Attorney Spotlight: Marjorie Vandow

Marjorie Vandow may be retired, but she still sees work to be done – and she’s not waiting around for others to do it. As the leader of the legal assistance effort for her congregation’s Refugee and Immigration Committee, Margie first reached out to Safe Passage Project to seek out opportunities for her fellow committee members to volunteer their lawyering skills. Unexpectedly, she was immediately moved to take on a case herself, and now provides legal representation to two refugee children through Safe Passage Project.

When asked what made her take the leap to volunteer, Margie explains, “It was Safe Passage’s outstanding mentorship model that gave me the courage to take that step forward. That first experience of direct client representation, which is still a work in progress, has been so satisfying because it holds the potential to impact a young person’s life in a lasting way. It is an awesome responsibility.”

She was touched, surprised that I cared so much. That’s connection.

For Margie, it was key to strike a delicate balance between communicating with her client with sensitivity and digging deep to build a strong case. “On the one hand, it is essential to build trust with one’s client. On the other, there are potential minefields that must be explored in order to competently represent a youngster who has faced challenges that we cannot necessarily imagine.” According to Margie, knowing she could rely on Safe Passage Project’s mentorship and social services throughout the case was also vital in successfully supporting her client. “Safe Passage Project set me up for success in building a relationship with my client by pairing me with an extremely knowledgeable and kind mentor attorney who has answered all of my questions, helped me problem-solve, and reviewed my draft papers. She also connected my client with Safe Passage’s excellent social service support, which has been critically important for my client.”

Not only has Margie been a strong advocate for her young clients, but she has also been a leader in mobilizing others within her community. Recently, she helped to organize and recruit prospective volunteers for a Safe Passage Project training at her congregation, B’nai Jeshurun. Led by Senior Training Attorney, Alexandra Rizio, the training covered two major forms of relief for unaccompanied refugee children entering the United States: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and Asylum. At the training event, Safe Passage Project was thrilled to present Margie with a Mayoral Service Certificate of Recognition for her inspiring work on behalf of Safe Passage Project and the young children we serve.

While Margie hadn’t originally planned on taking on a case herself, she couldn’t be happier to watch her young client flourish. “It has been a joy to see my client grow and successfully navigate her new life. She has persevered. Her English has improved impressively and she is proud of her performance in school. She is maturing. It is still early in the life of my client’s case with several hurdles ahead, but I feel that I am backed by the most dedicated, knowledgeable and caring team of professionals possible. In my opinion, this is the best pro bono experience that an attorney could wish for.”

The most valuable thing to Margie throughout her experience thus far has been the small victories and human connection. All in all, it’s the little things that keep her motivated to fight for her client. “The highlight of my pro bono experience so far was one small interaction: after my client cleared a major hurdle that had stalled our progress, I wrote to her that she had ‘made my day,’ she responded, ‘Really?’ She was touched, surprised that I cared so much. That’s connection.”

Help Us Fight Back Against Family Separation

As we speak, our government is forcibly separating immigrant children from their families. These children have already suffered so much – escaping violence and turmoil in their native country, and making the dangerous trek to the U.S. After all of this, these children are being resettled all over the country and placed into deportation proceedings – without being provided a court-appointed lawyer.

This is an atrocity and a human rights violation, and we must fight back.

The Trump administration has continued to challenge and limit the rights of immigrant communities, aggressively ramping up removal efforts for immigrant children and their families. You may have also seen that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decreed that that women suffering from domestic violence are no longer eligible for certain protections. Safe Passage Project’s Senior Training Attorney, Alexandra Rizio, issued an advisory to our pro bono attorneys in response to Sessions’ decree, ensuring that our army of pro bono attorneys is informed and ready to continue fiercely advocating for our young clients.

How You Can Help.

With all of these horrifying stories circulating, it’s vital to note that we are still fighting for these children – and you can help. Many of these children will be sent to New York, and we aim to take on ten additional cases to make sure that they don’t face the immigration process alone. That means ten more refugee children who will be given a free, competent attorney to help them escape the dangerous conditions of their home country and pursue a safe and stable life in the U.S.

Donate.  We need to raise $2,500 in order to provide legal and social services to each new client that we take on. Help us reach our $25,000 goal and donate today. Your donation can make all the difference for a refugee child.

Volunteer. Sign up on our online form to take on legal representation of an immigrant child.

Deputy Executive Director Desirée Hernández Featured on WNYC

Desireé Hernández, Safe Passage Project’s Deputy Executive Director and Director of Legal Services, joined WNYC this morning to discuss the drops in asylum grants for unaccompanied minors. Read the full story by WNYC below, or listen here.

Unaccompanied Minors Have Tougher Time Winning Asylum

Immigrants win asylum more often in New York than anywhere else when they go to court. But not when immigrant childen seek a less adversarial path through a government agency, according to an analysis by WNYC News.

Unaccompanied minors — children who come to the US without parents — are not to be confused with those who are separated from their parents when they come to the U.S. border. The ones who come alone are kept in the care of special agencies through the Office of Refugee Resettlement until they can be reunited with a relative. They then have to fight to stay here just like adults by going to immigration court. But a special law to protect victims of trafficking lets these unaccompanied minors simultaneously apply for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS.

Attorney Jodi Ziesemer, supervising attorney with the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities, said this is less traumatic for children because it puts them before a trained asylum officer.

“Instead of testifying in open court, being cross-examined by a trained government attorney, having to present witnesses and evidence to meet the standards in immigration court, they can present their case in front of an asylum officer,” she explained. Children can also bring their own translator.

So far this fiscal year, just 21 percent of kids who applied for asylum were granted it at the USCIS office in New YorkTwo years ago, it was 38 percent. Unaccompanied minors in New York are also served by the New Jersey office of USCIS, where asylum grant rates have fallen even more in the first half of fiscal year 2018. It’s 32 percent now versus 70 percent in the first half of fiscal year 2016. This reflects a national trend.

The Trump administration is cracking down on a surge in border crossers this year, after the numbers declined in 2017. President Donald Trump calls the asylum process for young trafficking victims a “loophole” that can be abused by gang members. (This explainer by FactCheck.Org describes different immigration policies the President has criticized, which date back many years.)

In February, USCIS began scheduling new cases faster to reduce its backlog of more than 300,000 cases and weed out what it calls frivolous applications. At the same time, immigration judges have been under pressure to move more swiftly because of their own backlog. Lawyers said that unaccompanied minors, who remain on judges’ dockets while they ask USCIS for asylum, are being rushed along as a result.

But Attorney Ziesemer said these policies alone don’t explain the declining number of kids granted asylum. She’s noticed something else.

“The asylum office seems to be doing extra background checks, extra security checks,” she said. “That has been reflected in the asylum interviews as well, that they’re asking many more detailed questions about any contact with criminals or gangs.”

A spokeswoman for USCIS said there’s no change in policy, and each child’s case is different. But Desiree Hernandez, deputy director of the Safe Passage Project which represents children, said some cases that would have been approved before are denied now. She has one client who’s about 14 years old and described being raped by family members in her remote indigenous community.

“This child is very articulate even through the trauma that she has survived, and was able to tell her story at the asylum office,” she recalled. “And the asylum office referred her case to the judge.”

That child still has an attorney who can fight her case in court. But others don’t. New data from TRAC at Syracuse University show that young asylum seekers have a harder time now finding lawyers, even in New York, which could also explain the drop in asylum grants. Without lawyers coaching them on how to tell their stories to an officer and to help gathering medical and psychological records, those children stand a tougher chance when they go before asylum officers at USCIS.

You can read or listen to the full story here.

Executive Director Rich Leimsider Comments on Trump’s New Fingerprinting Policy

Trump administration will fingerprint child migrants’ parents

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration will soon begin fingerprinting parents claiming custody of children who entered the United States illegally without an adult relative, officials said on Tuesday, prompting criticism that children may be abandoned by those who fear being identified and deported.

Currently, most parents are not required to be fingerprinted to get custody of their children.

U.S. laws and legal precedent limit the time juveniles can be detained, so those caught crossing the border alone are often released to adult sponsors in the United States. The children are then expected to show up to immigration court to fight their deportation cases.

“We’re going to more thoroughly vet sponsors,” said Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Children and Families, in a telephone briefing with reporters. “With DHS’ cooperation we will conduct a fingerprint-based background check on every sponsor.”

HHS is ultimately responsible for finding housing for migrant children, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enforces immigration policy. Under a new memorandum, DHS would help HHS fingerprint every individual claiming custody of a child, senior officials said.

A DHS official who declined to be named said they expect implementation in a few weeks.

Immigrant advocates said the new policy would discourage parents from claiming their children.

“This policy will undoubtedly make it more likely that qualified sponsors will hide in the shadows, leaving vulnerable young children to languish in immigration jail,” said Rich Leimsider, executive director of the Safe Passage Project, which represents immigrant children in New York, in an email to Reuters.

Wagner, during the briefing, dismissed such concerns.

“If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they’re concerned about their own immigration status, I think that de facto calls into question whether they’re an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing the child to that person,” Wagner said.

In March and April, more than 50,000 people were detained per month trying to cross the southwest border illegally, levels similar to those during the administration of Barack Obama, according to U.S. government figures. During those two months a total of about 8,400 unaccompanied minors were caught on the southwest border.

To read the full story, click here.

Attorney General Places New Limits on Judges’ Authority

Yesterday, Attorney General Sessions issued his decision in a case involving an unaccompanied minor who failed to attend his removal hearing. In Matter of Castro-Tum, 27 I & N Dec. 271 (May 17, 2018), the Attorney General ruled that an Immigration Judge has no regulatory or legal authority to grant “administrative closure.” Administrative closure does not dismiss the case, but rather moves it to a suspended status. For the court, it allowed the judge to count the case as finished on his or her docket. For the party – either DHS or the responding individual – a motion could later be filed to recalendar the case, should new developments suggest that the case could be resolved.  For example, DHS sometimes requested administrative closure if they determined that they wanted to grant prosecutorial discretion (a right to live here but not a grant of legal status). Safe Passage Project regularly sought administrative closure for young people who were granted special immigrant juvenile findings in immigration court, but when the visa petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (form I-360) would still be pending for many months before the USCIS.

It was already quite distressing that the Attorney General took this case as the focus of his decision to visit the authority of immigration judges to grant “administrative closure,” because the young person was pro se, and the case reflected a very unusual use of administrative closure. There were 12 amici briefs filed in this case, and we are grateful to the law firm of Simpson Thacher and especially to Sara Clingan, who was the primary author on the brief.  It does appear that the Attorney General evaluated the thoughtful arguments presented in the brief regarding the administrative law problems inherent in eliminating Administrative Closure without engaging in procedural compliance with the APA to modify the practice through rulemaking. He does discuss the power of the Attorney General to reverse the BIA and to control the operations of the individual immigration judges. With this case, he also vacates all the other BIA decisions that allowed judges to grant administrative closure over the objections of DHS.

The only good news in the case is that the Attorney General did not retroactively rescind the administrative closure of prior cases. He will, however, allow the cases to be re-calendared upon motion of the parties. If DHS decides to reactivate all of these cases, it is likely to swamp the immigration courts. But the Attorney General does not (or should not) control the decisions of the DHS, and it is too early to tell what their responses will be.

One of the disturbing issues presented in this case that was not properly identified by the Attorney General as under review, is the definition of who is an “unaccompanied alien child” (UC).  In a footnote, the Attorney General asserts that turning 18 ends the designation of UC protection, and that an issued legal guardianship by a brother-in-law (the young person’s sponsor once out of ORR custody) might similarly end the designation. “It is unclear whether the respondent’s brother-in-law was his legal guardian, such that the respondent would have ceased to qualify as an unaccompanied alien when his brother-in-law assumed custody on August 20, 2014. At a minimum, however, the respondent ceased to qualify as an unaccompanied alien child on January 10, 2015, his eighteenth birthday, two days after his first hearing date.”

This footnote is particularly concerning, and we should prepare for additional arguments – both by the USCIS Asylum Office and now the DHS – that a young person is no longer entitled to the UC protection which is important in seeking jurisdiction before the Asylum Office to hear claims.

As a long time reader of BIA and Attorney General decisions, this particular case is a departure from prior cases in tone. The Attorney General and his delegates want to specifically reject several 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cases that had relied in part on administrative closure to expand due process protections for people in removal. While the agency usually follows the doctrine of nonacquiescence and does not apply a single circuit law across the country, the Attorney General notes that he has the authority to force the 9th Circuit to reexamine its decisions as this is the final agency pronouncement on the role of administrative closure. Now the immigration judge will have to use continuances, which will be difficult as the management of the court – at the request of the Attorney General – has also instituted performance measures that punish judges who grant numerous continuances.

There are four other significant cases that were certified to the Attorney General.  We did not independently prepare a brief, but we did join in our nonprofit capacity (and I joined some in my law professor capacity).  These cases could also have deep and significant impact on our work. The Attorney General is also challenging the authority to grant continuances – the only option we have if DHS has not ruled on a child’s visa petition for status.  He is also reviewing the case law on people who are victims of private crime, e.g., domestic abuse, as qualifying for asylum. Yesterday, Jane Fonda and Professor Karen Musalo, one of the nation’s leading advocates for women in the asylum field had an Op-Ed in the New York Times discussing that issue.

Lenni Benson is the Founder and Senior Advisor on Policy and Law at Safe Passage Project. She is also Professor of Law at New York Law School.

Safe Passage Project Proud Recipient of $480,000 Grant from Keith Haring Foundation

March 28, 2018

Gui Stampur, Deputy Executive Director

New York, NY – Safe Passage Project, a New York-based legal services organization, announced today that it has been awarded a $480,000 grant by the Keith Haring Foundation. This generous grant, which will be allocated in two yearly installments of $240,000, will provide Safe Passage Project with general operating support to provide legal defense of children being targeted for deportation.

“Safe Passage Project is deeply grateful to receive this support from the Keith Haring Foundation,” said Safe Passage Project’s Executive Director, Rich Leimsider. “These funds will allow us to expand our legal and social services to some of the most vulnerable children in New York.”

Last year, more than 40,000 children travelling alone were apprehended at the US Southern Border. Despite their impoverished economic status, these children are not provided with a court-appointed lawyer. According to data from Syracuse University’s TRAC Program, without legal representation, immigrant children have only a 17% chance of success in court, despite eligibility for relief under United States immigration law.

To address the needs of these vulnerable children, Safe Passage Project specializes in recruiting, training and mentoring pro bono attorneys to become adept in representing immigrant youth in Family Court, Immigration Court, and with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Since its founding, the small nonprofit has taken on full representation of over 1,000 unaccompanied immigrant children, and has maintained a success rate of over 80%. The funds provided by the Keith Haring Foundation will enable Safe Passage Project to accelerate its growth and to overcome the increasing obstacles in US immigration law. With this grant, Safe Passage Project plans to take on full legal representation of an additional 200 children over the course of 2018 and 2019.

“The significance of this cannot be overstated. With these funds, the Keith Haring Foundation has ensured that Safe Passage Project will be able to fight for more children than ever in the years to come. Every new case that we are able to take on brings us closer to our vision of a world where no child faces Immigration Court alone,” continued Leimsider.

“We are so very proud to renew and increase our investment in Safe Passage Project,” said Julia Gruen, Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation.  “Haring believed in giving children opportunities to live their lives creatively and without fear.  We continue to celebrate his legacy through this meaningful and urgent partnership.”

Before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1990, Keith Haring established his foundation to ensure that the causes he cared about continued to receive support. The Keith Haring Foundation focuses on giving to organizations that assist marginalized children and organizations involved in education, research and care related to HIV and AIDS.


To download a PDF version of this press release, click here.

NPR Features Safe Passage Founder Lenni Benson

NPR recently aired a piece highlighting the plight of migrant teens in detention centers. They spoke with immigration advocates, including Safe Passage Project Founder, Lenni Benson to explore the challenges that these teens face.

You can listen to the piece and see the full transcript here.


Pod Save the People Features Safe Passage Supervising Attorney, Stephanie Gibbs

This week, Crooked’s ‘Pod Save the People’ featured Stephanie Gibbs, Supervising Attorney at Safe Passage Project, to talk about some of the current issues that immigrant youth are facing. Hosted by DeRay Mckesson, this weekly podcast delves into social, political, and cultural issues with local and national experts, leaders and influencers. Stephanie joined Mckesson on the show along with Irma Solis at NYCLU to highlight some of the ways in which the DOJ, ICE and local police are putting immigrant children at greater risk of deportation. Stephanie shed light on the challenges presented by the current administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ efforts to restrict immigration judges’ ability to  administratively close cases.
You can listen to the full segment here, beginning at 39:00.

Safe Passage Founder Lenni Benson Wins 2018 Candlelight Award

Lenni Benson, Safe Passage Project’s Founder, Director and Senior Advisor is the recipient of the 2018 Candlelight Award. Presented at the James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation 2018 Annual Gala, Professor Benson was honored with this prestigious award for her leadership in supporting immigrant youth in New York City. The award acknowledges Professor Benson for her extensive contributions to the field of immigration law as well as her incredible efforts to provide legal relief to immigrant youth.

Safe Passage Project couldn’t be more proud to congratulate Lenni Benson on this exciting and well-deserved award!

Fragomen Worldwide Tackles the Diversity Visa and Supporting “America First”

Safe Passage Project applauds the recent article co-authored by Austin T. Fragomen, Jr. and Safe Passage Project’s Vice President of the Board, Careen Shannon, taking on the recently hot topic of the diversity visa and the small yet unique role it plays in our immigration system. Both are partners at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy, LLP, seasoned immigration attorneys, and members of the Safe Passage Project community. See below for an excerpt of the article, and read the full piece here.

Supporting “America First” Through Diversity in Immigration
A small, largely overlooked source of immigrants to the United States—the diversity visa (DV) lottery program—has unexpectedly been in the news in recent months. After a 2017 terrorist attack in New York City on Halloween was attributed to an Uzbek national who had immigrated to the United States in 2010 after being selected in the DV lottery, President Donald J. Trump called for an end to that program. A second, unsuccessful terrorist incident in New York in December 2017 was attributed to a person who came to the United States through “chain migration,” stemming from a relative who had immigrated thanks to the visa lottery program.

In January 2018, President Trump reiterated his desire to terminate the DV lottery. Along with construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Trump said that eliminating the program would be a precondition for signing legislation to protect the young people who had been shielded from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

A lottery is probably a crazy way to run an immigration program. But dismissing the virtues of diversity in immigration is short-sighted and could have harmful long-term effects on America’s competitive position in the global economy.

Read the full article here.


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