Philly’s Immigration Lawyers on Helping Our City’s Most Vulnerable

The morning after President Donald Trump enacted the first travel ban on January 27, 2017, attorney Jonathan Grode, US Practice Director of Green and Speigel, received a phone call. Travel to the US from seven predominantly Muslim countries had been immediately restricted and six members of a Christian Syrian family were being detained at Philadelphia International airport, their sponsor family members needed help. The incident received world-wide news coverage, and prompted protests at the airport. PA Governor Tom Wolfe, Mayor Jim Kenney and other politicians were among the protesters.  


“The Syrian family had been in the process for over 14 years,” said Grode.  “It was pure bedlam as no one could get any information and the border agents themselves really did not know what and how to follow the loosely drafted protocol from the President. The family was sent back to Doha on the next flight. However, with the help of the ACLU, a couple of amazing colleagues, Congressman Charlie Dent, and importantly the will of the people, we were able to get the family back to the US a mere 10 days later. It was truly remarkable.”


During this first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has made good on his promise to send all “illegal aliens” back to their countries. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have raided restaurants, hospitals, schools, and homes, arresting immigrants.


Immigration lawyer Valentine Brown, Pro Bono Partner, Duane Morris, says, “When the first Travel Ban was announced, clients were very confused and worried about what it meant for them. I regularly had legal permanent residents and naturalized US citizens contacting me to make sure they could travel, even though the ban had absolutely nothing to do with them.  Since that time there have been many other issues such as the suspension of premium processing for H-1B applications for 6 months, the threatened termination of the H-4 Employment program, increased scrutiny and denials of standard H-1B visa applications.”


In September 2017, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that during a nationwide sweep to arrest undocumented residents, the largest number of arrests took place in Philadelphia – 107 were caught in raids.


Philadelphia is a Sanctuary City. “Officials will not detain individuals simply because they are not in lawful immigration status either as visa overstays or as persons that entered the United States without having been inspected and admitted at a port of entry by agents of United States Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  The reason for this policy is that the city recognizes that undocumented immigrants that have not been alleged to have violated any criminal, traffic, regulatory ordinances or state laws do not present any risk to public safety or to the health and welfare of the residents of the city, explains Brown.


Javier Garcia Flores outside of Arch Street First United Methodist Church
Javier Garcia Flores outside of Arch Street First United Methodist Church


Mayor Jim Kenney has vowed to maintain Philadelphia’s Sanctuary City status despite Federal threats. The city of Philadelphia sued Attorney General Jeff Sessions and in November 2017, Sessions was not permitted to deny the city public safety grants because of sanctuary status.  Stressing the importance of creating trust between immigrants and police, Kenney said,  “Our police officers and criminal justice partners will receive much-needed federal funding, and our city will be able to continue practices that keep our communities safe and provide victims and witnesses the security to come forward.”


On October 11, 2017, Javier Flores Garcia, walked out of the Arch Street United Methodist Church after almost a year in sanctuary.  Garcia is being allowed to live and work in the United States after his attorney, Brennan Gian-Grasso, was able to obtain a deferred action while he waits to receive a U visa.  


Philadelphia’s immigrant lawyers give voice to the most vulnerable that arrive in our city


Lawyer Enrique Rosario, tells a story of a functionally illiterate Guatemalan woman who entered the US with her 12-year-old daughter. “The woman was working for a man (a U.S. citizen) who was twenty years her senior. The man repeatedly threatened to turn her over to the immigration authorities unless she submitted to his sexual advances. Eventually the woman agreed to marry the man as she felt this was her only alternative to obtain permanent residency for herself and her minor daughter. Unfortunately, after she married the man he began physically and verbally abusing her and threatening to assault her child. The woman escaped with her child and was living out of state under an assumed name in a shelter for abused women and children for well over a year. 


The woman came into my office seeking immigration advice and I filed a petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the provisions of the Violence Against Woman Act (VAWA) along with applications for Lawful Permanent Residency for the woman and her minor daughter. That was twelve years ago. Today the woman and her daughter are United States citizens, and her daughter recently graduated from a very fine law school. Sadly however, there are many other cases that end very tragically for people that endure many hardship and make incredible sacrifices in an effort to make a better life for themselves and their families.”


Today’s immigrants are facing three big issues according to Brown, “ Uncertainty, changing adjudication standards and the plain lack of avenues to legal status under our current law. The uncertainty and changing standards are a result of the Trump administration’s implementation of numerous new policies and a tightening of regulatory interpretations at USCIS (US Citizens and Immigration Services) as well as numerous pronouncements through Executive Orders, tweets and the like, that overturn years of USCIS practice and procedures.


USA Today reported that there are currently 3.5 million “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children. Amidst confusion and fear, Philadelphia’s dreamers are desperate for answers. Philadelphia lawyers continue work to keep up with changes.


Brown sums it up, “There are few if any avenues to legalize status, regardless of length of residence, family ties, etc. We have not had any real new immigration legislation since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1997. At that time the 3 and 10 year bars were introduced into the law, having the unintended consequence that undocumented people could no longer leave the US and come back, thus causing them all to remain in the US undocumented for extended periods of time. Prior to 1997, there were several avenues under the law, in which the undocumented could apply, pay fines and fees and obtain legal permanent residence if they were sponsored by a family member or employer.”


Philadelphia has put its arms around the immigrant community. Organizations like Juntos, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, City of Philadelphia Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians provide support and solace.


“Beneath its sometimes gruff exterior, Philadelphia really does embrace its moniker as the City of Brotherly Love. Our citizens are welcoming, inclusive and most of all kind to our newest members of our community,” says Grode. It’s about ending injustices against immigrants regardless of their status.