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After new federal rules, St. Louis immigration lawyers say clients fear fast-track deportations

Protesters gathered in downtown Clayton in February 2017 to show soldarity with immigrants and refugees following the announcement of President Trump's executive orders.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters gathered in downtown Clayton in February 2017 to show soldarity with immigrants and refugees following the announcement of President Trump's executive orders.

The Department of Homeland Security’s latest announcement on the Trump administration’s immigration policies have alarmed local immigrants and their advocates.

In two memos released Tuesday, the department expanded the scope of immigration raids, undermined sanctuary areas and called on local law enforcement to help with federal immigration enforcement.

St. Louis immigration lawyer Jim Hacking said his office phone lines have been busy since the announcement, with clients unsure of how to move forward.

“People are really and utterly freaked out,” he said. “They’re wondering if they should carry their papers on them, they’re wondering what they should do, they want to have a lawyer on speed dial. Frankly, people are scared.”

Immigration attorneys in St. Louis say the department’s plan to expedite deportations for unauthorized immigrants who have been in the country unlawfully for up to two years amounts to a "fast-track deportation process.”

“You don’t even get to see a judge who might be able to identify a form of immigration relief or a way you could stay in the country that you might not have been aware of,” explained Jennifer Ibañez Whitlock, a St. Louis immigration lawyer.

Under the Obama administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had a hierarchy of unauthorized immigrants that they should be targeting for deportation, Ibañez Whitlock said. Those priorities included people with criminal records who only recently arrived in the United States. Under the Trump administration's new memos, she said, “everyone is fair game.”

“It seems like the focus now is identify and remove people as quickly as possible,” Ibañez Whitlock said. “For me, as an attorney, that raises serious due process concerns — because even non-citizens have certain due process rights in the United States.”

The new rules make it clear that the Trump administration wants to increase the number of people being deported, Hacking said. But for that to happen, he said, federal authorities will have to put more resources behind the effort.

Absent that investment, Hacking said, the Trump administration will have to cut corners.

“Everyone talks about the wall, but right now there’s not a mechanism in the courts to move things along faster,” Hacking said. “I think what these memos are aiming to do is strip away the due process for a lot of these people, if they don’t have papers on them proving that they’ve been here for more than two years. They’re going to kick [immigrants] out without much real analysis as to whether or not they have valid claims to stay in the United States.”

The Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project, a local advocacy organization, is hosting Know Your Rights and Power of Attorney presentations for unauthorized immigrants and their allies. Presentations are held across the city and explain many of the changes to immigration policy brought on by the new administration.

Ibañez Whitlock said it's easy to empathize with her worried clients. She immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in 1989 during the country’s civil war.

“I often say, ‘but for the grace of God, I’d be in the same position as a lot of my clients,’” Ibañez Whitlock said. “For me, it came down to somebody approving a green card application 20 years ago.”

Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn