Firsthand look: Immigration lawyer knows full well the travails of her clients

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Immigration attorney Alexandra LaCombe, an immigrant herself, was just 12 years old when she and her family came to the U.S. from Russia.

Thirty-six years later, LaCombe, also the managing partner of the Troy office of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen, & Loewy LLP, remembers her experience as one that is "quite different from those who come here now."

"The U.S. was quite welcoming. My experience wasn't as traumatic as what people coming here today feel," LaCombe said, adding, "I've had tremendous opportunities in America. I've worked hard and I'm very grateful."

Still, LaCombe finds that negative stereotypes of those who come to the U.S. seeking refuge from oppressive governments ignores the reality that compels some to seek safety in America.

"When people say things like 'they're just here to take American jobs,' they really don't know what a refugee looks like or their story," LaCombe said. "My parents were engineers in Russia but because my mother was Jewish we knew our opportunities were limited. So, at some point if you have the chance to go you take it."

Before she attended the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, LaCombe said she thought working with refugees would be an interesting career.

"At the time I had no idea what that entailed," LaCombe said. "Now, in my practice I have people who have permanent work visas, but are still worried about coming here with the current administration's stand on immigration."

Last year, as part of her firm's pro bono commitment, along with support from Catholic Charities and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, LaCombe took part in an effort to help immigrants without professional credentials or work visas.

Director of Communications in Fragomen's New York City office, attorney Careen Shannon, traveled with LaCombe to a Texas detention center where women and children, fleeing violence from Central America, are held.

"As the only attorneys on the ground, we met between six and 10 women a day to help them get ready to appear before an asylum officer," Shannon said.

The detention center was in Dilley, Texas, a border town in Frio County, right off of interstate 35, with a population of just under 4,000. The town's website describes Dilley as a place that offers "a slice of the good life."

But for the women waiting in limbo in this little border town, life has been anything but good.

"The women we worked with were primarily from Nicaragua and Honduras, places where there is tremendous violence, where the government is not capable of restraining the gangs. These are countries where abuse against women is institutionalized," LaCombe said. "The police won't do anything because they are on the abusers' payroll. It is a lawless society, yet the women have to show that a 'credible threat' to their lives exists if they return home."

As for the shift in immigration policy from the Obama presidency to the Trump administration, LaCombe said the women she saw were not aware of how any new executive actions might affect them.

"These women are not sophisticated enough to know what the changes could mean. They believe that in America there is safety and justice," LaCombe said. "They are not expecting to find streets lined in gold. The women we saw are under the impression if you work hard you will will be protected. That's why they are happy to work in menial jobs if it means safety, peace and quiet for their families."

Now, with stricter guidelines from the Department of Justice, the women are caught in a "Catch-22," said Shannon.

"Because of this administration's focus on tightening immigration regulations these women are often banned from seeing lawyers. If you are in this country you do not have a right to an attorney but you are entitled to due process and this is a clear attempt to keep them from due process," Shannon said. "Imagine you are a mother with a third grade education trying to navigate the system without an attorney."

The controversy over the possibility of a wall separating the Mexican and U.S. borders sends a significant sign to, not only the women in the detention centers, but also to those with permanent work visas, according to LaCombe.

"If there is a wall, we become a country that sends a clear message of 'we don't want anyone here,'" LaCombe said. "I have professors, scientists and researchers who are here legally but are afraid to leave. The wall is just icing on the cake."

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