Sandra Muñoz has put off getting a green card for decades, always assuming she had plenty of time. But with less than seven weeks until President-elect Donald Trump is sworn-in to office, the East Los Angeles resident is now rushing to learn how to change her status.
Like many others in her position, Muñoz is worried Trump will make good on his campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants in the country without legal status, so last week she attended an information session at Ruben Salazar Park in hopes of getting advise on how to best protect herself.
The first thing to do is stay calm, advised immigrations lawyers brought in to answer questions and to help with the citizenship process.
“People are very scared, there’s a lot of anxiety,” acknowledged Valerie de Gonzalez, one of the attorneys at the event. “As attorneys, though, we know that any change, good or bad, doesn’t happen overnight.”
Trump’s election has cast a cloud of worry, stress and uncertainty over the undocumented immigrant community. They and their loved ones are living in fear of separation if immigration laws and enforcement tightens under the new Republican president.
Nora Phillips, an attorney with Phillips & Urias, LLP in East Los Angeles has been specializing in immigration law for nearly 10 years, but acknowledges that immigration attorneys do not know what will happen once Trump steps into office but believes there is still hope, especially in California where elected officials have sworn to protect the undocumented.
Phillips points out that many people who could qualify for legal residency under current immigration laws haven’t applied and urges they waste no time getting the process started.
A person may be eligible for a Green Card – or permanent residency status – through a family member, their job, asylum or other petitions, it was explained at the forum. Parents of a U.S. citizen 21 and over, the spouse of a U.S. citizen and unmarried children under 21 of a U.S. citizen are given the highest priority for visas. Those who don’t qualify under one of those categories can still apply, but must wait until one of the allocated visas from their home country becomes available, which could take years. Still, even when a person is eligible, the process isn’t always smooth and can drag on.
Just ask Martha Galaviz of East Los Angeles who asked attorneys why the green card petition she submitted on behalf of her brother 10 years ago has still not been approved.
Phillips quickly pointed out that every case is different and the length of the process can vary from a few months to decades.
She advises anyone who wants to fix his or her immigration status to at least set up a consultation with an immigration attorney before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.
“We’re lucky we’re in Los Angeles and not Idaho,” Phillips joked. “We have a lot of immigration lawyers to choose from here.”
Muñoz, however, is not as confident. She told EGP finding an attorney she could trust has been a challenge, especially with all the notarios or notaries trying to pass as immigration consultants, but have been known to scam people unfamiliar with the immigration process.
“If you don’t feel comfortable and can’t ask your attorney questions, get a new attorney,” Phillips told attendees, emphasizing, “Some lawyers don’t deserve your confidence or money.”
One of the biggest scams perpetrated by unlicensed notarios is the promise to provide a work permit but then failing to fill out the proper, required documents. In fact, many people have been duped into filling out applications for asylum, only to land up in court facing deportation, Phillips warned.
But it’s not only those without legal status who are worried.
Many of the people who signed up for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — an executive order issued by President Obama in 2012 that has since granted three-quarters of a million undocumented immigrants relief from deportation — are also feeling uneasy since the election.
As part of the DACA process, applicants were required to provide immigration authorities with information about where they live, work, or go to school, and in some cases, about other relatives who may also be undocumented.
“DACA is the big unknown,” acknowledges Phillips. Because it’s an executive order rather than a law passed by Congress, “Trump can end DACA on his first day if he wants.”
Deportation is an undocumented immigrants’ worst nightmare and Phillips says those who have been deported before or been arrested even for minor offenses are at greatest risk for deportation under a Trump presidency.
Yet, even with a deportation on their record, some undocumented immigrants may still be eligible for legal residency. As Phillips puts it, immigration laws are tough but complicated, and whether a person can stay in the country legally could come down to when the offense on their record took place.
“Rules are different for everyone,” emphasized Phillips, so “don’t compare your case with others.”
Phillips told EGP that frantic calls from potential clients have increased dramatically since the election and their staff has been busy trying to reassure callers that Homeland Security will not be snatching people off the streets.
“We know it’s going to get worse, but some of the things he promises are impossible.”
Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights is a long time community and immigration rights advocate. Resurrection is not far from Salazar Park, and large numbers of Church parishioners are undocumented, leading Moretta to hope the meeting would be packed, but attendance was small.
“This room should be full because, as you know, it affects almost the entire community,” he said in disappointment.
“If it’s not someone in your house, you know of someone who will be affected by this.”