by Caddie Nath-Folsom
In a time of unprecedented fear and uncertainty among immigrant communities, non-citizens may be afraid to pursue or defend their legal rights in state civil matters. This article is intended to help civil attorneys without immigration expertise more effectively assess the risks that their non-citizen clients face, confront immigration-related threats from opposing parties, and ensure access to justice for non-citizen litigants.
Opponents in cases involving divorce or custody, employment, landlord/tenant disputes, or tort and contract matters sometimes try to use immigration status as a litigation weapon, threatening explicitly or implicitly to report or expose a non-citizen party to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to force settlement or gain an upper hand. Given the current political climate, these threats may be very effective against clients. Civil attorneys therefore need to be prepared a) to assess whether being reported to ICE is something the client actually needs to be worried about, and b) if it is, to push back against the threat and safeguard the client’s ability to exercise his or her rights under the law.
How then can a civil attorney without a background in immigration law determine whether being reported to ICE poses any real risk to a client? The attorney can fairly effectively assess the relative risk by determining whether ICE, or its umbrella agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has already detected the client’s presence in the United States. People who are “detected” include those with valid legal status and those with ongoing immigration court proceedings. If DHS is already aware that the client is present in the United States and the client is not currently detained, it means that the client is either not subject to detention or that DHS has determined that it isn’t necessary to detain this particular person. In either case, DHS is very unlikely to send ICE agents out to arrest that individual just because the opponent makes a report. However, if the client is “undetected,” or not currently on the DHS’s radar, the danger of being reported to ICE is very real. In 2017, the Trump administration announced the elimination of earlier policy guidelines that prioritized the detention and deportation of those with criminal convictions or who posed a threat to public safety. Today, ICE focuses its enforcement resources on whomever it can find.
While in some cases it may be difficult to ascertain whether or not a client is detected, usually the attorney can make an educated guess by talking to the client about her immigration history. Most often, undetected clients either entered the U.S. with a valid visa and then remained after its expiration or crossed a land border into the U.S. between ports of entry without being caught by border agents. In either case, it is important to determine whether the client has ever had any contact with immigration officials in the U.S. or was ever ordered to appear in immigration court and failed to do so. Those who fail to appear for immigration court hearings, almost without exception, are ordered removed (deported) in absentia, even if they were minors at the time of the hearing. Clients with old removal orders are at the greatest risk of detention or deportation if an opponent exposes them to ICE. If apprehended, the prior removal order can be immediately reinstated, and they can be deported from the U.S. in short order.
Where it is difficult or impossible to determine if a client is undetected, the attorney should err on the side of caution and assume that an opponent’s threat to report the client to ICE is something to be taken seriously.
It is important to discuss the risk of exposure with undetected clients, particularly where there are indications that the opponent may use the client’s immigration status as a litigation weapon, such as prior explicit threats to have the client deported. For some clients, the cost of possible exposure may outweigh the benefit they stand to gain through litigation.
As an advocate, no matter the client’s level of risk, the lawyer should be ready to head off and push back against immigration threats. This may require creativity in developing a litigation strategy to protect the client and it will mean actively working to prevent immigration status from becoming part of the case. The lawyer should be cautious about pre-arranged events, including depositions and settlement conferences, which might provide an aggressive opponent with an opportunity to expose the client to ICE. Advocate to keep information about the client’s immigration status out of discovery, particularly if it is raised as an intimidation tactic and not relevant to the merits of the case. Lawyers may also remind opposing counsel that threats related to immigration status may violate the Rules of Professional Conduct and could amount to criminal extortion. See Mass. Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 3.4(h) and (i), R. 4.4(a), R. 8.4(d), (e); Wash. Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 4.4 cmt. 4 (2013); NC Formal Ethics Op. 2005-3 (2005); Ass’n of Bar of City of N.Y. Comm. on Prof’l Ethics, Formal Op. 2017-3 (2017).
It is also critical to bear in mind Fifth Amendment protections in preparing for discovery and cross examination that could elicit admission to acts that constitute uncharged criminal acts (such as unlawful border crossings and aiding others to enter the U.S. unlawfully).
Finally, attorneys representing non-citizen clients should be prepared to address client fears about attending court hearings due to widespread reporting on ICE enforcement actions in courthouses. In June 2019, a federal district court judge temporarily enjoined all ICE enforcement activity in courthouses in Massachusetts. See Ryan v. ICE, 1:19-cv-11003-IT (D. Mass. June 20, 2019). Even before the injunction, ICE activity in courthouses appeared to be limited to targeted arrests of specific individuals, all of whom were attending criminal hearings, and did not include random checks of persons in a courthouse. While the injunction stands and ICE maintains current policies, non-citizen clients should not fear attending hearings on civil matters in Massachusetts.
The immigration regulatory landscape is complex and constantly changing. The information here provides only a high-level roadmap to help in assessing risk. Clients with more complex immigration histories or specific questions regarding eligibility for immigration relief should be referred to a qualified immigration attorney.
Caddie Nath-Folsom is a staff attorney at the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts in Brockton. She represents survivors of crime in immigration and family law matters.