PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — With thousands of immigrants being bussed from Texas to New York City and Washington D.C., most of them asylum seekers, WKRG News 5 sat down with Pensacola immigration lawyer Richard Alvoid for a better understanding of what asylum seekers are and why they do what they do.
Background of the Texas bussing situation
Under the direction of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, thousands of migrants have been sent by bus from Texas to Washington DC and New York City, in an effort to highlight his criticism of the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
“Before we began busing migrants to New York, it was just Texas and Arizona that bore the brunt of all the chaos and problems that come with it,” Abbott said in a statement this week. “Now, the rest of America can understand exactly what is going on.”
Abbott said Friday the state had sent more than 7,000 migrants by bus to Washington since April and more than 900 migrants to NYC since Aug. 5.
“The state of Texas probably receives more undocumented aliens across the border than possibly any other state in the country,” said Alvoid. “They are not exactly known as a pro-immigrant state. They look to larger urban areas who are finding themselves as sanctuary cities and pro-immigrant cities, so to speak. I don’t know if it’s symbolic or sarcastic.”
In the last two months, the procession of Venezuelans seeking refuge in the United States has grown dramatically. In July, Border Patrol agents stopped Venezuelans 17,603 times — up 34 percent from June and nearly triple from July 2021.
Though many Venezuelans who have resided in the United States since March 8, 2021, have Temporary Protected Status until March 10, 2024, many other immigrants, and those Venezuelans who arrived after that March 2021 date, are trying to apply for asylum.
The difference between Temporary Protection Status and seeking asylum
“TPS is granted by the executive, so the president issues an order and gives criteria that almost always follows as, ‘You are a citizen of country X. You have been physically present in our country since date X and you have remained in the United States up until the present.’ They would be eligible for two things, one is freedom from deportation, that is the practical relief. Numerous countries have this. The second benefit is a work card.”
With asylum, Alvoid said it is much more intricate and much more detailed.
“An asylum is an individual outside of their country, who is inside the United States, that is asking for a protection,” said Alvoid. “They are asking for relief from deportation based on a well-founded fear of persecution on a count of certain enumerated grounds. Those five grounds are race, ethnicity, political opinion, particular social group or religion. If they are approved, they will be given a green card, essentially.”
Generally, Alvoid said immigrants are granted asylum status due to a threat of serious bodily harm.
“If you’re just getting harassed or discriminated against, for example, you’re not getting a job because you’re a gypsy, that’s usually not enough,” said Alvoid. “You need the threat of severe physical bodily harm. There needs to be a reasonable possibility of that, which has been defined as 10 percent. If you’re a Venezuelan who has had political activity in Venezuela as an opposition member and you entered the United States, if you can demonstrate that you were persecuted already then you can qualify, or if you demonstrate that if you return there is a 10 percent possibility you will be persecuted, you can qualify.”
With a majority of people coming across the Texas border being Central Americans, Alvoid said a vast majority of those Central Americans are being denied asylum.
“In my experience, within the last 10 years, Central Americans have been extremely difficult to get approved,” said Alvoid. “The average Central American claim is one, that you’re going through gang recruitment. I had a client where his sister was murdered because she was working for the cartel. She was killed and he fled and if he goes back, he would be killed. That is a strong case. Most of your cases are 17-year-old boys being recruited by these gangs. I’ve got one kid now that they have chopped off his pinky. To be honest, most of these Central Americans do not qualify under the letter of the law. I tell them that and it’s the hard part of my job. 20 percent or less would be approved.”
The stages and timeline of requesting asylum
From application, to the first decision from a judge, Alvoid said is typically three to four years in the current court system.
“There are different types of asylums, you can ask affirmatively and defensively,” said Alvoid. “If you’re asking affirmatively, that means you’re not in removal proceedings. You’re one of the few that managed to cross through secretively. You would come to me, we would file an asylum claim and the first step would be an interview at the immigration office. This interview would be very rigorous and strict. 95 percent of those are referred to an immigration judge. It’s not denied, but it means it didn’t pass. These officers are USCIS (United States Citizen and Immigration Service) officers. They are not trained as they could or should be and definitely not as fair as an immigration judge in my experience. They have this tendency of not believing anything and just forwarding on to the judge.”
Phase two of the process is appearing before an immigration judge, which Alvoid said is most of the time a good thing.
“The thing about immigration judges is that you can check the various statistics on judges where they different leanings,” said Alvoid. “So, one judge may deny 95 percent of asylum cases and another judge may deny 51 percent, which would be your most lenient. That process of the court stage depends on the docket of the judge, and it is constantly in flux. They’re always hiring new judges and if you get lucky and get a new judge then you could get in within a year.”
When an immigrant finally goes to court, Alvoid said that is where the drama happens.
“You may or may not testify in Spanish with an interpreter and you may or may not call witnesses, but that is when you get your day in court to tell your story,” said Alvoid. “It takes maybe an hour and a half under direct examination. Then, you get cross examined and the judge will also intervene and ask questions. It can get very emotional. I have cried in court several times and my clients always get emotional. We can be anti-immigrant all we want, but when you really listen to the story, it is moving. Your fellow humans are growing up in very different conditions and it should make us grateful for sure.”
Phase three is where an immigrant would entertain their options if they are not granted asylum, Alvoid said.
“You can try to reopen and ask for a reconsideration, which is not good,” said Alvoid. “Most of the time there is a straight appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals. The average process is about 18 months. I believe 18 percent of appeals to the BIA are granted.”
What are immigrants doing while in asylum limbo?
Alvoid said one of the main questions immigrants have when in the limbo process of asylum is if they are going to be detained or deported by ICE during that time.
“That threat is usually not real until after the final order has been issued, and then, they get on a radar,” said Alvoid. “The idea that an ICE officer or local officer is going to go get you and pick you up from your house is very low. That is based on particular administration’s enforcement policies. Each president comes in, so Biden comes in and eradicates Trump’s policies. That does not apply if you are a serious criminal. Once you’ve got this final order of deportation, then your name is on a list and your effectively barred from any other type of relief other than reopening that specific case.”
If law enforcement is going to pick up a serious criminal on an immigrant’s street and they are there, they might knock on their door, according to Alvoid, but the way immigrants are mostly caught is driving without a license or being in the car when an arrest takes place.
“If you’re caught while driving without a license or in a place where they arrest somewhere else, they will detain you and the local police will put what’s called an ICE hold,” said Alvoid. “Then ICE officers will come visit you, ask for your information and see that you have an order that you’re going to be deported. So, you can stay in this country for years. Especially women who don’t drive as much.”
Hispanics in the Pensacola homeless community
Many of the newly-arrived asylum seekers don’t have relatives in New York to stay with. So, after they leave the station, they often enter city homeless shelters. The shelter system doesn’t track people by immigration status, but NYC city officials estimate that between 4000 and 5000 asylum-seekers have entered city shelters since May.
Carlos, a 26-year-old from Venezuela who recently arrived in the U.S., told NPR that as a member of the LGBTQ community, he felt threatened by other residents at a city shelter for homeless men located in Manhattan. He preferred to only share his first name to protect his legal status.
Alvoid said in Pensacola, Hispanics are rarely part of the homeless population.
“It is not at all surprising to me, as an immigration attorney,” said Alvoid. “Number one, they are not here to be homeless. Nobody can argue that most of them are economic refugees. They come here to work, they stick together, and live in a high number of occupants per home. They depend on each other, and they come from countries that don’t really have any type of social welfare. They are used to depending on each other. I am impressed and we can learn a lot from that.”
Where do immigrants being bussed to NYC and Washington DC go from there?
According to Alvoid, the majority of immigrants that were bussed to NYC and Washington are spending three days in the cities and then leaving.
“In my experience, I spend a lot of time talking with these immigrants and trying to figure out why they crossed, how much money they spent and what their contact was,” said Alvoid. “The story is almost always the same. There is a family member or a distant family member somewhere in the country telling them that they need help and if they can get here, they’ll have a job and a house. That’s the vast majority of these people.”
Why Alvoid helps immigrants in Pensacola
After graduating from Tate High School in Pensacola, Alvoid spent time at LBW Community College in Andalusia, Ala., on the golf team. While there, he met a group of Venezuelan tennis players that inspired him to look into different cultures.
“Meeting these Venezuelans presented a gateway out of Cantonment, Fla.,” said Alvoid. “I went to South America a couple of summers to learn Spanish. I ended up getting an international studies degree from the University of West Florida. I got a scholarship to a university in Japan and then spent four years traveling overseas teaching English. When I got back to the States, I figured getting a law degree would allow me a profession that I would be comfortable with. I got a job as an immigration law clerk, writing up affidavits, meeting with these clients for three hours, writing down their story. It was only natural that I wanted to be close to the client and close to my work product. This work is meaningful to me, and I like helping people. As I get older, the desire to help does increase. It’s rewarding.”