What’s it like working in a broken system? A conversation with an immigration attorney
Immigration lawyer, Nancy Ayllón-Ramirez offers insight into what it’s like working for a small firm in rural Pennsylvania.
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Immigration has been a part of Nancy Ayllón-Ramirez’s life, all her life.
Born in Mexico, she spent her first six years there before moving to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where her father had worked since he was 18.
“As our family grew, he definitely decided that the United States was a place he wanted us to grow in,” she said.
Her family was part of a small, but growing population of Latinos (mostly Mexican immigrants) to come to the “Mushroom Capital of the World.”
Over the years, they would come to make up the majority of the population in not just Kennett, but also in the surrounding small towns of southern Chester County.
Ayllón-Ramirez remembers entering the first grade and being one of two Latinas in her entire class.
“Nowadays, it’s more than 50% of Hispanics, or Latinos in an elementary class, or even high school,” she said.
Initially, after graduating college, Ayllón-Ramirez knew she wanted to keep studying, but didn’t know which area. Eventually, she landed a paralegal job at an immigration firm in West Chester, PA and found her passion.
“I was like, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life,’” she said, and later entered law school.
When she graduated from Widener Law, Ayllón-Ramirez stayed close to home, working first for a law firm with offices in Avondale, PA (close to Kennett) and Philadelphia, and then for a nonprofit firm in the city.
Now, she works in nearby West Grove, PA as the second attorney at Eichman Law. Her areas of practice are immigration and family law, making her a key asset to the surrounding immigrant communities.
“We are a very united community in a way, but there are also pockets in the community that are hiding in the shadows,” said Ayllón-Ramirez.
It’s her job to help those living in fear find a path to citizenship, but she admits “it’s a lot” given her place as the only immigration attorney at her firm in an area where the need for immigration services is dire.
“It’s draining,” said Ayllón-Ramirez.
But it’s not just the workload that has Ayllón-Ramirez tired, it’s also the frustration of not being able to help people caught in an irreparable status situation because of the law.
“You talk to somebody, and they’re a person who’s been here a really long time, hasn’t gotten in trouble with the law — maybe some speeding tickets — and that’s it. But they’ve been here dedicated to their work and their family and their community,” she said. “They come to a consultation and there’s no options. There’s nothing that can be done for one reason or another.”
For her, it’s especially frustrating being from the community, where the lack of help often hits close to home.
“It’s talking to people that are either family or friends, or family of friends,” said Ayllón-Ramirez.
Being an attorney only three years to this point, she said she’s still working to separate her emotions from her client’s lives.
“I’m learning as I go,” said Ayllón-Ramirez.
For those that she can help, given the often overlap with her specialty in family law, a predominant amount of her cases involve family petitions, i.e. a U.S. citizen spouse petitioning for their immigrant spouse or children to become citizens.
She also helps clients battle removal proceedings and apply for U and T-visas, which pertain to victims of crimes and human trafficking, respectively. In those situations, she’s on hand to help often non-English-speaking clients navigate pages of paperwork.
When asked about its complication, Ayllón-Ramirez sees some of the paperwork as necessary, but getting more difficult.
“When I was a legal assistant [before and during law school], some applications were three or four pages long and now they’re 11, 18 pages long and getting longer,” she said.
The length is because the government is now asking for more information as a way to further vet applications, but some of the legalese, Ayllón-Ramirez said, is unnecessary.
“They ask the same question in three, four, five different ways. In one you could say ‘yes’ and the other it’s like ‘wait, what?’,” she said.
Add on top of that increases in filing fees and the various paths to citizenship form a barrier rather than a bridge.
Regarding funding, Ayllón-Ramirez could not name one official governmental effort to financially support immigration legal services out in her part of Chester County, and only mentioned two nonprofits doing work around providing free immigration legal consultation.
Both nonprofits are based in Kennett — La Comunidad Hispana and Youth Community Forward. On the government side of things, the Kennett Borough Council has an Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs (ACOLA) to engage with and aid the town’s Latino community.
However, as in most cases, it’s not enough and immigrants still sacrifice to get services.
“Sometimes they have to borrow from family members. Sometimes they have to sacrifice sending money to their families back in their countries to pay legal fees,” said Ayllón-Ramirez.
She also said how many also pay for transport to Philadelphia — which is more than an hour away from some parts of southern Chester County — where most of the nonprofit, funded work is done.
It’s also important to mention, that while Philadelphia is a center of immigration legal services for the region, even the firms there are coping with an overwhelming amount of cases and little funding.
In times of desperation, many immigrants often turn to bad actors to try to get status.
The most notorious are ‘notarios’, Spanish for notary, but outside the U.S. often provide genuine legal help.
In the U.S., however, it is illegal for notaries to provide such assistance, but that doesn’t stop bad actors from using the title to elicit immigration legal services to many unsuspecting immigrants desperate for status.
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published an investigation into two Philadelphia-area ‘notarios’ who leeched money off clients for years, and in some cases, got them deported for filing false paperwork or giving suspect legal advice.
But it’s not just in Philadelphia where ‘notarios’ run rampant.
Out in West Grove, Ayllón-Ramirez says more than 50% of the clients she sees on a weekly basis have encountered, visited or paid a ‘notario’ before coming to her for services.
In one instance, she had a client who was registered to vote by a ‘notario’ instead of filing citizenship papers. The client was also told to lie about the circumstances surrounding their nonexistent voting record to immigration authorities.
“They had filed the application with immigration. They were just coming to me to help them prepare for the interview and I advised them, ‘You have to withdraw that application,’” said Ayllón-Ramirez. “‘You have to start over.’”
In those circumstances, her firm reports the ‘notario’ to the Pennsylvania Bar or Chester County’s Attorney General, but little can often be done to punish them for their actions.
For one, Ayllón-Ramirez said the PA Bar doesn’t have jurisdiction over notaries, meaning they’re free to operate without oversight. However, the PA Department of State does have jurisdiction over notaries — and has warned about them for years. It also have a complaint form to fill out.
Regardless, the effects of 'notario' work be devastating given laws that are no longer as lenient towards fraudulent efforts to get into immigration court.
“There was a back way to get into immigration court...to adjust status in front of an immigration judge, and policies changed,” said Ayllón-Ramirez. “Nowadays, if someone files a frivolous application to get into immigration court, that person could have serious consequences, meaning they would probably not be able to adjust their status in the future, ever.”
In her experience, Ayllón-Ramirez said she hears the same ‘notario’ names “all the time.” Of the two detailed in The Inquirer story, one faces two years in prison (but had gone to jail before and came out to continue scamming immigrants) and the other continues to advertise immigration legal services.
In terms of solutions, there are few. The only regional effort is that of the nonprofit firm where Ayllón-Ramirez used to work in Philadelphia. Justice at Work (formerly Friends of Farmworkers), has a ‘Notario’ Project geared towards combating ‘notario’ fraud.
In addition to ‘notarios’, the project also combats attorneys taking advantage of desperate immigrants.
Also, in place of enforcement is opportunities for education. The following aren’t foolproof, but good practices when seeking immigration legal services, according to Ayllón-Ramirez.
When looking for reliable services, Ayllón-Ramirez first suggests always asking the attorney for their bar card.
In PA, every practicing attorney is issued one and is required to renew it annually. She also said to look on the walls when visiting their office to see if certifications are on display.
Beyond looking for the required paperwork on the attorney’s end, Ayllón-Ramirez also recommends all her clients get second or third opinions before making a decision and keep records of everything.
The attorney should also provide a receipt whenever a payment is made and copies of any forms submitted to immigration or any agency in the process.
Reviews and disciplinary records are also available online.