El Norte May 2013 (English)
Op Ed July 2013
Any new immigration law should allow for forgiveness.
By Thomas Esparza, Jr. and Jacqueline L. Watson, Board Certified Specialists in Immigration law
We are on the cusp of finally realizing federal immigration reform in the United States. As Congress debates this much needed bill, it is important that we are diligent in ensuring that all aspiring citizens have a fair shot at the pathway to citizenship. There are those who believe that anyone with a criminal conviction, no matter how minor or old, should be shut out of this process and deported. Jacqueline and I strongly disagree.
As an attorney for the last 37 years I spent much of my life watching the criminal justice system try to put away people who I thought were a danger to society. This is the role society created for the criminal justice system. But the criminal justice system has become increasingly entangled with our broken immigration system. All to often the criminal justice system takes on racist overtones as the same laws are enforced differently depending on which county you were stopped in, how much money you had and the personal agenda of the law enforcement officer.
I have watched as immigrants faced unequal treatment and more severe penalties in criminal court than their American-born counterparts, undermining the integrity of the criminal justice system, prosecutors’ ability to do their jobs and peoples ability to immigrate.
For example, while those born in the United States could sometimes have their cases dismissed upon successful completion of probation, many immigrants never have that chance.
Immigration laws often require deportation for a long list of these type of criminal offenses without any consideration of how long ago it happened, or what the individual has done with his or her life since. As a result, many immigrants are deported without a judge exercising discretion to consider how many years they have lived in the United States, their family ties or whether they started a business, served in the military or otherwise contributed to their communities.
Given the reality of these extreme laws, prosecutors and judges often feel forced to manipulate the justice system to avoid the even harsher immigration consequences that would result in an individual’s banishment from the United States. Too often immigrants feel forced to contest criminal charges because pleading guilty, which often results in a more minimal criminal sentence for citizens, would guarantee them mandatory detention and deportation.
I have felt obligated to recommend different pleas or amending of the charges filed against someone because I knew mandatory detention, deportation and destruction of the family would be unjust.
Reform legislation must amend these harsh criminal bars and ensure that so-called aggravated felonies no longer trigger mandatory detention and deportation. There should be no additional aggravated felony offenses in the reform bill. It is unfair and unjust for immigration penalties to far surpass the criminal sanctions for these offenses.
The criminal justice system would work more efficiently and justly if prosecutors and defendants knew that, in these cases, immigration judges would at least be able to consider all the individual factors, including U.S. military service, rehabilitation and family ties, to determine if it is in the best interests of the United States to let someone remain in the country. Protecting and expanding the conditional waiver in the current bill would allow this to happen; the waiver must be included in the final legislation to ensure fundamental due process safeguards.
Jacqueline and I see clients every day who have had their lives destroyed by a simple criminal record for which there is no forgiveness by the immigration system. We welcome your visit to see what relief if any you can expect by the new immigration law. We do not take retainers for people who want to be our clients if an immigration reform becomes law. If there is no change in the law I would have to give the money back. Before you pay one of the many attorneys who are now taking retainers for “the new law” ask them to put into writing that they will give you your money back if there is no reform. There are several changes that happen every week in immigration law. The changes are not new laws but are from Court decisions that interpret the law. Jacqueline L. Watson, is one hell of a lawyer. She recently celebrated 14 years as a lawyer. I am proud to say that we have worked together now for three years. We will tell you straight up what can and can not be done with your case. Sometimes the answer is clear, sometimes the answer is in the hands of the Examiner or Immigration Judge. Sometimes the answer is no. Look at the advertisements in the Spanish languange newspapers in Austin and you will find dozens of “immigration lawyers.” So few are specialists and so few have any experience. Most are learning as they go at your expense. Don’t’ take no for an answer before you call us. We can be reached at 512 -441-0062. Thomas Esparza, Jr. and Jacqueline L. Watson, Board Certified Specialists in Immigration Law