The phones won’t stop ringing at Cameron Law Offices, Attorneys at Law in East Boston, but that may not be the best thing.
“People are just calling and calling and walking in, even people who have no problems and are never going to have any problems,” said Matt Cameron. “Caseloads have certainly increased and the number of detentions has increased. It’s just a lot to process for us.”
Cameron, whose law practice resides in a majority Hispanic neighborhood, said his office has been overwhelmed with clients.
Cameron said his firm is looking into recruiting more help to be able to stay on top things. This decision can’t be an easy for him to make. While there has been an increase in cases, Cameron said the firm is struggling financially. This added stress coupled with the hostile environment towards his clients has taken a personal toll and led him to looking into counseling services.
“Part of the thing that I’ve had to have counseling for,” said Cameron, “is that I can’t bring myself to charge these people. I barely make any money and it’s become a real struggle.”
When President Donald Trump first issued a ban on refugees and travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, immigration attorneys flooded airports across the country looking to volunteer their services to help immigrants mitigate the chaos and confusion that came as a result of the executive order.
Now several months and two struck-down travel bans since the inauguration later, the state of chaos has not dissipated for immigration attorneys. Immigrants, of varying legal statuses, are still facing uncertainty in the wake of a new priorities memo from the Department of Homeland Security, which makes any undocumented immigrant a priority for deportation, as opposed to Obama’s prioritization of immigrants who had committed serious crimes.
Jeannie Kain, of Ramirez & Kain, LLP based in Boston, discussed how the new priorities memo has completely changed the advice she offers to her clients.
Kain spoke of client of hers who has had previous deportation proceedings but is now married to a U.S. citizen. Typically, this would be a clear-cut case for an application for legal status, but now Kain is unsure of whether to submit this application because it is possible that her client be arrested at his immigration interview.
“Now it’s like all bets are off,” said Kain. “It’s been pretty grim after the inauguration unfortunately.”
Cameron said he finds himself worrying about his clients late into the nights. He refers to some of his clients as “part of the family.”
“I haven’t been able to get that distance that you need, that other attorneys at this point in their careers have managed to achieve, of being able to step back a little and not be so personally invested,” said Cameron.
Cameron is not alone in this. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a New England chapter headquartered in Boston with a tight knit community of attorneys all experiencing similar issues.
“Whether I feel burnt out, it depends on the hour of the day and what’s just happened,” said Amy Wax, who is also an AILA member. “It’s a shift in morale, both among clients but also among immigration lawyers.”
Wax, of the Law Office of Amy M. Wax, P.C., spoke about some of the added stresses of being a lawyer or a client in Boston.
With 16,000 pending cases in the immigration courts, Boston has the ninth-highest backlog of cases in the country. According to WBUR, the average wait time to have your case heard is almost two years. Massachusetts has an immigration rate that is twice the national average.
Wax said oftentimes when you do get a hearing scheduled the judge has been either double or triple booked for the same timeslot which can lead to clients and lawyers coming prepared to court, witnesses and all, only to be told that your case won’t actually be heard.
“If the case isn’t super strong then sometimes the client is happy that it’s taking a little bit longer,” said Wax. “But I think it increases the anxiety.”
Kain added that this long wait time could be particularly detrimental to asylum cases.
“Asylum is a status that’s based on current events,” said Kain. “If you file an asylum case today, if you don’t get heard for three years its possible that the situation has completely changed.”
She also added that this also leaves people who had strong asylum cases vulnerable because their application leaves them at the attention of immigration enforcement. This is a reoccurring worry that each of the attorneys echoed. Applying for legal status in a time of uncertainty can be important, but it can also draw unwanted attention to immigrants with weaker cases.
Kain said the only other time in her career that she has seen this level of panic amongst immigrants was directly after the September 11 attacks.
“I just hope that something changes. It’s been really horrible honestly. It’s hard to believe that things could change as quickly as they did, and of course that’s what he said was going to happen,” said Kain. “We were all sort of terrified that that’s what was going to happen and now we’re in it but whatever we’ll work through it.”
That same message of good intentions met with frustrations was with echoed Cameron who said he isn’t sure how much longer he can keep doing full time deportation defense, especially not without mental health support.
“I knew that I wanted to go to law school to do something that would individually help people, to work one on one to make people’s lives better,” said Cameron. “Money didn’t have anything to do with it and it still doesn’t.”
For 28 years, Boston’s Irish International Immigrant Center provides support to new Bostonians