Advocacy in Action: Congress Demands Answers from USCIS

We came. We saw. We advocated. It mattered.

Because advocacy makes a difference.  Last week, The Washington Post published an article “Democrats ask federal watchdog to examine ‘unprecedented’ immigration backlog,” writing “more than 80 Democratic members of Congress have asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation into the ‘record-breaking’ backlog of immigration cases pending under the Trump administration.” Citing AILA’s recent policy brief on the issue directly, the article highlights the net backlog in USCIS cases was over 2.3 million last Fall. Our direct advocacy and AILA’s in-depth analysis helped result in Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and 81 other lawmakers writing a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro to investigate the crisis-level delays that are “hurting families and businesses that depend on timely adjudications.”

Obviously AILA staff is working every day on these issues, but individual AILA members make a difference too. On Thursday, April 11th, 2019, over 500 dedicated immigration lawyers descended on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. We traveled from all over the country to take part in our American Immigration Lawyers Association National Day of Action #AILANDA19.

The National Day of Action has taken place each year for decades, a day to invite AILA members and our clients to hold legislators accountable to enact immigration laws that help families and businesses, promote economic growth, and protect immigrants’ rights, rather than the opposite!

Given the clear anti-immigrant agenda of the current Administration, our clients are facing immense obstacles across the board including those seeking family-based solutions, asylum seekers at the border and in the interior, business immigration clients and more. As a result, our advocacy needs to be stronger than ever before. What better way to advocate for your clients than to sit and talk directly with the lawmakers about issues impacting immigration?

What does NDA look like exactly? On the morning of NDA, we all meet for a breakfast briefing. There, the AILA Team provides an inspirational pep talk and arms us with some stellar talking points and “leave behind” materials for our congressional meetings. The main items on this year’s agenda included keeping USCIS accountable; the need for fair, efficient independent immigration courts; and, the much-publicized erosion of due process at the border.

With fierce advocacy on our minds and coffee in our bellies, we headed off towards Capitol Hill with our personalized meeting schedules. Our Chicago Chapter had over 22 members attend NDA, including our President-Elect Marketa Lindt. The wonderful Katie Vannucci and Kelli Fennell served as the chief chapter coordinators – huge thanks to both of them for their hard work! We were divided into 5 teams and Katie and Kelli were very deliberate in ensuring each practice area was well represented on each team – that way someone could address the business immigration issues, another could talk about the immigration courts, and so forth.

One specific issue we discussed was the tremendous increase in USCIS processing times and getting Congress involved in oversight of the agency. From FY2017 to FY2018, while the overall case receipts were down 13%, there was a massive 19% increase in processing times. Not only did we share these startling statistics, we were able to relay direct client stories to show this slowdown is having a devastating effect on their lives. And it worked!

I also had the story of Maria firmly in my heart. Maria is a Dreamer who attended NDA with our Chicago Chapter last year. Thanks to Chapter member Shirley Sadjadi, last year, we had 6 Dreamers with us on NDA. Since then, Maria has been promoted in work, she’s bought a house and has a mortgage. In short, she is living her version of the American Dream. While Maria was not with us in person this year on the Hill, her story was present in every single meeting because we knew that a comprehensive immigration reform would make her dream complete.

One of the best things about AILA NDA is the utter solidarity and camaraderie that comes with being around 500 fierce advocates. It is a reminder to me that when passionate people come together for immigrants’ rights (non-lawyer advocates included!), we are stronger.

We came. We saw. We advocated. It mattered and I hope to see you on March 5, 2020!

by Fiona McEntee