At a recent meeting of immigration lawyers in San Francisco, a top Immigration and Naturalization Service official flashed his INS badge and jokingly asked Peter Schey to show his "green card" proving legal status in the United States.
Minutes earlier, Schey, an immigrants' rights attorney originally from South Africa, had accepted an award from his peers for "excellence in the field of immigration litigation."
Schey did not laugh--especially since he and other immigration attorneys, who believe their role is to police the INS, sometimes feel they should also carry badges.
Schey, who represents mostly indigent Central American clients as founder and executive director of the National Center for Immigrants' Rights Inc., is part of a band of about a dozen activist attorneys who aggressively attack the way the INS treats immigrants, particularly those from Central American nations.
1980s Civil Rights Issue
ACLU Foundation attorney Mark Rosenbaum is one of them. In an office decorated with posters supporting the United Farm Workers and the sanctuary movement, Rosenbaum said he and his colleagues are working on what they believe is the civil rights issue of the 1980s: Protecting the rights of immigrants detained by the INS.
"The government comes down most brutally on the refugees," said Rosenbaum. His view is that the INS represents "all that is mean and tawdry in American government."
In Southern California, most immigrants' rights attorneys work for public-interest law firms or legal aid groups dependent on private donations and modest state grants. The attorneys, many of whom are now close friends, frequently work together on cases to stretch their limited financial resources.
The most active among them are politically liberal men and women, many of whom previously handled civil rights and labor cases. One attorney noted that every male immigrants' rights attorney she knows has a beard as a kind of tribute to the 1960s. And, indeed, their approach to the law seems inspired by the idealism of that time.
Services and Data
Some work with multi-service organizations such as El Rescate (The Rescue) or the Central American Refugee Center. These groups offer free legal aid, organize English classes and provide services and information for refugees adjusting to life in Los Angeles.
Most said they moved into the low-paying field because of concern about the rights of refugees fleeing conflicts created in part by American foreign policies.
Their zeal frequently raises the ire of government attorneys who say the immigrants' lawyers exaggerate their clients' horror stories of life back home and rely on tricky legal maneuvers to delay deportation.
"When they say they have won, you have to compare what they asked for and what they finally got (in court)," said George Wu, an assistant U.S. attorney who represents the INS. Wu said that in recent years the INS has only lost one major immigration case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other government attorneys said that unless there are major shifts in public opinion and Congress, the United States will never give aliens the same rights as criminals who are U.S. citizens.
Justice Department View
"Our opponents are zealous and we respect them," said Robert Bombaugh, director of the Justice Department's Office of Immigration Litigation. "But we intend to be just as zealous on the other side."
The government's philosophy is articulated by Harold W. Ezell, the agency's outspoken western regional commissioner.
"In my opinion, illegal immigration will destroy what we know as a free society in the next five to 10 years," Ezell has said. And in a recent letter to The Times, Ezell wrote: "Our country is facing a national crisis when we are on the brink of apprehending 2 million illegal aliens this year."
The application of these views is challenged in court by the Southern California immigrants' rights attorneys. In recent years, they have obtained federal court orders that:
- Prohibit the INS from putting "no-work" provisions as a condition of bail for about 150,000 aliens facing deportation.
- Require the INS to inform every Salvadoran apprehended that he or she has a right to apply for political asylum.
- Require the INS to inform aliens that they have the right to counsel before they are questioned about the time, place or manner of their entry into the United States.
- Require the INS to provide aliens with a list of free legal services and allow all unaccompanied children access to telephones.
Children as 'Bait'
Other pending cases allege that the INS uses the children of illegal immigrants as "bait" to trap their parents and contend the INS should pay attorney's fees to people who win their deportation cases.
"No one should have to file a lawsuit to escape death," said the ACLU's Rosenbaum.
Although the immigrants' attorneys have won victories by forcing the INS to modify specific practices, many of the broader, class-action cases are pending at the appellate level and destined for the U.S. Supreme Court.