Immigration laws dictate fate of refugees


*Editor’s note: Due to the current political climate and protection of sources in the story, The Journal has given a source an alternative name. Sources spoke in Spanish through a translator. 

ICE releases refugees from detention centers with ankle monitors to be worn until their court dates. (Photo by Christine Tannous)

DONNA, Texas–Lola felt unsure of what to do when her visa expired in 2011, but she said she believed she could not safely apply for citizenship. Because she did not renew her documentation, she said, she continually fears arrest, and the feeling has only grown over the past few years.

“There was a time when a lot of raids were going on that were stopping cars,” Lola said through a translator. “We didn’t go out during the day. We only went out at night to the store because if we saw the lights of other cars, we would come back home.”

Lola said the U.S. granted her daughters a consistent education, an opportunity they otherwise would have missed living on their family’s ranch in Mexico. They found groups like A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE) Support Center–a nonprofit organization where Lola volunteers–to help them assimilate to the American culture.

Lola said she did not know the best way to obtain citizenship upon moving to the U.S., so she did not apply. Contributing factors, including where a person comes from, their family members and their intentions in the U.S., dictate if immigrants can live in the country, though not all immigrants choose to become citizens.

Lola does not regret her decision to stay illegally, she said, but she hopes someday she can find her family a path to citizenship.

President Donald Trump said the incoming caravan of about 7,000 Latin American migrants showcased the weaknesses in current policies when he hosted a Make America Great Again Rally on Oct. 27. He said he thought people wanted to emigrate because his presidency improved the country into a nation in which people wanted to reside and encouraged the crowd   to take hard stances against lax immigration policies.

“How can we take everyone in?” Trump said. “Some of these people are people that we do not want, and some of these people I would love to have because we need them, but they have to apply.”

Immigrants must go through the naturalization process to become citizens. (Graphic by Hanna Holthaus)

Applying for asylum

Norma Pimentel works as a sister of the Catholic Church and oversees Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Pimentel helped start the Humanitarian Respite Center in San Juan, Texas, and began working with refugees through the program in 2013. She said refugees crossing the border intentionally look for Border Patrol agents.

“[Refugees] turn themselves into the Border Patrol,” Pimentel said. “They didn’t enter the country, get into the country, to run away from Border Control. They feel that they want to request protection and asylum, so they’re actual very happy to see a Border Patrol agent.”

Stephen Legomsky began working with immigration policy in law school when he volunteered at an immigration clinic.

He has since worked as a professor at Washington University St. Louis and as Chief Counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security. He now works as an expert witness of the litigation challenging the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, otherwise known as “DACA,” legislation.

Before entering the country, Legomsky said, the government requires immigrants to prove themselves. He said they have to fit into categories to enter the country, and if they do not, the government will not admit them. For instance, they could prove to have family in the U.S. or that they will benefit the workforce.  

“For the overwhelming majority of our undocumented residents, it’s not a question of applying the “right” way and waiting their turn in line,” Legomsky said. “The problem for them is that there simply isn’t any line for them to wait in.”

Legomsky said three primary options existed to gain refugee status.

Applicants can file an affirmative application for asylum, Legomsky said, if they already reside in the U.S. A United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer will then interview the immigrant and decide whether to grant the request or begin removal proceedings, during which the person may reapply for asylum.

If a USCIS officer decides to initiate removal proceedings, migrants can apply for asylum with an immigration judge. Either the government or the applicant can appeal the judge’s decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals within the Department of Justice. If they are still not granted asylum, the applicant can appeal that decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Pimental primarily interacts with the third type of refugee applicant: the person looking to apply at a U.S. border.


Legomsky said the government places these immigrants in “expedited removal” proceedings. A USCIS officer interviews each person, looking for “credible fear” of danger or persecution, Legomsky said.

If the officer determines legitimate need, Legomsky said the officer places the immigrant in regular removal proceedings, thus giving them time to apply for asylum. Without evidence of credible fear, he said the government can remove the applicant. Refugees can choose to have an immigration judge review the decision, Legomsky said, but not as many people know the option even exists.

Toni Eaton said she feared immigrants crossing the border illegally would negatively impact her achievement of the ‘American Dream.’ Eaton attended Trump’s Murphysboro rally after driving three hours from her home. She said she worked 96 hours a week earning a salary she did not want to share with immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally.

“It is the minds, thoughts and processes of people from all over the world being put into one place to live together peacefully that makes this the great country that it is,” Eaton said. “Illegal immigration is just going to tear that down. We don’t have the room for illegal immigration.”

Gaining refugee status can be difficult, Legomsky said. When immigrants enter the country with no existing knowledge of the asylum system and without a lawyer, he said they may not know how to proceed.

Legomsky said Congress requires immigrants looking to apply for refugee status to do so within one year of entering the country. If they fail to start the process and the government detains them prior to their removal hearing, they can try to prove extraordinary or changed circumstances.

For example, if they can prove the conditions of their home country have worsened or they had good reason for failing to meet the deadline, Legomsky said, they could potentially stay.


A mother and her child wait for Respite Center employees to call them with information. (Photo by Hanna Holthaus)

The sacrifice of citizenship

Anne Geraghty-Rathert travelled to Texas and worked to educate ARISE volunteers about the citizenship application. She said the people working at ARISE shared their struggles of national identity with her. She said she never realized how many immigrants never actually wanted to come to the U.S., but rather they thought they had no other choice.

For people away from the border to understand immigrant struggles, Geraghty-Rathert said, they need to rekindle their empathy.

“As if it isn’t horrible enough to live in abject poverty with no hope of education or anything but then to also live in constant danger, to have your children live in constant danger, in some ways it wasn’t unlike a lot of things that go on in certain communities in St. Louis and East St. Louis, right?” Geraghty-Rathert said.

When Lola travelled between countries legally, she said she still feared being stopped, despite her active visa. To know someday the government could not reject her as a citizen or permanent resident, however, she said would alleviate her worries and validate her sacrifices.

Lola said she longs to see the brother she left in Mexico. She has not seen him in seven years, but to return would be to risk discovery and permanent deportation. She said she could not imagine returning without legal status.

“I would be so sad to return [to Mexico] without my [U.S.] residency because then everything I did would be worth nothing,” Lola said.

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