This piece was adapted from Anastasia Tonello’s President’s Installation speech at AILA’s 2018 Annual Conference. To watch her entire speech, please see the video embedded at the end of this post.

 As we sit here in San Francisco, eager to start our conference, I’d like ask all of you to take a moment to think about our practices and our clients-individuals, families, businesses—and how things have changed in the last 18 months. Think about opening your mail and finding another RFE; think about checking your email messages when you wake up in the morning and seeing a message from your client telling you his visa was denied. Think about opening your news feed this weekend reading about a young father separated from his children, so hopeless of his future that he felt his only option was to take his own life; or an article or that the Attorney General has ruled that women who suffer institutionalized domestic violence are no longer deserving of asylum in the United States.

As immigration lawyers we know better than anyone else that every immigration policy decision—every single one—directly impacts the lives of people. Whether it be a mother, child in hand fleeing unspeakable violence in Central America or an entrepreneur seeking to launch or expand her business, create jobs in the United States and develop cutting edge technologies. What we do as immigration lawyers rejuvenates the promise of America as a nation of immigrants. And those immigrants are people. They have names.

Think about Nageeb, a Yemeni American, whose 11-year-old daughter Shaima suffers from severe mental and physical disabilities but who was denied a visa in April and is now unable to get the medical care in the U.S. she desperately needs because she is a citizen of Yemen and considered a threat to U.S. security. I, like many of you, have read INA 212(f).  I still can’t find the provision which says little girls in need of emergency medical care are “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Think of Frida, a Chinese citizen with a master’s degree in business from Stanford, two law degrees, and four years of work experience at a leading international firm in Hong Kong. Her H-1B petition was denied. USCIS determined employment as a financial analyst at a Bay Area start-up did not qualify her as a specialty occupation worker; in other words, it is more likely than not that the analysis of profitability, solvency, stability and liquidity doesn’t require a degree.

Think about Peterson who was nine years old and barely survived days under the rubble of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. He endured more than a dozen surgeries in the United States and has become a promising dancer at a magnet school in Miami. Haiti, which is still reeling not just from the earthquake but also from a cholera epidemic, drought and Hurricane Matthew, was removed from the countries eligible for TPS. Peterson now faces a potential crossroads which would devastate his dreams.

And think about Boe, a fourth-year Ph.D. student studying properties of materials used in solar energy technologies at UC Merced. Boe came to the U.S. when she was 5; she has DACA but it expires in April and she doesn’t know if she will be able to finish her program, get a job in the U.S. or if she will be deported to a country she doesn’t know.

Each of these immigrants is a real person. A person with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Each coming to America like many of our parents and grandparents did—to build better lives for future generations. These immigrants represent tens of thousands more who have a legal claim to the American Dream, but are being shut out of the United States; they are being shut out, not because of new immigration laws passed by Congress, or even because President Trump’s “big beautiful wall” has been erected on the southern border. No, these immigrants, our clients, are being shut out by an invisible wall. The wall that has been erected to barricade the United States from the rest of the world by this administration. The wall that is confining and weakening American families, American communities, and American businesses. The wall that must come down.

The invisible wall is being built by executive overreach, by restrictive policies, by shutting off discretion, by eliminating predictability, by preventing American employers from being able to fill key positions, by holding children hostage, by turning our back on our international obligations to refugees, and by strong arming and illegally coercing local and state law enforcement. Immigration is under brutal assault by the President of the United States with the acquiescence of Congress which has been unable to act.

Now, more than ever our role as immigration lawyers is clear. The story of the first 18 months of the Trump administration is that lawyers—YOU—are valiant heroes in an epic battle to protect the rule of law, to save our democracy, to save our country. YOU are challenging the unspeakable abuses of this administration in Court and are winning. Think back to that cold Saturday night in January 2017 when immigration lawyers went into federal courts around the country and stopped the travel ban dead in its tracks giving voice to justice in the face of a brutal abuse of executive authority; think back to the absurd and dangerous threat by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to withhold law enforcement funding from state and local authorities who had the audacity to follow the Constitution and to refuse to hold non-citizens based on ICE’s warrantless requests also known as “detainers”; think of the 800 thousand DREAMers who were told to step away from their dreams and back into the shadows by President Trump when he cancelled DACA and the valiant courtroom battles that have kept DACA alive. This is all YOU, the lawyers, and the major wins we’ve seen over the past year have been through the heroic charge, led or supported by AILA and its members. I have never been so proud to be lawyer and never prouder to be a member of AILA. Because it is the lawyers, together with the independent federal judges who apply the law and keep politics out of the courtroom, who are tearing down the wall.

Yes, we are tearing down the invisible wall; it will come down and when it does we are going to replace the wall with bridges.  Bridges that connect cultures, families and businesses; bridges to the future; bridges with a strong foundation – an unshakeable foundation.

Let’s start building bridges with what we are licensed to do and what we do best. Litigation. And this isn’t just for the removal defense lawyers. All of us, even those of us who focus on employment-based matters, and who normally find other alternatives to litigation, can wade into this fight.  However, we are not in normal times; the invisible wall is blocking the path of least resistance. Now is not the time to do what we have always done. Now is the time for action.

If you’re not a litigator, partner with a colleague who is; work with the American Immigration Council. They will provide technical assistance and may even co-counsel with you. Join the Immigration Justice Campaign and learn how to be a fearless lawyer. Join the Federal Court Section and get admitted to the Federal Court. The resources are available. The training is available. You must step forward and arm yourself for this new era. If you are a litigator, sponsor a colleague for admission to a Federal Court – mentor, share resources and experiences. Join forces and coordinate with other litigators around the country and wage multi-circuit attacks.

We are being called to get out of our comfort zones. Our clients, our profession and our future are under attack. We need to start thinking bigger; we need to make an impact, we need to tear down the invisible wall.  Through our advocacy, through litigation, the courts can help us tear down the wall; one brick, one case, one family, one worker at a time.

What other bridges will we build?

We will build bridges by protecting our clients, our practices and our profession with smart technology. We are in an era of technological change that will shake our profession…Read the future of immigration law practice report and use the resources of AILA’s practice and professionalism center. If not, we risk building our own walls; the smart and protected use of technology will be our bridge to protect our clients and ensure our profession survives.

We can build bridges with social media and the press, whether it is Twitter, Facebook or blogging. You are the experts; give compelling commentary. If you read an article on immigration and it’s incorrect, leave a comment, write a letter to the editor, be a resource. Get to know your local immigration news reporters for the next time there is an immigration issue you can explain to the media so we can counter falsehoods and build a correct narrative. Responsible and accurate journalism will bring down the wall and will build bridges between communities, uniting us through our shared experiences…Use your personal experiences, your clients’ stories and your expertise in immigration law to educative, explain, foster empathy and heighten awareness of economic realities. We have to build bridges to those who have been lured into incorrectly believing that immigrants are criminals, take American jobs and are a drain on resources.

We will build bridges with facts…As lawyers we work with facts and we use them to tell our narratives to demonstrate how our clients meet legal standards. Use facts to set the record straight in the media; with your friends, with your family. Use facts to counter disparaging references to immigrants; use facts to correct misconceptions. Use facts to counter the policies of the administration.  Facts will build bridges that will help bring our country back together.  Facts matter. Facts are greater than fear.

And finally, we will build bridges with our AILA membership. Through our chapters, interest groups and sections, we can join forces to educate, advocate and litigate. Chapters are the heart of this association.  My path to AILA leadership, to standing here addressing you today, was based on my experience chartering the Rome District Chapter.  Since then, AILA has introduced practice sections including the Global Migration Section and the Federal Courts Section.  AILA’s interest groups continue to expand and are as diverse as the most recently added H-2B interest group, to ACES, and the Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Women in Immigration Law and Practice Management interest groups.  There is strength in working together.  There is strength in our membership.  AILA has so much strength that together, we can tear down the invisible wall.

So today in San Francisco,  with the mighty Golden Gate Bridge to inspire us, let’s commit to using our skills, knowledge and expertise to build those bridges we desperately need to connect Americans to each other and to connect America to the rest of the world. Our immigration laws should support American families, American employers and American workers. Our immigration laws should not be manipulated and enforced to further a racist, isolationist agenda. It is up to us to hold the government accountable in the courts, in the media, with our friends and families, in our communities and in the voting booth this November.

Thank you for the honor of serving you as president of AILA. I look forward to working with all of you. Now let’s get out there are tear down that invisible wall; let’s build those bridges and advocate for fair and just immigration laws, policies and enforcement.

To see Anastasia’s full installation speech, please watch this video:


by Anastasia Tonello