Fear prevalent in Summit County’s immigrant population, attorneys say
February 9, 2017
Elevation Law, a firm in Dillon that handles immigration cases, still shows signs of transition at offices it relocated to last week: some frames lean against the mostly bare walls, and a box of files sits neatly arranged in a corner of the two-room space.
Also in transition is the entire immigration system itself, which has been buffeted by uncertainty since President Donald Trump was elected on promises to take a harder line on the issue. He has promised, among other things, to ramp up deportation and build a wall on the Mexican border.
During his first week in office, Trump signed an executive order signaling his intent to follow through with the wall, which he has said will help protect American jobs and drive up wages.
He has also signed an order temporarily barring travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, a move that has been blocked by federal judges pending further court action.
Those moves have done little to clarify the ambiguity surrounding the future of immigration in the U.S.
"Immigration lawyers for the past couple of months have been banging our heads against the wall. We just don't have all of the answers, and unfortunately you can't predict the future," said attorney Karen Santric, who left a law firm in Denver to start Elevation about a year ago.
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Since then, her practice has grown from a handful of clients to around 80. They are generally people who have some form of documentation — like a visa or green card — but need help navigating the country's byzantine immigration bureaucracy.
"Nobody knows how this is going to play out," said Judy Phillips, who along with Sarah Christy runs Frisco-based Bethany Immigration, a nonprofit that helps immigrants achieve legal status. "I'm in contact with people all of over the country, other organizations in the field of immigration, and nobody knows."
The sense of uncertainty is all the more palpable for immigrants themselves, who Santric and Phillips said are grappling with the implications of life under an administration that has shown its willingness to act quickly and decisively to upend years of immigration policy.
"We've been answering a lot of questions over the phone from people who are worried about traveling if the don't have citizenship," said Santric. "There are also a lot of people who've been green card holders for 20 years, and now they're afraid that could be taken away."
At a recent visit to Frisco Middle School, Santric said, she got questions from several children who were nervous that their parents would be deported at any minute.
Young beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — an Obama-era policy that gave legal status to undocumented immigrants who came here as children — are particularly fearful, Santric said.
President Trump likened the program to amnesty during his campaign and said he would end it, although that could mean simply blocking new applicants. A more extreme option would be ordering the hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries to surrender their work permits.
"DACA is a humanitarian program that helps our country," said Phillips, whose organization has many clients that are beneficiaries. "These kids are chomping at the bit to get an education or get a job."
Bethany Immigration has seen an uptick in activity in recent weeks, Phillips said, although she couldn't say whether that reflected a normal fluctuation or a spike related to actions taken by the Trump administration.
Overall, she said, the group has seen consistently more calls since around October, and that pace hasn't let up.
"We feel like some immigrants, because of the politically charged atmosphere and uncertainty for how this is going to play out, some are holding back to see what happens and some want to rush their paperwork through," said Phillips. "It's a mixed reaction."
Many people in Summit County have been eager to offer their help to undocumented residents.
Three weeks ago, Carlos Conti started an unpaid internship at Elevation, becoming its second employee. He reached out to Santric and offered his help, he said, because he recognized a clear need for legal services given the potential changes coming.
His first day on the job was Jan. 20 on Inauguration Day.
"I don't think the wall is actually going to happen," Conti said. "But regardless the psychological affect is huge, and the psychological burden of being undocumented is huge."
Phillips said her organization has seen more unsolicited donations coming in and has more people offering to help than she knows what to do with.
Recently, she said, a client of hers was eligible for a green card but couldn't meet the income requirements without a sponsor.
"Then this local person came a long and said, 'Look, I'll sponsor her,'" Phillips said. "I was blown away by that."
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