Mount Vernon lawyers, organizations ramp up immigration work

April 23, 2017 GMT

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. (AP) — Mount Vernon immigration lawyer Gabriel Harrison has been busy this year.

Outside of working on cases, he has been volunteering his time at workshops for immigrant rights.

Harrison said while undocumented people have always feared deportation, there is a new fear that extends beyond the undocumented.

“Right now, everyone is completely terrified. That would include people in removal proceedings, people who are here with green cards and are here lawfully,” he said.

Harrison said usually those here legally would have nothing to fear.

But in the time since President Donald Trump signed executive orders that include an increase in Border Patrol agents and deportations, many who once felt safe are now worried about what the future holds.

“I would say myself and other immigration attorneys have spent the last month or so feeling like every single person is calling and asking if their family is going to be deported,” he said.

Harrison is not alone in seeing this rise in concern.

Josefina Beecher of the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council (SIRC) said the organization has been increasingly busy the past few months.

“The change we have noticed in the immigrant community here is everyone is terrified because of the changes that have been threatened (nationally),” Beecher said.

She said the biggest change she has noticed in the past few months is feelings of uncertainty and fear.

Those fears, Beecher said, are being felt for good reason.

“A year ago we were usually getting calls from people who were saying somebody was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), can you help me get them a lawyer,” she said.

Now, Beecher said there are a lot more people calling with concerns about what to do if ICE comes.

“We don’t always know how to respond to that,” she said.


Harrison has been volunteering at workshops to help parents fill out temporary power of attorney forms, which designate someone as a temporary guardian for their children in the event that both parents are detained.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” he said. “All over people are trying to get these power of attorneys notarized to figure out what to do with their kids.”

A similar “know your rights” workshop was held last month by SIRC at Skagit Valley College. A couple hundred immigrants and supporters were given information on how to make emergency plans for their families in case a parent or family member is deported.

The SIRC workshop also walked people through what to do if ICE comes to their home, and gave them information on their rights.

One of those rights is that a person does not have to allow an ICE agent into their home unless the agent has a search warrant signed by a judge, Harrison said.

SIRC has also talked to local churches and schools to address increased anxieties.

Immigration lawyer Carol Edwards has been volunteering at know-your-rights sessions and on the airwaves on KSVR 91.7 FM.

For about a year, Edwards has been co-hosting a radio show, now at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays, that gives people the opportunity to call and ask questions regarding immigration.

Although Edwards splits her legal work between Mount Vernon and Seattle, she said Skagit County is her home.

“This is my community and I am trying to help as much as possible,” she said.

Like others, Edwards is seeing an increase in concern about deportation from those who are undocumented, as well as those who are here legally.

Edwards said it is not uncommon for there to be a range of immigration statuses within one family.

“People are fearful in all kinds of categories, people from all countries,” she said.

One of those concerns involves international travel.

Some who are here legally, but are not citizens, are fearful they will not be able to re-enter the United States after traveling outside the country.

“That’s a fear factor that plays into every category of immigrants, whether they are undocumented or documented,” Edwards said.

Harrison and Edwards both emphasized the complexity of immigration and said getting citizenship isn’t always realistic.

For example, if a parent who came to the U.S. illegally has a child 21 or older who is a citizen, that child can apply for a visa for his or her parent to get residency.

However, in some cases part of that process requires the parent return to his or her country of origin for 10 years, no matter how long they have lived in the U.S.

“You’re basically out of luck,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he is encouraging people to apply for any benefits for which they may qualify to stay in the U.S legally.

If someone is a resident, Harrison suggests they try to naturalize, if eligible, in order to create security for themselves.

“Don’t wait for a person to get detained ... a lot of people may qualify for something and they haven’t done it because they can’t afford it or don’t know it exists,” he said.

Edwards said she wants to remind people that schools, churches and hospitals remain safe places, even with Trump’s executive orders.

In 2011, ICE stated in a memo that enforcement actions will not occur in sensitive locations such as schools and churches unless there are special circumstances.


While there have been concerns that ICE is increasing its presence around Skagit County courts, local public defenders and Edwards said they have not seen that increase yet.

“The question is will it (ICE presence) start happening more,” Edwards said.

Skagit County Chief of Corrections Charlie Wend said there have been no changes in recent years regarding how the jail interacts with ICE.

Currently, the jail will not keep inmates for ICE after their scheduled release. However, ICE keeps an eye on the jail roster and the release dates of inmates who are potentially here illegally.

In April, a new ICE detainer policy took effect nationwide.

Detainers, which are not new, enable ICE to assume custody of undocumented people who had been in custody and charged with a criminal offense.

Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich said that if ICE issues a detainer, the agency wants law enforcement to hold individuals up to 48 hours after their scheduled release so ICE can assume custody.

If someone is going to post bail and ICE issues a detainer, ICE wants the individual to remain in custody up to 48 hours before being released on bail.

In both situations, ICE would be required to have probable cause for the hold, according to its policy. The policy specifies the detainer would be issued with probable cause that the person is undocumented and removable from the U.S.

Weyrich’s concern is that such probable cause does not specify that a crime may have been committed.

“What we are concerned about is we don’t want to hold someone we can’t lawfully hold ... and then have them come back to the county and ask for damages,” he said.

Weyrich said the county wants to cooperate with ICE and there will likely be more talks with the agency.

In other parts of the state, an increased ICE presence has been seen.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst released a letter in March to the Department of Homeland Security about her concerns regarding an increased frequency of ICE officers around Washington courts.

“These developments are deeply troubling because they impede the fundamental mission of our courts, which is to ensure due process and access to justice for everyone, regardless of their immigration status,” she said in the letter.

Fairhurst added that in many areas of the state, a courthouse is the only place where individuals are ensured a public forum where they will be treated with dignity, respect and fairness.

“We have worked diligently to earn and maintain the trust of communities throughout Washington state to ensure that courthouses are that public forum,” she said in the letter. “The fear of apprehension by immigration officials deters individuals from accessing our courthouses and erodes this trust, even for those with lawful immigration status.”


What has really changed in recent months, said Beecher of SIRC, is the number of non-Latinos who are asking how they can help.

“That’s been very heartwarming,” she said. “There has been a huge increase in that kind of concern and people wanting to know more about their neighbors.”

Emilio Benitez, pastor at Iglesia Luterana El Camino de Emaus, the Spanish-language sister congregation of Burlington Lutheran Church, said he has seen an increase in support from the broader community.

“Lots of Anglos in the community ... they see us now and they support the struggle we are facing right now,” Benitez said. “Now we are visible.”

Part of the local outreach includes a local chapter of ACLU People Power, an initiative to support local city and county officials in efforts to protect law-abiding immigrants from deportation.

Robert Coffey, chairman for the local chapter and president of the Mount Vernon School Board, said the chapter is working closely with SIRC to help it in its efforts.

“I think there’s a large outpouring of sympathy for immigrants who have come to this county who have worked extremely hard in difficult jobs supporting our community and economy,” he said. “They have earned the right for respect and civil treatment in our community.”

In the month since its creation, the local ACLU People Power chapter has grown to 93 members and continues to expand.

Coffey said many of the members are those who have been recently energized to become politically active in immigrant rights.

Edwards said she believes the best way to fight fear is with knowledge — knowledge not only of what to do if ICE comes calling, but also of the complexity of immigration and paths to citizenship.

There’s a lot of misinformation on what is happening regarding immigration right now, Harrison said.

“The message we have been putting out is that it is important to be aware, but also to not be panicking, and there is a sense of panic,” he said.

Benitez believes some have forgotten that early in U.S. history, nearly all Americans were immigrants.

“Instead of fear, it should be more about how we are going to respond,” Benitez said.


Information from: Skagit Valley Herald,