A naturalized U.S. citizen from West Africa is worried about whether the “extreme vetting” promised by President-elect Donald Trump may prevent his Muslim wife from receiving a visa, his District-based attorney said.
In Virginia, a college professor with a green card has applied for U.S. citizenship because he’s worried it might soon be harder to do so — especially as a married gay man.
And a Hispanic couple in the Washington suburbs — one in the country legally, the other not — is debating whether to apply for a provisional waiver, which means the undocumented spouse would have to leave the United States for an immigration hearing and could be stuck south of the border if the waiver request is denied.
“There’s absolutely a risk,” said Ricky Malick, the couple’s Manassas-based attorney. “But doing nothing doesn’t feel like a good option anymore.”
Immigration attorneys in the Washington area and across the country say they have seen a surge in calls, consultations and clients since Election Day, a growth fueled by Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric and the across-the-board gains of Republicans with hard-line views on border issues.
Trump’s vow to create a “deportation task force” and launch “extreme vetting” of immigrants from Muslim countries has alarmed both immigrants and advocates, who say they haven’t seen this level of fear — among people born in Europe and Asia, as well as those from Africa and Latin America — since the period immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I would call it enhanced trepidation, an amplified anxiety,” said Cynthia Rosenberg, a Baltimore immigration attorney. Her caseload since the election has doubled, she said, with six naturalization interviews scheduled on a single day this past week.
Joung E. Lee, the chair of the D.C. chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said her group’s members have seen a 20 to 25 percent increase in calls and requests for consultations since Nov. 8. Jennifer Varughese, a partner at Livesay & Myers law firm in Fairfax County, estimated that her consultations have jumped by one-third.
Varughese’s clients tend to be white-collar professionals who are seeking green cards or sponsoring a spouse. But she said she has also talked since the election with people who came to the United States as children and who qualify for protection against deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
That remedy, enacted not by Congress or executive order but by an Obama administration policy memo, could be overturned with the stroke of a pen, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, an immigration restrictionist think tank that has been hostile to President Obama’s immigration policies and has suggested 79 steps a new president could take to change them.
The list includes requiring mandatory DNA samples from immigrants to prove whether they have blood relatives in the United States, reducing the number of work visas available for summer workers or au pairs from overseas, and forbidding the release of minors caught crossing the border illegally to relatives who are undocumented themselves.
In a nation where 14 percent of the population are immigrants, with about 11 million — or one in four — here illegally, the impact of such changes would be widespread.
“The fear this time is global,” said Malick, the Manassas attorney. “This fear transcends all corners of the non-U.S.-born population.”
The college professor, who asked that his name not be used to avoid negative attention from authorities, said his fellow foreign-born academics have been discussing immigration issues daily in a private online forum.
“There’s some urgency now because of all those comments Trump has made,” he said.
Even H-1B visa holders, skilled foreign workers brought into the country by companies who say they can’t find U.S. citizens with needed skills, feel they may be at risk, according to those who work with them.
Morris Deutsch, of the Washington-based Deutsch, Killea and Eapen law firm, said some of his corporate clients have expressed concern that such visas might be restricted or revoked, based on questions from Trump and some of his allies about whether visa holders take jobs away from American workers.
While immigrants wait for the Trump administration to offer more clear and specific policies than have been expressed on the campaign trail, lawyers are advising them not to delay citizenship applications already in progress, to make a plan for their children or family members in case they are incarcerated or deported, and to always carry a copy of their proof of residency, if they have it.
Even before the election, during a divisive presidential campaign that featured harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, applications for U.S. citizenship “exceeded expectations,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency reported higher workloads and more overtime in the offices that process such requests.
Based on USCIS statistics, the Pew Research Center calculated a 26 percent spike in citizenship applications from the first nine months (October to June) of the federal government’s fiscal 2015 to the same period in fiscal 2016. Part of that rush was driven by noncitizens who wanted to vote in the election.
Deportation fears are nothing new for those who have entered the United States without proper documentation, or who have overstayed their visas. In the past eight years, 2.5 million immigrants have been deported, federal statistics show, as the Obama administration has cracked down on those with criminal records and a surge of border crossers from Central America. (A report issued by Pew Research Center last week said the number of deportations was 333,341 in fiscal 2015, the lowest annual total since 2007.)
Trump, who talked during the campaign about a mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants, told “60 Minutes” just after the election that he planned to focus on those involved in criminal activity, a population he estimated at 2 or 3 million.
Any mass-enforcement action could delay other people who are waiting for hearings on a variety of immigration matters, which is also causing concern, said Karen Grisez, who handles immigration litigation in the Washington office of the Fried Frank law firm.
CASA, an immigrants’ rights group based in Maryland, said that since the election, 1,940 people have attended its “know your rights” seminars, with the biggest one to come Sunday in Silver Spring.
“Our community is very disheartened,” said Fernanda Durand, a CASA spokeswoman. “The public is clearly worried, and they want answers.”
Last weekend, CASA held a rights session in Falls Church, Va. Paulina Vera, the group’s staff attorney for immigration, told a dozen adults how to handle questions from police or immigration agents who might stop them on the street or come to their door demanding identification and proof of citizenship.
The rustling of papers and quiet side conversations stopped, and people listened intently as Vera described in Spanish what a search warrant looks like and what questions a driver is required to answer.
When she moved on to the importance of designating a trusted friend or relative with the legal power to oversee a family’s children if the parents were jailed or deported, the people in the room had questions.
What if the friend is undocumented? What if my children are dual Mexican and U.S. citizens? Whom should I call if I am detained?
“People have definitely verbalized that they are worried,” Vera said later. “ They want their status to be more permanent. Tensions rise any time the immigrant community feels attacked.”