for asylum or in situations where an attorney would usually be confident of being able to secure them a green card.


“These are people who have good case where relief is available and they still think the world is ending,” Guerra says. “Which is reasonable with what they’ve been seeing on the news. There’s so much anxiety and fear for the children. It’s a different world for them today.”

Michaela Sanchez is a paralegal at the offices of Rebecca Kitson, an immigration attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


“She gathered us around and told us we are here to fight,” Sanchez says of Kitson. “Clients and potential clients have already been calling to ask what is going to happen. We can only tell them that we don’t know, we have time, and that we are for them no matter what. The ones that are in the most danger are the ones who have applied for DACA but are already in removal proceedings.”

The repeal of DACA creates a uniquely hopeless situation, Sanchez adds. “Those people have no options, no pathway to citizenship because they did not enter the United States lawfully. They are children who were brought across the border, grew up here, speak English, have lives here, have families here, and they will be in danger of being deported.”


Adam Crandell practices immigration law in Baltimore. He points out that Trump’s core proposal—deporting every one of the millions of people here without papers—is simply impossible. What will happen instead, he says, is frighteningly unpredictable.

Under the Obama Administration, deportations reached record highs. Crandell says, though, that the administration, at least, also tried to bring “clarity to the enforcement process,” through things like 2014's so-called Johnson memorandum, a memo from the secretary of Homeland Security.


“It clearly signals how enforcement is to occur, i.e. the priorities for the expenditure of limited resources (criminal aliens, threats to national security, recent arrivals, etc.),” Crandell says. It’s made immigration law much easier, he adds. “I can anticipate against whom among my clients and potential clients the law will be enforced, how it will be enforced, etc. Importantly, that means that I can advise clients accordingly and with some degree of confidence.”

His concern with the Trump administration, he adds, “is that either by sheer ignorance or, worse, maliciousness, enforcement will be arbitrary, ham-fisted, and unfair. This would not be good for my clients, it would not be good for business, and it would not be good for the immigration system that is already stretched thin as it is.” (There has been, he says, a 300% increase in removal cases in the last four years in the Baltimore Immigration Court alone.)


The Supreme Court, Crandell adds, is “another wild card.”

“I am sad,” he tells us. “I am uncertain. And I am frightened.”

It’s tought to overstate, too, the deep grief and anguish that immigration attorneys have expressed over the possible future of their clients, and the nation itself.


“I’m as shocked as anyone else,” says David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland and the past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “I wake up every morning and have to remind myself this is true. I feel like I’ve lost a family member. That kind of loss.”

Leopold, too, worries that enforcement of existing laws could be wholly unpredictable. There’s precedent for it, he points out: the enormous immigration raid on a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa in 2008, which resulted in some 400 people being arrested for being undocumented. Of those, around 300 were criminally charged and served prison sentences before being permanently deported.


“You see stories about how families fled into the basement of churches because there was a raid and people were terrified,” Leopold says. “It instills fear in communities.”

So many immigrants right now are also in a daze or a panic, he says, and it will take time before they’re able to make rational decisions.


“Right now people are shocked and stunned at the reality that Donald Trump will take the oath of office in January,” he says, “Given the campaign, given the extremist xenophobic nativist rhetoric. I think people are grieving and also trying to get to the point where they can make rational decisions based on the situation.”

Leopold also warns that if you plan to donate to an immigrants rights group, it’s important to make sure they’re reputable, well-known, established groups. (Jezebel has a long list of reputable organizations you can donate to, covering both immigrant rights and other concerns.)


“People need to be careful,” he says. He points out one common type of fraud perpetrated on Spanish-speaking immigrants. “You’ve got notarios, people who hold up signs saying, ‘I’m a notary public and I can help you.’ That happens because in Latin America a notary is higher than a lawyer in some of those countries. Here a notario is a functionary, not competent to give legal advice. The point I’m trying to make is that in a dire situation like this, there are predators.” (The American Bar Association has more about notario fraud and information on resources for its victims.)

Leopold and the other attorneys all say they’re trying to balance some measure of hope with a crushing sense of the darkest possibilities of a Trump presidency.


“I have to take Trump at his word,” he says. “And his word was that Mexicans are rapists and that he’s going to ban Muslims and that he’s going to stop immigration and on and on. And until he shows me otherwise, I’m prepared for that.”

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About the author

Anna Merlan

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.

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