Attorney David Heffernan talks Immigration with Attorney Alex Solomiany

On Behalf of | May 25, 2021 | Podcasts

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Welcome to First off, let’s kill all the lawyers. So an off misquoted Shakespearean quote from the 1500s. But even today, a lot of people still think well, that’s might be a good start if we killed all the lawyers. I’m David Heffernan, and I’ve been practicing here in South Florida help an injured people for the last almost 30 years. My goal behind putting this show together is to bring some people in other local lawyers that have been in different fields talk about different fields of law, talk about trending topics in law, and hopefully walk away with the thought that maybe that’s one less lawyer that we can add to the list that we’re going to kill. So my guest this morning, is one good friend of mine. Alex Solomiany is one of the top immigration lawyers known in Florida, but but actually nationwide. He’s been doing it for close to 25 years. And Alex, welcome. Thank you. Thank you for having me, David. My pleasure. So let’s talk a little bit about before getting to what immigration laws. How did you get into law and why. So I think I got into law because my father wanted to be a lawyer. And he couldn’t be a lawyer because he had to leave Cuba when Castro came into power. So he had to leave Cuba to stop his education. So I think that through him pushing that we not just me, but my other three brothers all became attorneys. So you’ve got a whole family? Yes, attorney. Yes. Hopefully, we’ll put them on your list of not killing them as well. Maybe one by one, we can take them off. Yeah. So I know you started out doing criminal defense work. How is it then that you shifted to immigration law? Well, immigration law was something that always interested me when I was in law school. The immigration law class in the clinic I took were run by a sole practitioner from New Orleans, who really taught immigration law, the practical aspect of immigration, that we weren’t just reading books and theories and studying cases, but he actually taught us how to be immigration lawyers. And I, I always left with that interested in practicing immigration law. And when I got out of law school, and I started practicing criminal defense, there was a lot of, of my clients that also were not US citizens. And with immigration law, if you commit a crime and you’re convicted of a crime, you may be removed from the United States, you may be placed in deportation proceedings. So I found myself talking to a lot of my criminal defendants about immigration law. And then the person I was working with, we decided to give it a go and start an immigration law practice as well. And that’s how I became involved in it. So you, and I know, that’s what you totally focus on now, because you’ve become board certified. But what does it mean for somebody in a in a field of law to become board certified, to become board certified, you have to devote a large percent of your practice in the field that you’re becoming board certified on, you have to be able to demonstrate that you’ve not excelled in the field, but but that you’ve handled tough cases that you can discuss with the Board Certification Committee, take extra credit hours related to immigration law, so and then pass a test that’s handled by the Florida Bar. And once you pass the test your board certified, and you keep on renewing that board certification by demonstrating that you’re practicing mostly immigration law, and talking about the cases that you’ve handled. And now that I’m board certified, I can say that I am an expert in immigration law. Alright, so as an expert, let’s break this down. It seems obvious, but but I mean, what is immigration law? What does that mean? Like? I get the obvious, okay, you help people get in the country when not but but I know, it’s much broader than that. So what are the types of things that an immigration lawyer does? And when would somebody need an immigration lawyer? Right? So the way I try to explain this is that there’s two main ways for somebody to immigrate to the United States or remain in the United States once they’re here. There’s employment based immigration, for example, through offers of employment investment opportunities in the United States. And there’s family based immigration, meaning that if your parents are US citizens, or if you marry a US citizen, you can apply for residency. So basically, the goal of an immigration lawyer when talking to a client and when assisting a client would be how do I get you from coming to the United States, ultimately to becoming a citizen. So there’s a pathway to that. You first come to the United States, maybe with a tourist visa, or work visa, you work your way to becoming a lawful permanent resident, either because of that family based immigration petition or an employment based immigration petition, then you become a lawful permanent resident. As a lawful permanent resident, you still need an immigration lawyer for several reasons. One of them is if you want to apply for citizenship, but also because anybody that’s in the United States that is not a citizen, United States, they’re here with a green card, or they’re here with a visitor’s visa or any other type of visa, and they violate the immigration law. They can be placed in deportation proceedings, where the government United States through the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to remove you from the United States and deport you back to your country of origin. So a lot of individuals think that well, if the only way I’m going to get the point is if I commit a crime, and that’s not correct. Immigration Law. If you violate any of the provisions of the immigration law that would render you deportable. That is you commit crimes, you commit fraud against immigration, you do anything to violate your status here leads you to go to court in front of an immigration judge where the government is going to try to remove you from the United States. I represent individuals through all aspects of immigration law from bringing you here to the United States, ultimately, to achieving the goal of becoming a US citizen. You mentioned immigration courts, because obviously, and I don’t think a lot of people know this. The courts that I practice in, are not the courts that you practice on. I mean, 73 West Flagler, you know, where that civil courthouses are even the federal courthouse, and we’ve got split. We have state courts here, that we do civil trials, and we have federal courts here that do civil trials. But immigrations got its own system. Yes, there’s an immigration court system. There’s a there’s not an immigration court in every state, but most of the states do have an immigration court, where they have judges assigned to hear immigration cases, and all they’re doing is cases related to immigration removal proceedings. For example, somebody comes to the United States illegally, and they’re caught at the border, and they want to apply for asylum. They apply for asylum before an immigration judge. So an immigration judge will hear an asylum case, they could hear a case of somebody that is trying to avoid being deported because he committed a crime. And he’s asking the judge to waive those charges of removal based on the family relationships you have he has here in the United States or she based on acceptance of responsibility for a crime they committed and based on hardship, to that person or the qualifying relatives in the United States, spouse, children, parents, that would suffer an extreme hardship if that individual were removed from the United States. Okay. These judges, they wear a robe just like the judges do appear in front of there’s no jury trials and immigration. Basically, it’s the immigration judge, the immigration attorney, defending the respondent, which is the alien and removal proceedings, and then the trial attorney, which is the equivalent of the prosecutor. He represents the government and prosecuting the charges against that individual. Now appeals though, from the immigration courts. Go back into what the federal court system first, you appeal at the admin level, meaning that if the immigration judge issues a decision that you don’t agree with, you have the right to appeal that decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Virginia, that quarter of that Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia covers all immigration decisions by all judges in the United States, Puerto Rico, Guam and Hawaii. If the Board of Immigration Appeals issues and adverse decision that you want to appeal, you can appeal that to the court of appeals in the district in the federal district where the immigration court proceedings took place. So for example, if I have a case, in the immigration court in Miami, I went to the Board of Immigration Appeals, they denied my clients appeal, I can then appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Alright. And as an immigration lawyer, you said there’s there’s courts in most every state, you can practice in all of those courts, right? Because obviously, I’m licensed in Florida. And I can practice on all the courts in Florida and I can practice in federal court system. But if I go to Georgia, or I go to some I have to then get invited in apply to practice in that court for that single kit, right with immigration. My representation for a client can be anywhere in the United States, I can appear in all immigration courts, by virtue of me being a Florida attorney and also having, you know, been admitted to a federal bar as well. I can appear and represent clients in any immigration court in the United States. All right. We certainly don’t want to get down a political road. But But when you get into politics, immigrations, a hot ticket on either side. Okay, so everybody talks about immigration policies, and that’s things that they run on the shift in the White House, how has that affected immigration? And and I guess, question being, do we have a crisis now, because that gets bandied about and again, you know, the news sources are tough, but but but So how has the status of immigration law changed with a change in the White House? Well, we have to go back to the last administration. When the last administration came into office, they completely followed on all the campaign promises, and really got tough on immigration in areas where they don’t need to be tough. Because in my opinion, what happened with the last administration is they criminalized immigration. Yes, there are individuals that are here in the United States, whether they are here legally or illegally, that commit crimes. But they also categorized individuals that come in seeking asylum. And they appear at the border with their families, and they have no criminal record. They’re good people they come in, they’ve also categorized those individuals as criminals. And what I mean by that is that they decided that anybody who came in to the United States or anybody that was here illegally, and remember, there’s been 11 million people illegally in the United States for many years. Now, their numbers probably higher. They decided that anybody who’s here illegally is going to be categorized in the same level as a person that is a criminal by definition of having been convicted of crimes. So a lot of people ended up being detained. A lot of people ended up having their right to apply for asylum taken away, because the Trump administration change policies and the attorney general who can take a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals, and reverse it on his or her own, did that. Whereas you have many people from Central America, for example, that are coming in fleeing domestic violence, or fleeing gang violence. In the past, those individuals could qualify for asylum, if they demonstrated that what happened to them rose to the level of persecution on account of membership in a particular social group, the Trump administration through Attorney General Sessions, his first Attorney General, took that decision that said that those individuals qualify for asylum based on membership in a particular social group and said, No, this is no longer a social group. So women that had come here, fleeing partners that we’re about to kill them. And from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, countries that don’t really give protection to women, who are trying to flee domestic violence situations, were suddenly found here, where they couldn’t apply for asylum. That was one big change with with the Trump administration. Now, what’s happened with this administration is that they’re trying to reverse some of those policies that really made no sense. For example, also dealing with asylum, a lot of people that came to the come to the United States to seek asylum, just will go from Mexico and appear at the immigration checkpoint in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Sam here, I want to apply for asylum. What would happen in that situation is that individual will then be detained by the Department of Homeland Security, until they’re able to have a credible fear interview, where they meet with an asylum officer probably within two to three weeks of their arrival, maybe less. And that asylum officer will hear the reasons that they want to apply for asylum and determine whether there’s a possibility that this individual may get asylum after a full blown hearing. And if they determine that they have a credible fear, they’re allowed to continue the process of applying for asylum. If the individual has no criminal record is not a risk of flight or a danger to the community. Usually those individuals are released. They come and reunite with families here. And then they go through court proceedings, whether it’s in Miami, New York, or wherever they live, to apply for asylum. What the last administration did was saying no, in order to what they thought was deter people from coming in illegally. They said, if you’re coming to the United States illegally, and you want to apply for asylum, we’re going to make your way to Mexico. And we’ll let you know when to come for a hearing to determine whether or not you’ll get asylum. So what happened was it led to 10s of 1000s of people stuck in Mexico waiting to be scheduled for a hearing. People were living under bridges in 10 cities, women were being raped. Children were being victimized. It was a big problem. The Biden administration ended that program, the migrant protocol program, they ended that program and now to date, they’ve admitted 8000 people in not necessarily released them, but brought them in to do the processes. It used to be with prior administrations. So that’s one big, big thing that he that he did away with, and I think it’s contributed to then it not only happened with the change of the Trump to Biden administration, but it happened during President Bush administration. It happens. During most administrations, there’s always a period of time where they talk about immigration, and people outside the United States think, Oh, it’s finally going to be that the US is going to give an amnesty or a great immigration reform, let me make my way to the United States, so I can take advantage of it. And that’s when you get the the surges at the border, right? So people in the news will say, you know, it’s a mess. It’s there. Everybody’s coming in, you know, there’s no border control. That’s not true. There are a lot of people that are trying to get to the United States, but it’s not like the doors are open. There’s still a process that they have to go through. Yes, there’s a lot of children in immigration facilities waiting to be reunited with families and all that, but it’s not something that I can tell you. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it. No, it’s been like this before. It happened during the Trump administration. And there was a surge, it happened during the Obama administration, Bush. And anytime there’s talk about immigration, people think let me get to the United States, because that way, I may be able to get legal there, because this President is promising. Great things. So you’ve been doing this for 25 years? So the question, I guess is, does the immigration system work? Okay, because again, it and I know it gets bandied about as a political hot ticket, you know, each side wants to say, oh, that system’s broken. We have open borders, and this and that, and and obviously, we don’t, you know, or we have a crisis at the border. So does our immigration system work? Look, there’s things that work, and there’s things that don’t work. I can tell you that. And there’s things that need that work, but need to be better, need to be more efficient systems. For example, one thing that’s happened, and it’s not only because of the past administration, I mean, COVID had something to do with this as well is there’s a huge backlog of cases in immigration court. With the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is the agency that handles benefits, they grant residency, citizenship and things like that, for example, today, if I were to file a case for you, because you want to apply for citizenship, it’ll take over a month for immigration to even acknowledge that they received the application. Because, obviously, because of COVID, to have less staff, it creates a backlog. I have cases that have been pending in immigration court for over three years, and are now rescheduled till 2023. There’s not enough immigration judges in the United States for the backlog of cases they have. So those are things that can be fixed, you know, those systems work, but they need more support for them to work. There’s there’s other things that I think would, it’s not a matter of fixing a system. But there’s like I said earlier, there’s 11 million plus people here in the United States that are here illegally. A lot of those people are what they call the dreamers are people that came to the United States, not because it was their decision, but they came as a 123 year old child with their parents, so that no choice in the matter. They came here, they graduated high school, some of them go to university, they Graduate University, and then they have no ability to work. And they have a lot to contribute to this country. So I think a lot a way to fix the immigration system is to enact some type of comprehensive immigration reform that is going to take into account out of this 11 million people say that 10 million of these individuals are law abiding people that pay taxes, have family here, own property, have an education, speak the language, have a lot to contribute to the United States pay taxes in the United States. You need to do something for these individuals, because it’s not feasible to say we’re gonna deport 11 million people, because that’s never gonna happen. And I think that enacting some type of comprehensive immigration reform will go a long way towards fixing what some people are saying is a broken system with those 11 million, until you put a system like that in place, isn’t there an inherent fear on their behalf of you know, I just need to keep under the radar now, because I might get deported. I mean, I’ve done this, I’ve done it, the United States I paid my taxes, but but do they almost live in fear. If you don’t put some system in place to say here’s how we’re going to sort of work this system out know for sure they live in fear. A lot of people are afraid to even apply for a benefit when they do offer a benefit. For example, we spoke about the dreamers there’s DACA, which is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. You enter the United States prior to a certain date. You were under 15 years of age at the time. You graduated high school or enrolled in high school or went to the military, you can apply for what is called deferred action, which is a temporary protection. It allows you to work here legally, and it allows you to be here legally, but it it’s not permanent. So I’ve had individuals that have told I’m afraid to apply because what happens if they take the program away, which was done during the Trump administration, they took the program away. So you had 1000s and 1000s of people that were now fear that they could be placed in deportation proceedings. Luckily, the Biden administration has reinstated that program. But there’s definitely people that are afraid to put their name in a form and give it to immigration, because they don’t know what’s going to happen. If there’s no immigration reform. Yes. But don’t we have a huge flaw in the system, when it seems like Trump came in signed a bunch of executive orders, Biden came in signed a bunch of executive orders that undid those executive orders. And I mean, if we can just sign executive orders, every time we change in the White House, what gets done, and that’s the fear, you know, things hopefully, are heading in the right direction. But what happens if the next president four years or eight years down the line is saying I’m going to be, you know, hard on immigration, because that’s what I told my base, and that’s what I promised during my campaign, then we’re back to this. That’s why, you know, it’s not a Democrat or Republican issue, both sides need to come together and enact some type of immigration reform that’s going to deal with the problems. Not put a bandaid on one specific problem. Okay, we dealt with the asylum issue, or we dealt with the dreamers. Now, let’s try to think about the whole problem and try to put a fix to it, whether it’s one law at a time, or whether it’s, you know, separate laws that need to be passed, depending on the individuals that it’s going to affect, but it’s not going to be executive orders are not going to do anything. They’re just putting a bandaid on a huge hole. Alright, you touched on COVID. And a few weeks ago, I had Jim nosa chin here. And we talked about the way that the civil justice system, obviously was greatly impacted by the pandemic, and we’re still seeing that impact quarters slowly getting back in there. We’re trying jury trials on a very limited basis. And everything pivoted I mean, all of a sudden, we went to zoom. And so there’s been a lot of good things that have come out of that. How is COVID? With exception, obviously, the backlog, and we have that in the civil justice is but how is COVID affected the immigration courts tremendously. The immigration court was closed, probably for a good six months from the beginning of the pandemic till about September, October. And even now, it’s the operations are very limited, for example, they’re not hearing any new cases, if you were placed in removal proceedings last year before the pandemic, the first hearing you have is called a master calendar hearing. The immigration court is not doing any master calendar hearings, they’re only doing individual hearings, which are basically the final hearings or trials. Okay. So obviously, that’s creating a huge problem, because judges are now working only one week in in court, the other three weeks, they’re not in court, they’re working remotely. And they only hear cases one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Whereas an immigration judge could do maybe four, or five or sometimes more individual hearing cases a day. Now they do it the most. And are they only five days out of every month? Do they have to be in person? Or are they doing No, no, there’s no video hearing hearings yet. here in Miami. They’re trying to do a system where the attorneys can appear by video, but the respondent which is the non citizen has to be there in person. For example, the only hearings that I’ve had have been detained, individuals, individuals are detained, those hearings are going to continue, right, the judges are still gonna do them. But what happens is, most of the time I appear by phone, the trial attorney, the prosecutor will appear from by phone from his or her office, and the non citizen will be appearing by video or by phone from another place within the detention facility. So needless to say, you want to be next to your client. You want to be able to talk to your client or your client talk to you if there’s any issues that come up during the hearing. And that’s not there. And who knows, at least through June, it’s going to continue the same way. I just explained it to you. So is there a situation that that could be done video remotely? Or is this you know, I look at things, courts have done a great job. We do motion counters, discovery disputes, everything else in the courts have really, really done a nice job zooms efficient, and I think zoom will stay in that place. Obviously jury trials can’t be I mean, you’ve got to be able to look jurors nei jurors have to be able to look a witness in the eye. I mean, it’s the observation of everything going on. So is there a way to do these immigration things Virtually all, or are they going to truly be required? I mean, in other words, are you doing a disservice to people? If if they are appearing video, I think I personally think you are, because in a lot of these hearings, as in your hearings, in your trials, credibility is huge. Right? And, you know, even, you know, how do you really see whether a person is telling the truth or can get a feeling to where that person is telling the truth when they’re even wearing a mask? Right? You know, so by phone or by, you know, you don’t see the person at all? So I think it’s, it’s a disservice. And if I had a choice, obviously, when a client is detained, you don’t want to prolong the case, because it’s longer that he’ll be he or she will be detained. But for my hearings for my clients that are not detained, If I can’t have everybody in court, I’d rather not do the hearing. And I’d rather reset it until things are a little bit calmer, and you’re able to appear in court. Yeah, there were there were issues in some of the civil trials that started back where lawyers took exception, again, with a witness wearing a mask, because it is it’s all about credibility. It’s about a jury assessing him. It’s about a judge raining when they’re telling you sent in 100 100%. crates crates an issue. What about deportation during the pandemic, what what happened? I can’t imagine they were picking people up and deporting people. They’re still deporting people. You know, obviously, there are certain safeguards that have to be in place, but I do know that they’re still deporting people to Haiti, deporting people to, you know, live in Europe, wherever, you know, as long as they come to an agreement with that country of how they’re going to quarantine the person prior to leaving, and that there’s COVID test and all that. But yeah, the deportation machine has not stopped. That’s interesting. That’s interesting. When is it going to? I mean, if he if you take out the crystal ball, when does the effect of the pandemic, finally get behind assuming such a big assumption? Assuming we continue to progress in the way we’re going, and we’re slowly starting to open back up, but assume there’s no major hiccup with that? How long is it before? Maybe never since you’re telling me they’re they’re sort of ill equipped already. There’s not enough judges look that the courtrooms are small, the waiting areas are small. And prior to pandemic, on any given day, there could be 1000s of people that going are going through that immigration court building here in Miami. On a daily basis. Sometimes when you have these hearings, the master calendar hearings, which are preliminary hearings, you have a courtroom that standing remotely. I don’t think they’re ever going to allow that again, right. I think that they have to, they’re trying to get rid of some of these hearings by asking attorneys to file written pleadings, asking attorneys to talk to opposing counsel and try to see if some stipulations or agreements can be made, so that the case can be scheduled straight for a final hearing for an individual hearing. So I think that smart people can figure this out and see how they can keep on hearing as many cases as possible. But not every case needs to be heard. You know, the government can say look, which is one proposal that just came out, and I was reading about it last week is telling the immigration courts, look, you have such a huge number of cases that are just waiting to be heard. let’s identify the priority cases and cases that are non priority, which is what happened during the Obama administration. In the Obama administration. They said, Look, our enforcement priorities are to deport criminals, deport sex offenders, deport individuals that recently arrived to the United States and have no relief from removal. But if you’re an individual that’s been here, let’s say for over 10 years, you have no criminal record. You have a family, you pay taxes you work. That’s not that wasn’t a high priority case during the Obama administration. And I think it’s not going to be a high priority case during the Biden administration. So those individuals, we could ask the judge to administratively close their case, meaning I’m going to just take it off my docket, I’m going to suspend the deportation proceedings against this person. And if either party wishes to for whatever reason, you can file a motion to re calendar, but it takes that case off the judge’s docket. And I’m telling you, there’s hundreds of 1000s of cases in in Florida alone, that can benefit from that. And that would come a long way to clearing the backlog of cases that are that assist right now. And it’s not something not only here in Miami, but it could be applied nationwide as it was during the Obama administration. And then you can get the case back the court back to operating as it should. Alex, I appreciate it. I’ve learned a lot about immigration law that I didn’t know and hopefully everybody else has Certainly if you have any immigration questions, Alex is great guy to go to. I don’t think we fixed all the problems of today but but you know, maybe at least put a dent in him. And and maybe this is one lawyer, we can take off that kill list. So thank you.