In response to Congress’ failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform, states and localities often consider measures to further decrease immigrants’ access to public benefits and services based on legal status, and/or to increase local police checks of immigrants’ legal status.
Prince William and Loudoun Counties are among the Virginia localities that have taken steps in this direction. Our experiences at Tahirih have shown, however, that turning all local government employees into de facto federal immigration functionaries is a tragic and losing proposition. As a result, we have consistently and vigorously opposed such measures. For our clients, proving who they are and why they are entitled to protection in the United States is often not a simple proposition.
Open the wallet of the average American woman and you will find at least six forms of identification—a driver’s license, credit and insurance cards, various memberships—each of which has an extensive history behind it establishing her identity and eligibility for certain privileges. The average woman who seeks Tahirih’s help, however, comes to us with little more than her name and her story. Even once she is granted asylum or other protections, often nothing as straightforward as a crisp, laminated card signals her legal status to the world.
Fauziya Kassindja, the young woman whose case inspired Tahirih’s founding, had to flee Togo on a false passport, escaping only the night before she was to be forcibly circumcised. Others use false travel documents because it is the persecution of their own governments they are escaping. Still others may have been trafficked into the United States without papers or on fraudulent passports or visas. And even once they reach safety in the United States, many clients cannot send home for their real identity documents since, like Fauziya, they fled family-inflicted harms, or come from countries with rudimentary record-keeping. Our battered immigrant clients face similar hurdles. Abusers often isolate their victims to keep them under control, so many battered women do not have driver’s licenses, leases, or so much as a utility bill or library card in their own names. The passport or visa they arrived on may have long since expired or been confiscated or destroyed by the abuser.
Documenting a client’s identity and story after our initial screening is therefore the work of many more painstaking weeks and months of creative perseverance by Tahirih staff, pro bono attorneys, and others. Tahirih supporters have even traveled back to a client’s home country to retrieve documents and evidence. Political science, medical, and mental health experts are often brought in to analyze and support her claim. Sworn affidavits are taken of neighbors, clergy, or shelter workers who can attest to the client’s circumstances. Medical and police records, protection orders, even personal correspondence—each of these small pixels together help build the compelling composite picture. Bit by bit, as she literally “proves” herself, the client’s identity emerges from the shadows of abused anonymity. Identity questions often plague our clients not only in proving their case, but also in participating in it. One Tahirih client, a trafficking victim, was denied entry into a federal courtroom for her own hearing and had to wait in the lobby because she had no identification other than the “Notice to Appear” she had received. Only through her attorney’s insistence on the personal intercession of the by-then irritated judge was the client allowed in the courtroom. What should have been a five-minute hearing became a drawn-out, contentious drama that threatens to repeat itself every time that client has to appear in court.
The lack of “acceptable” identification and the difficulty of status verification have also prevented many clients from accessing benefits to which they are lawfully entitled and which they urgently need. Another Tahirih client was granted asylum and became eligible for resettlement benefits. The government resettlement agency insisted that she produce an “I-94” form, not just the judge’s written decision. It was only after two attorneys and two social workers contacted the immigration authorities five times, made three visits to government offices, made several inter-state trips (and retrieved cold storage records from Missouri!) that this woman—six months later—finally began receiving the benefits she desperately needed to survive day to day.
Difficulties in proving their identity and status affect every aspect of our clients’ daily lives and impede each step they try to take to achieve self-sufficiency. Clients often have trouble renting apartments, obtaining jobs, getting driver’s licenses, or even bus passes, traveling by plane, and continuing their education. Most of our clients could not hope to navigate these bureaucracies on their own and must rely on Tahirih’s intervention to explain their special circumstances.
In our vocal opposition to proposals to increase local immigration status-checks, we have shared the stories and perspectives above and have repeatedly emphasized just how vast and confusing an array of immigration “paperwork” there is. There are scores of different immigration statuses, and many different ways in which status may be documented. Mistakes have already been made by state and local government officers that have resulted in unfair denials of access and unjust arrests.
And if local agencies confounded by this morass presume they must deny services to anyone but US citizens and permanent residents, and if local police step up status checks, even lawfully present immigrants will be deterred from coming forward to access vital public services for fear their status could be called into question and they might wind up unjustly deported rather than helped.
Inevitably, such measures provoke a terrible “chilling effect” throughout immigrant communities. Perversely, in the end, it may be the eligible and the vulnerable, like the women and girls served by Tahirih, who are left out in the cold.