Tamara King aims at the reality of immigration law
After hearing numerous accounts of misinformation and confusion from the parents of her students, Tamara King, who teaches English as a second language (ESL) at the Edgartown School, decided to organize a public forum covering the intricacies of immigration law. The quietly publicized forum drew about 25 people to the Oak Bluffs School last Wednesday. The event was independent of the school system that employs Ms. King.
Josh Goldstein, a Boston-based immigration lawyer and a personal friend of Ms. King's, spoke with Islanders and employers who had questions about the complex system. "Immigration law isn't easy," he told the mix of people in the audience. "If it was, you wouldn't be here on a beautiful day."
Ms. King said she organized the meeting because of the lack of information - and a proliferation of misinformation - circulating through the immigrant community on Martha's Vineyard. She is planning to hold more information sessions in the future.
"I think people out there, Americans, don't understand what is going on with these people," Ms. King said after the forum. "They see them coming here, not paying taxes, working, and get this racist attitude. But some of these people have babies back home they cannot feed, so they come here."
As an ESL teacher, Ms. King has been approached by many parents for help. They relay stories of lawyers who take thousands of dollars in fees - up to $10,000 in one case - and issue lofty promises but produce no results.
"If you have a lawyer and it's been a year and nothing has been done, there's something very wrong," Mr. Goldstein said to a startled audience.
The crowd, seated inside the school gymnasium on folding chairs while kids bounced basketballs on the other side of the partition, was a mix of Brazilian, Australian, and Irish natives, among others. While each story and situation was unique, one common thread weaved its way through the discussion: the difficulty of obtaining a green card, which is given to individuals who become legal permanent residents of the United States.
"It seemed at one point that there really was going to be some immigration reform, it seemed really close," Mr. Goldstein said of the highly publicized immigration debate earlier this year. "But right now there are no new immigration laws. Take advantage of the laws that exist while you can, and prepare yourself for any changes that may be made in the future."
Mr. Goldstein discussed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 under President Ronald Reagan, which criminalized the act of knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant and established a one-year amnesty program for illegal aliens who had already worked and lived in the U.S. since 1982.
Further reform came in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, which established national standards for state-issued driver's licenses, and funded reports and pilot projects related to border security.
Mr. Goldstein predicted that another wave of reform would occur in the next five years. "It has to," he said. "It is too much of a problem."
After offering a free consultation to all in attendance, Mr. Goldstein, who works solely with immigration and nationality cases, focused on what he called the ten most common immigration mistakes.
Making sure to file away copies of all documents pertaining to your immigration case, paying taxes, and attending your deportation hearing topped his advice list.
"It is unlikely that they will detain you as you have just proven that they can count on you to show up in court," wrote Mr. Goldstein in the information packet distributed to audience members. "So, you really have nothing to loose by going."
He also recommended some phone numbers to call for immigration information, and some to stay away from. "USCIS (U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services) is a bad bureaucracy," Mr. Goldstein said. "They're disorganized, they loose things, and they don't know what they're doing."
As Ms. King translated Mr. Goldstein's presentation into Spanish, some in the audience interrupted with veiled questions about a friend or relative who was unsure of how to move forward in their quest for a green card or extended visa.
Questions about legal status related to school enrollment and employment led to a lengthy discussion about the tax identification (TIN) number. This number, issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), allows individuals who are not eligible to obtain a social security number to pay taxes.
Although the individual can then pay taxes, Mr. Goldstein explained, lacking a social security number still prevents someone from holding a job legally.
"In the future if you find a way to adjust your status the USCIS will want to see your tax returns," Mr. Goldstein wrote. "You want to look like a good guy."
"So, what do you need in order to be legally hired to work?" asked one employer in attendance. "We are having this problem at my office."
Mr. Goldstein explained that there are many ways for an immigrant to gain legal working status. A green card, employment authorization document, occupational professional training, professional visa, or temporary protective status are only some of the avenues one can explore in order to gain lawful employment.
"And, if you live in America, you should do your best to improve your English," Mr. Goldstein said, since it is now required to pass a language test to obtain a green card or become naturalized.
Throughout the public forum, Mr. Goldstein emphasized that there are two types of immigrants who are termed "illegal," yet in the eyes of the law the two are seen very differently. First, he said, there are individuals who come into the United States with a visa, which means they were inspected and legally accepted into the country for a specific period of time. If they overstay the allotted visa time, they are then in the country illegally.
This class of people is very different from those who hop the border and enter the country with no inspection or documentation whatsoever. Mr. Goldstein stressed that while the former can often gain a visa extension, the latter have little chance of ever living in the country legally.
There are unique circumstances such as individuals seeking asylum, or those who marry U.S. citizens, but those cases are rare, Mr. Goldstein said.