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‘Difference between life and death:’ Local law nonprofit defends immigrants amid rising tide of fear

Katie Herbert Meyer and Stephen Legomsky discussed the efforts of Migrant & Immigrant Community Action Project in St. Louis on St. Louis on the Air.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Katie Herbert Meyer and Stephen Legomsky discussed the efforts of Migrant & Immigrant Community Action Project in St. Louis on St. Louis on the Air.

Since Nov. 9 and the results of the presidential election, the phones have been “ringing off the hook” at St. Louis’ Migrant & Immigrant Community Action Project. MICA is a local nonprofit that provides immigration law services at a reduced cost for documented and undocumented immigrants who cannot afford to pay the thousands of dollars it would take to retain an attorney in asylum, work authorization and other kinds of immigration cases.

“There is a lot of fear right now,” said Katie Herbert Meyer, the program coordinator and supervising attorney of MICA. “People are very afraid of what the future holds for them and their families.

MICA, which is funded through non-governmental grants, private donations and client fees based on a sliding scale, currently carries a 379-person case load on the desks of four attorneys. Started in 2012, the organization originally only had two attorneys but has been able to expand to meet a rising need for immigration lawyers.

Related: After Trump's victory, undocumented families face racial aggression, find support in St. Louis

Who MICA serves

Meyer was joined in studio by Stephen Legomsky, Professor Emeritus at Washington University School of Law and former Chief Counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He said that the services MICA provides are “literally the difference between life and death” for her clients, many of whom are women and children who lived through ghastly human trafficking experiences or who escaped violence in Central America.

All of MICA’s clients are low-income and would find it difficult or impossible to pay a private attorney. Many don’t qualify for free services because they do make some income but they don’t have thousands of dollars to pay for a private attorney. Legomsky said it is essential that people who take an asylum case to immigration court have legal representation or they don’t have a chance to win.

Meyer said many of her clients are ‘mixed families.’ That means some people in the family are U.S. citizens while others are foreign-born. Many of them have lawful permanent residence or a green card but want to pursue citizenship … and that path is not clearly set out. Contrary to popular belief, simply marrying a U.S. citizen does not guarantee the right to become a citizen or obtain a green card.

A Change in Administration

Clients such as these are particularly unsettled as the Trump administration’s stance even on legal forms of immigration are not spelled out.

While the Obama administration has deported more people than any other president in U.S. history (2.5 million people between 2009 and 2015), Legomsky said that number includes many people who were apprehended at the border and turned back. That’s a bit less costly than what Trump proposes, which includes tracking down illegal immigrants who have already settled in interior portions of the country.

“To be fair, a country has to respect the rule of law and does have sovereign interests in maintaining the integrity of its borders,” Legomsky said. “Most would agree it is morally permissible and obligatory to police the border. That doesn’t do good if people enter illegally and they aren’t at least subject to deportation.”

That’s where immigration lawyers come in, defending those who truly cannot return back to a life-threatening situation in their country.

“I don’t expect deportations to slow down at all,” Meyer said. “We as an organization, all we can do, we will continue to walk with our clients and pursue every possible avenue of relief under our legal system.”

Meyer’s biggest fear is that president-elect Trump will rescind DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), an executive order which gave children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents illegally a reprieve from deportation and work authorization under certain requirements. She believes it may constitute entrapment or violate due process to deport people who voluntarily registered with the government through DACA.

Related: For 2 St. Louis friends, fear of deportation means fear of losing family

There’s little word on what will happen to programs such as DACA, however, so in the meantime, Meyer is simply trying to reinforce the positive with her clients: “You have permission to work for two years. All we can do is wait and see. If the government attempts to remove you, we will walk with you and stop that if we can under the law.”

As for asylum cases, Legomsky said that Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has restrictive views on immigration and could reset the criteria for asylum through the board of immigration appeals, even though criteria for asylum are typically set by statute through Congress. That’s also a wait-and-see game.

“These clients have tremendous needs that only lawyers can effectuate,” Legomsky said. “In this case, by donating to MICA, a person quite literally can save the life of a child or a mother.”

Meyer hopes as immigration talks escalate over the next months, people will look behind the rhetoric about if a person is here legally or illegally.

“Look to the humanity behind it,” Meyer said. “Everyone has a story. Everyone who came here when they were fleeing something horrific had to make a difficult choice: to make a dangerous journey to the U.S. or stay and perhaps face certain death in their country. I hope we can look to the humanity behind and ask why instead of immediately judging without the facts.”

For those still confused or concerned about what comes next with the new presidential administration, Meyer invited listeners to attend two upcoming community talks on “What This Election Means for Immigration” happening on Dec. 7 and Dec. 14. More information on those events can be found here.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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