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UNDOCUMENTED: Fear of the unknown increases immigration attorneys' workload

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BZ 010517 Aden Batar 01

This file photo shows Aden Batar, the Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Director for Catholic Community Services of Utah, posing for a portrait in his Salt Lake City Office.

Aden Batar’s work changed immediately upon the election of Donald Trump.

Every Wednesday, Batar and his colleagues at Catholic Community Services of Utah open their office doors for a free immigration clinic. They’ve been doing it for years and assist with hundreds of immigration cases each month.

But their work load shot up after Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. 

“Our numbers have increased at least 20 to 30 percent more than what we normally see since the election, and that number continues to grow,” said Batar, the immigration and refugee resettlement director at the service’s Salt Lake City office.

Batar first began working for Catholic Community Services in 1996, two years after the organization assisted with his own resettlement as a refugee from Somalia. Today, he oversees an office of four immigration attorneys, including himself, and provides assistance to thousands of refugees and immigrants from all walks of life.

Although there has been a clear change in the number of people seeking immigration help, that’s about the only thing that’s clear for those working on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

“I think at this point, we don’t know what’s going to change. We’re kind of waiting to see what the new administration's policies are going to be,” Batar said.

Trump has yet to introduce any firm plans related to undocumented immigrants, but many of the people Batar works with are concerned about the future due to the tone of Trump’s campaign.

“Many of them are worried they’ll get separated, especially since the new president was elected,” Batar said. “People are worried that they’ll be rounded up and deported.”

So for now, staff and volunteers working with Batar are preparing for the unknown.

Ogden immigration attorney Timothy Wheelwright agreed that the biggest worry for people is the unknown. 

“People who are here illegally are concerned, and I think that's not that surprising, given the rhetoric,” he said. “But something that has been really surprising is number of people who are here legally — they're doing everything they’re supposed to be doing — who are genuinely concerned about their future and whether they’re going to be able to stay here.”

But immigration attorneys say it’s important to remember that everyone has legal rights, even if they are here illegally.

Catholic Community Services can help with a range of issues, including sponsoring a family who just arrived in the United States as legal refugees or helping with paperwork for a college student who was brought to the United States illegally as a child.

Most of Catholic Community Service’s work with undocumented immigrants involves helping people apply for legal residency or simply correcting misinformation.

A bilingual packet given to new clients includes tips on what to do if immigration officials come to their homes or workplaces, including “Do not open the door,” “You have the right to see a warrant” and “Stay calm. Do not run.”

The brochure also explains how undocumented immigrants should create a safety plan that involves proper storage of documents, planning for family care and finding an attorney.

One of the biggest problems Batar sees is people falling victim to bad legal advice. 

“There is a lot of misinformation in the community, people who don’t know immigration laws taking advantage of individuals, giving them false information and charging them a lot of money,” Batar said.

His office has even seen people deported after following bad advice from untrained people acting as immigration attorneys.

“There’s a huge, huge need. Our staff is really overwhelmed with the number of cases that they’re taking,” Batar said.

Unlike in criminal court cases, people facing deportation are not given a public defender if they can not afford their own attorney.

“They are entitled to be represented, so if they tell an immigration judge ‘I want an attorney,’ the judge has to delay the proceeding to give them time to consult an attorney,” Wheelwright said. “Without question they’re entitled to that, but at their own expense.”

Even those who do hire an attorney don’t always get effective representation, Wheelwright said. Hiring an attorney not familiar with immigration matters or not paying enough for them to spend the time required to fully understand a complicated area of the law can be a “recipe for disaster.”

“People get deported all the time because they’re not competently represented by counsel or have no representation,” he said.

Wheelwright has 20 years of experience in the field but said there are those who take advantage of families in crisis, which can result in deportations that didn’t have to happen.

Sometimes these mistakes are unintentional, Wheelwright said. Immigration law is the most complicated, he said, second only to the Internal Revenue Code.

The American Bar Association’s Fight Notario Fraud project is devoted entirely to fighting immigration consulting fraud. The project’s website says there are procedures for reopening removal proceedings because of deficient legal representation, but “many attorneys are unaware of what actions can be taken against consultants to hold them accountable and deter future abuses.”

Should a judge decide to deport an illegal immigrant, Wheelwright said they have 30 days to appeal the decision, something that can be difficult if that person is in a detainment facility.

During fiscal year 2015, 176 people were detained in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Ogden Hold Room. Four of those people were released, while the remainder were transferred to other ICE facilities. Of those held in Ogden, 130 were originally from Mexico, with the rest from other Latin American countries and the Marshall Islands.

In Utah, deportation can mean a ride on a U.S. Marshals Service plane that flies from Salt Lake City to Texas every Thursday, where Wheelwright said Mexican citizens are then taken across the border to the south.

Still, courts consider many exceptions before deporting someone. Dependent children or a sick family member could sway the decision.

In cases where children born in the U.S. are left behind, they usually stay with family. If no such family exists or is willing to take a child in, they can become dependent on the state.

Although the Catholic Community Services office is busy now, they continue to keep an eye to the future as changes to immigration policy seem likely in the next four years. For Batar, his biggest concern is that new policies could separate families or target specific religious or national groups.

“We as a country, that is not who we are. The U.S. is a country of compassion that helps those who are in need,” Batar said. “If we don’t step up and show leadership in the world, who will?”

Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at

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