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Guardians of our Constitution

Adapted from the installation speech of Annaluisa Padilla, 2017-18 President of AILA

I am humbled and honored to accept the challenge to lead this organization in these unprecedented times. These are times when immigrants are vilified and despised, when immigrants are labeled as criminals, rapists and job stealers, when families and children seeking refuge are locked up for indefinite periods or turned away at the border, only to return to certain harm or even death, when detainees are dying in detention centers for lack of proper medical care, and when the current administration believes they can exclude an entire class of immigrants because of their religion with a stroke of a pen.

It is not that we as immigration attorneys have not seen anti-immigrant sentiment before, but to borrow a line, “this time, it’s personal.”

Day in and day out, I see families and unaccompanied minors arrive at the border fleeing the violence and danger in their home countries, including the country I come from. We have all read the reports detailing how the “Northern Triangle” region of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras is one of the most violent regions in the Western Hemisphere, where thousands of boys and girls being forced to join gangs or be killed or tortured. It is personal because their stories hit home. It is personal because I was 15-years-old when my parents made the decision to flee our country. It is personal because like you and I, these young men and women deserve an opportunity to feel safe, to have a childhood, and to live free from fear and violence. It is personal because closing the doors on these unaccompanied minors is a sure death sentence back in their home country.

As proud immigration lawyers, we must stand united to resist the hatred, counter the lies, uphold our constitution and reaffirm that we are all entitled to due process of the law. The past few months, as I have struggled to come to terms with our new reality, I have reflected upon why I am an immigration attorney. Imagine if there had been no immigration lawyers at the airports after the executive orders. Imagine if lawyers did not roll up their sleeves to immediately file lawsuits against unlawful executive orders, or didn’t help the stranded foreign nationals, the refugees, the professionals with valid visas, the families, and the children.

Scary, right? Not the world you want to imagine, and not the America we know. Well, we are indeed fortunate that that is not the case. We are immigration lawyers and we will fight fearlessly for our clients and for the integrity of our nation.

Do you remember how you felt the first time you heard about family detention? About the mothers and children fleeing for their lives from Central America being detained for months or summarily deported back to danger? And remember how AILA responded? And the thousands of AILA volunteers spending a week or two in Artesia and then Dilley? We showed the previous administration that AILA lawyers can and will mobilize quickly to protect due process and uphold the law. Family detention, as horrible as it has been, has in fact been our training ground for what we are facing today and what we will continue to face under this administration.

Our experiences in helping tens of thousands of mothers and children seek asylum from outside the walls and fences of the detention centers shows how tremendously powerful we are when we work together. We are powerful when we look for new allies and partner with groups committed to a shared vision of an America that welcomes all and still shines bright.

America is about understanding, tolerance and diversity; it is what AILA also stands for, it is what we do every day of our lives, and it is what we must protect. We work together to enhance our nation’s social fabric. We help employers and corporations bring needed talent from around the world that inspires innovation and advancement, and in the process, we increase our shared prosperity and expand our freedom and democracy.

We also stand vigilant to protect America’s promise of opportunity and justice for all. Every battle we face for a client, whether in immigration or federal court, every cancellation of removal or asylum application, every petition, and every motion and brief we file reiterates our commitment loud and clear to remain the protectors of that promise. And now, more than ever before, America’s promise is in jeopardy.

It is crystal clear that the campaign promises have begun to be shaped into concrete actions to establish a massive deportation force. The administration quickly issued new enforcement priorities which, when read closely, simply mean that everyone in the United States without documentation is a priority for removal. Without clear, reasonable, and concise guidelines on enforcement priorities, this administration gave Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unfettered discretion to stop, question, and detain anyone who looks foreign without regard for the most basic constitutional protections.

We see that the Justice Department is going after so-called sanctuary cities, whose mayors and law enforcement officers are trying to obey the Constitution. Requiring a warrant from ICE for a detainer is not some outlandish demand, it is due process. And AILA will stand with those localities who seek to protect all their residents from a federal government bent on turning local police into immigration agents to the detriment of communities.

The President, in two separate budgets now, has tried to amass funds to pay for his deportation force by adding thousands of agents to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and ICE, agencies where officials already feel free to terrorize and sow fear. He has also tried to fund the construction of his border wall, which study after study has demonstrated would be a waste of taxpayers’ money and ineffective in countering undocumented crossers. In addition, he asked for detention space to be increased to more than 51,000 beds—that’s far above anything we’ve seen before.

We owe a duty to those brave immigrants that came before us and helped build this country, to the immigrants who long to be reunited with their families in a severely backlogged system, to the families being torn apart and the children who live in fear that their parents will be detained and deported, but above all, we owe this duty to our ancestors, who immigrated to this country, who believed in what this country stood and still stands for.

First, we resolve not to yield to the politics of divisiveness. We must continue to stand united and firm. We must also continue to remind our elected leaders of the immense contributions of immigrants. We must highlight that fair and reasonable immigration policy does not mean a nation without borders, but a nation with human rights protections, where human dignity is respected and where the contributions of everyone, native and immigrant alike, are valued.

This is our calling and duty. We must stand for the principles upon which our nation was founded. We must protect the vulnerable, particularly those caught in immigration court without representation. There is such an enormous representation gap, especially for unaccompanied minors and detained immigrants, that we cannot possibly do it alone.

With our Immigration Justice Campaign, in partnership with the American Immigration Council and other allies, we will give lawyers new strategies and cutting edge tactics to challenge the deportation force while at the same time recruiting, mentoring and training non-immigration attorneys to add more soldiers to our army. We cannot fight or win these battles alone, but we can and we will fight and win these battles together.

AILA has also a clear and strong message to any jurisdiction, or locality that enacts anti-immigrant legislation. As an AILA member and an immigrant, I am proud we took a principled stand by withdrawing our next year’s Annual Conference from Texas, which enacted a restrictive, mean-spirited, and dangerous law that will foster even more profiling and scapegoating of immigrants and people who appear to be immigrants. By standing strong, and moving our conference to San Francisco, a welcoming city, we show the world the better face of America.

Whether it’s working with Congress or speaking truth to this administration at the national level or advocating state-by-state or city-by-city to ensure our communities are safe for everyone regardless of faith, nationality or country of origin, AILA has been and will always stand with immigrants.

The time to stand up for America is NOW. We as lawyers are the guardians of our Constitution. We have a long road ahead, but we know how to defend America and the values for which it stands.

I am truly honored to serve this organization this year and look forward to working with all of you as we stand together through the Justice Campaign and other efforts to be fearless lawyers in the face of injustice.

Together, we will champion the vulnerable. Together, we will defend our constitution. Together, we are fearless. Together, we are unstoppable.


You can watch Annaluisa Padilla’s full installation speech on AILA’s YouTube channel.

by Annaluisa Padilla