Students in Immigrant Rights Clinic win difficult Cancellation of Removal case

Student clinicians in the Immigrant Rights Clinic recently represented a client before the Orlando Immigration Court in an intensive two-day hearing. The students who worked so diligently on the case were Collin Coakley, Danitza Gonzales and Eric Ortiz.

The client, a mother of six United States Citizen children, originally entered the U.S. in the 1980’s and remained here without incident for nearly twenty-five years. After being arrested for violating a noise ordinance and resisting arrest without violence, she was taken into custody and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Through “Secure Communities,” a program advertised to identify and remove “dangerous” criminal aliens from the U.S., it was discovered that she was in the country unlawfully. Instead of being released to her family after her arrest, she was transferred to an immigration detention facility, the Baker County Jail. She was then placed into removal proceedings and scheduled to appear before an Immigration Judge.  She had no other criminal history during the nearly twenty-five years she resided in this country.

Unlike criminal proceedings, individuals of limited financial means who are in removal proceedings and facing deportation from the U.S. are not entitled to counsel at the government’s expense. If unable to secure the funding to hire an immigration attorney, they must navigate complicated removal proceedings pro se. It is even more difficult for immigrants who are detained to retain counsel, and an estimated eighty percent of persons in immigration detention are unrepresented. This is partly due to the remoteness of most detention centers from metropolitan areas with many immigration attorneys and also because of the rapidness of the detained docket, aptly nicknamed the “rocket docket.” 

Luckily for this client, a project existed which was funded by the Florida Bar Foundation and housed by Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA) to provide “Know Your Rights” presentations and free representation to immigrants detained at the Baker County Jail. The client was encountered at one such presentation and provided with free representation which resulted in her release from detention on bond.  She was identified as someone for whom relief from deportation might be available in the form of “Cancellation of Removal for Non-Lawful Permanent Residents.” A commonly held misconception about immigration is that undocumented parents who have children born in the U.S. are automatically allowed to remain here. As this case illustrates, that is simply not true and having one child or several is not enough to secure lawful status in this country.

Cancellation of Removal for Non-Lawful Permanent Residents is extremely difficult to win, but the benefits are enormous. If the individual prevails before the Immigration Court, they will be issued a green card. Given this huge benefit the burden is extremely high and this type of relief is only granted in a few select cases. The most difficult aspect of this form of relief is proving the individual’s qualifying relatives will suffer “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” if their relative is deported. Case law dictates that to meet this requisite level of hardship, the applicant must demonstrate to the Court that their relative would suffer hardship that is substantially different from or beyond that which would ordinarily be expected to result from the alien’s deportation. 

Collin, Danitza and Eric argued that the client’s children would face exceptional and extremely unusual hardship if their mother was deported, because although the hardship to the individual children alone may not rise to the requisite level of hardship, the hardship to the entire family when viewed in the aggregate would indeed meet the requisite level. The students submitted a comprehensive pre-hearing brief in support of their arguments in addition to examining three witnesses and presenting an opening statement and persuasive closing argument before the Immigration Court. In his decision, the Judge commented on the most compelling witness, the client’s seventeen year old daughter who had recently been accepted to a university and will be the first in her family to attend college. When questioned by the students as to what she would do in the event of her mother’s deportation, she responded that she would forgo her opportunity to enroll in college and remain at home to raise her younger siblings in their mother’s absence.

As a result of their zealous efforts to secure relief on behalf of their client and in light of the effective arguments presented by Collin, Danitza and Eric, the Immigration Judge ruled in the client’s favor, granting her Cancellation of Removal and terminating removal proceedings. The client is now officially a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States and can continue to be the dedicated mother she has always been.

Excellent work Danitza, Collin and Eric!