This piece was adapted from Marketa Lindt’s President’s Installation speech at AILA’s 2019 Annual Conference. Those wishing to watch her entire speech, the embedded video is below.
All of us work with and are inspired by our immigrant clients and their stories. Some of you are even immigrants yourselves. But many of you may not be aware that I am an immigrant to the United States and, like every immigrant, I have a perspective shaped by my family’s unique immigration experience.
My parents were born in Europe during World War II and grew up in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain.
The stories I heard of their childhoods in Czechoslovakia were the experiences in a repressive satellite state of the Soviet Union.
I heard stories of my mother marching with thousands of other kids around a huge stadium, performing synchronized gymnastics to celebrate the Red Army’s liberation of Czechoslovakia. Like everyone else, they had to be careful of what they said so that they would not ben reported to the local communist party official for not being a proper comrade. Life was difficult in many ways, with restrictions on liberty, free speech, travel, and pursuing the life you dreamed of. Members of my father’s family had spent time in prison and lost their jobs due to political activity.
But, typical of the Czechs, despite all of these difficulties, their lives were also full of adventure, fun, humor, and as they got older, lively discussions with friends over Czech beer.
My parents met each other in Prague as university students in 1965. And, as my parents were coming of age, the conditions in their country were changing. My parents married against the backdrop of the Prague Spring, when the communist winter was starting to melt, the leaves of freedom were beginning to bud, and the fresh breeze of reform was beginning to blow.
And it was exciting. In April of 1968, the Czech government adopted a new charter for a humanistic democracy, with freedom of press, speech, travel and other rights. Students like my father were swept up in the activity and began to organize and form new political parties.
A few months later, in the middle of all of this excitement and change, I was born.
But then, in August of 1968, the Soviets, who had been watching the Prague Spring with increasing consternation, decided it was time to put an end to all these changes. My parents still recall the strange noise they heard during the middle of the night when the Soviet tanks rolled in across the cobblestone streets of Prague.
Despite the Czech people’s attempts to resist the invasion and hold on to their emerging democracy, the Soviets rolled in with their tanks and crushed the Prague Spring. It was over. My father had been a signing member of one of the student political parties. And my parents knew what the Soviet crackdown meant. They had to go. They had to say goodbye to their families and friends and the life they knew. They had to figure out how to take their baby and get out of the country as fast as possible to safety. They left with two suitcases and a baby carriage, taking only the barest of necessities for the life that lay ahead. For them, that meant one suitcase full of diapers and the other full of books. They wedged my father’s beloved manual typewriter into the baby carriage and took a train to Germany. We were now refugees.
From there, our refugee story took us to Canada, which was enthusiastically welcoming the wave of refugees escaping from Eastern Europe. My parents arrived with me in the middle of winter in Toronto. My parents continued their university educations, and my mother, who was just learning English, got a job waitressing in a Wild West style bar, cowboy hat required. They lived below a doctor’s office and, in exchange for cleaning the patient rooms at night, lived in the basement apartment for free.
A year later, they moved to Holland, where my father had been born. Holland is where I grew up until I moved to the U.S. at the age of 10. My recollection of life as a young girl in Holland in the 70s was that it was fun and carefree. I learned Dutch, made friends and rode my bike around town and through the dunes of the North Sea.
We lived there until my father decided that he wanted to pursue his calling to be a true scientist. So, my parents told us kids – at this point I also had two little sisters, Nikki and Naomi – that we were moving again, this time to the United States where he would work as a professor at a university.
And that was how we came to the United States, following the path of so many immigrants who had come here before us. We came, not on a boat to Ellis Island, or crossing the northern or southern border, but as employment-based immigrants that got off a plane, jet lagged, in the strange but wonderful chaos of JFK airport in NY, and then got on another plane to arrive in our new home in Pittsburgh.
I was 10 years old, and before we arrived, I didn’t know much about the U.S.
Unlike Holland, where you could drive from Groningen in the North, to Maastricht in the South, in 4 hours, I knew the U.S. was an enormous country with skyscraper cities in the east, sunny beaches in the west, and mountains somewhere in the middle.
I had heard there were scary parts in some of the cities, with guns and drugs. So you can imagine my shock when we drove down the street on my first night in Pittsburgh and saw signs on every other corner advertising a “Drug Store.” I did figure out the next day that those drug stores were pharmacies, not illegal drug markets, but it was clear that there were a lot of things I had to learn.
My sisters and I had to learn our third language, English, and we had to adjust to a new way of life. And over time we did. We cried with “Little House on the Prairie” and laughed with “The Love Boat.” We took school buses to elementary school, where we learned about the U.S. government and the constitution. I dressed up for Halloween,, I went to the prom and I performed in the senior class play. I became a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
And I was learning about what it meant to be an American. I learned about the unique sense of individualism, optimism, and generosity that makes up the American spirit.
In high school I was good in math and science and went off to college to study physics. But while it was interesting, I realized I was craving something that, for me, held more meaning.
During those formative years for me, in the late 1980s, an amazing transformation was taking place in a familiar corner of the world – in Eastern Europe the seemingly indestructible Iron Curtain was finally crumbling.
When I saw people on TV dancing on the Berlin Wall, I cried. When soon after that I saw that Czechoslovakia had its “Velvet Revolution” and became free, I was no longer crying – I was applying to law school. I was determined that through law I could be part of these changes in the world.
During the early 1990s, an idealistic law student who was looking for opportunities to work with vulnerable populations (especially one who was willing to do it for very little money) had a lot of options. And I took advantage of as many as I could.
I went to Chiapas, Mexico to do human rights work with the indigenous people. I hitchhiked around Czechoslovakia to teach the Roma population about citizenship. I spent my spring break in Miami working with Haitian refugees. I worked with my professor Jules Lobel, a human rights litigator who would become my lifelong friend and mentor.
I loved every minute of it. And it was all coming together – what I had heard my parents talking about, what I experienced in my own journey – immigration law and asylum would be my path to fight for what is right.
It was also during my law school years that I first began to work with AILA. When I was raising money to bring a vanful of law students to Miami to work with the Haitian refugees, someone told me about a group of immigration lawyers in town. I went to one of their chapter meetings and without hesitation, the Pittsburgh AILA chapter provided us with a generous donation and gave us lots of encouragement.
When an opportunity came my way to move to Chicago to work for an immigrants’ rights organization, I was ready. No matter that I had never been to Chicago, and didn’t really know anything about it, other than some vague notions about tall buildings, Al Capone, deep dish pizza, and terrible winters. But when I actually moved there, what I found was an incredible, intense, vibrant, and diverse city.
Also, to my surprise, I also found the second largest Mexican community in the U.S., the biggest Polish community outside of Poland, both a Chinatown and a Koreatown, and a range of other ethnic neighborhoods and organizations.
But what really struck me was the level of engagement and commitment I saw for political change – through community organizing, political mobilization, and volunteer work. It was a force I had never experienced before. It was truly an amazing crucible for a young, idealistic lawyer who was ready to forge herself into an engaged adult.
Also, literally the same day that I found out I had passed the Illinois bar, I signed up to be a member of AILA. I could not wait to be part of this organization of fellow immigration lawyers. I was just starting out in my legal career, and I was the only lawyer in the non-profit where I worked. I needed information, mentoring, and a sense of community – and in AILA I found my home.
I still to this day cherish the relationships from those early days, and I am grateful to the incredible lawyers who were so generous with their time and expertise and friendship during those years when every day I was facing something new and unknown. I may have been daunted, but I was not alone.
In Chicago, after working for several years for a non-profit, I joined a small law firm where I did family and removal defense, and now I work at a large law firm doing primarily business immigration.
But through it all, from my own experience as an immigrant, and from the countless people I have had the honor and privilege to represent, my experience has shown me the same theme over and over, in so many different ways.
Immigrants are brave, resourceful and hardworking people, and immigration brings the influx of ideas and traditions to this country that makes it the special place that it is – the complex and vibrant mosaic made up of so many different cultures and communities, all coming together into something truly unique and beautiful.
My engagement with AILA continued, first in the Chicago Chapter and then nationally. I have had the amazing opportunity to work with AILA members from coast to coast.
And we all have our own, unique journey that has brought us here. Whether you are working with asylum seekers at the border, or with immigrant families in rural farming communities, or with DREAMers in the city, or with employers and professionals trying to navigate the employment based immigration system – I know that your work, like mine, is a challenging but deeply rewarding labor of love – because you know you are doing the right thing.
Because you are bringing families together. Because you are enriching this country with the innovation and economic progress that immigration brings. Because in doing this work, you are upholding the values that our country was built on – the importance of family, of freedom, of fairness and due process, and of protection against governments that punish people because of their religious or political beliefs.
So … why do we hear exactly the opposite about immigration? Why do we hear that immigrants are to blame for our country’s problems, that they are bad for our country?
We can debate whether this rhetoric comes from a nativist ideology, or whether it comes from political calculation, or both.
But we can all agree that we as immigration lawyers, and the immigrants we represent, are living in extraordinarily dark times.
Many of us, whether we have been practicing immigration law for 5 years or for 50, have never found the practice as challenging as it is today. I have been practicing through a number of Administrations. We have certainly seen ups and downs in this work, the pendulum swinging in different directions. We have seen, historically, with the shifting of political tides, the enactment of overly punitive immigration laws. We have seen national tragedies such as September 11 used as opportunistic power grabs, to restrict the rights of immigrants in the name of national security.
But what we are seeing and living today is different. From the beginning of this Administration, we have felt the systematic attack on our clients and on ourselves.
It began with the Muslim ban and restrictions on refugee admissions.
Then we saw the efforts to end DACA for Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status for people who had been granted protection in the U.S.
We have the tragedy of the situation at the southern border, where the administration adopted a policy of separating families, where it deported parents without their children, and – as we have seen in horrifying images on the news – treating children like animals locked in cages. Even with the courts putting a stop to the family separation policy, this brutal practice will have a lasting impact on those families, some of whom will never be reunited.
In addition to the now-enjoined family separation policy, the administration instituted its “Remain in Mexico” policy. This policy severely restricts the ability of asylum seekers to request asylum at the ports of entry and establishes a quota system. “Remain in Mexico” has created squalid and dangerous conditions outside of Mexican border cities, where vulnerable asylum seekers are preyed upon, sometimes living on the streets for months and unable to connect with legal support, even if pro bono volunteers are available.
The Southern border is a humanitarian crisis that has been caused directly by this inhuman policy, and is being used as a political tool, to fan fear and to justify restricting immigration in a range of policy areas.
This is why AILA is launching a new Southern Border Task Force, to bring together the various areas of expertise, advocacy and litigation within AILA, to fight the disinformation and the abuses we are seeing every day on the Southern border.
Aside from the horrifying border situation, inside our country we have seen a substantial increase in deportations and enforcement. The government is using deplorable conditions in detention as a mechanism for punishment and deterrence.
And the conditions, in facilities often run by private prison companies, are shocking. A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General, found “egregious violations” of ICE’s own detention standards, including overcrowding, mold, spoiled food, and overuse of solitary confinement. And with 24 immigrant casualties in government custody under this administration, for detained immigrants our system is literally a matter of life and death.
And, in the immigration court system, the administration has diminished immigrants’ due process rights, imposing case quotas on the immigration judges, taking away their abilities to manage their dockets – essentially cutting any discretion the judges have left out of the system. Immigrants going through removal deserve due process and a fair chance to present their cases to an unbiased, nonpolitical decision maker. This is the reason that one of AILA’s primary advocacy priorities is to move the immigration courts out of the politicized Department of Justice to an independent Article I court system.
But the onslaught doesn’t stop there. Those of us who work with families and businesses know firsthand that the administration is attacking legal immigration as well, making it harder to for family members to reunite and for businesses and universities to recruit and retain the talent they need.
There is no reason that a tech company should receive a 20 page request for evidence demanding additional documentation that a Chinese PhD performing specialized research in the field of artificial intelligence is, in fact, a professional who meets the requirements of an H-1B specialty occupation. There is no reason that the government should be questioning whether a board licensed neurologist from Ghana is, in fact, a properly degreed professional.
The law provides businesses with options for visas for professionals, global transferees, and other types of workers that Congress has determined are vital for our economy. The mandate of USCIS is to adjudicate those categories fairly, using the standards in the law and the regulations – not to figure out new ways from day to day to deny cases or throw new obstacles in the path of employers and qualified foreign nationals seeking to fill those jobs.
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent changes in the 1-800 number to contact USCIS, which has been redesigned from a somewhat inefficient but basically functional system, into a Kafkaesque labyrinth that cannot possibly have been created for any purpose other than to deter a poor soul from ever entering it again in the future.
Some of these measures are absurd. Many are detrimental to our economy, offend our basic values and subvert due process. And, many are contrary to our constitution.
They are government actions put into place without a change in the law, without a change in the regulations, though the use of executive orders or simply changes in administrative action.
These policies have been implemented without legislative debate, public notice and comment, or through any mechanism of checks and balances envisioned in our constitutional system of law.
And it is not lost on me that if my parents fled the communists in this age and tried to seek refuge here in the United States, and if we as a family had to endure the horrors that asylum seekers are subjected to now, surely I would not be standing here before you today.
These are dark times indeed.
So what can we do to shine light into the darkness? What can we do illuminate the path forward for the people we represent? And given that we are living in a brave new world, how do we need to do things differently?
We are fortunate that at AILA, we have a staff of brave warriors in DC who fight for us every day. Not only do they provide us with legal information and analysis for our practices, they are advocating with Congress for better laws and for congressional oversight, pushing for dialogue with the agencies during very these difficult times, and getting our client’s stories into the media to highlight the human and economic impact of these cruel and backward policies.
None of this is easy in today’s environment, especially with an Administration that is hostile to immigration and a Congress that is too paralyzed to do anything about it. But our staff is fighting every day to improve what it can for our members.
Also, we recognize that in this difficult environment, it is more important than ever for us to be the best lawyers we can be and to strive to bring our craft and our profession to higher levels. To that end, we are launching AILA University, which will supplement AILA’s existing CLE offerings with innovative technology, including video and online tools.
We also have heard your requests for improved technology on AILA’s platform and this year we are moving forward with the “AILA Anywhere” initiative – moving AILA.org to a new infrastructure that will bring the resources of AILA to your phone.
We are also working with our Innovation Task Force to assess the broader implications of technology for our practices – including automation and analytical tools – so that as practitioners we can view technology as an asset, rather than a threat, to the delivery of immigration services.
And as much as we need our practices to be healthy and thriving, we also need ourselves to be healthy and thriving. Working in these most difficult times takes its toll and we all need to be mindful of taking care of ourselves and each other. To that end, AILA will continue to provide resources to members in the areas of wellness and work-life balance, and to serve as a supportive community for all of us.
These are all very important aspects of AILA’s work. But I want to spend a few minutes talking about one of our most powerful tools that, as an Association, we need to turbocharge to be truly effective in this day and age. I want to talk about litigation.
In this unprecedented environment, we are dealing with an administration that is pushing through new standards and restrictions on immigration primarily through administrative action and policy.
Of course, the agency has the discretion to do this in certain areas. But many of the initiatives reach beyond the administration’s authority under the law and regulations. Some are just plain illegal or unconstitutional.
And – we are lawyers. That gives us a very powerful tool to push back on where the administration or agency is overreaching. We can take them to court.
And guess what – it turns out that when lawyers sue the Administration, often we win. In fact, many of the administration’s signature policies have crumbled when they have been challenged in court.
Lawyers sued the government when it issued the Muslim ban, obtained a nationwide injunction that held for almost a year, and forced the Administration to settle for a significantly watered down version with a number of especially harmful provisions removed.
Lawyers sued the administration over its practice of separating families at the border and obtained an injunction to stop this brutal practice.
When the administration tried to rescind the DACA program, lawyers sued and obtained a national injunction, protecting nearly 1 million Dreamers from deportation.
When the administration tried to terminate TPS for a number of countries, lawyers sued asserting that the government had not followed the proper procedures, and obtained a nationwide injunction.
When the administration failed to obtain congressional appropriation for its Wall, it tried to divert Department of Defense appropriations to build it. Lawyers sued and a federal judge issued an injunction to block the use of those funds for that purpose.
When USCIS failed to process employment authorization for asylum seekers within the required 30-day timeframe, the American Immigration Council and others sued and a federal judge ordered the agency to follow its own rules and issue the EAD cards timely.
And in one of my favorite cases, a group of colleges sued the agency over a new policy memo that would have imposed significant new immigration penalties on foreign students for minor status infractions. As a result of the lawsuit, a federal judge enjoined the agency from implementing the memo, because it did not properly go through the administrative process. As a result of the injunction, the memo has been inactivated and taken down from the USCIS website until the lawsuit is resolved. this case was developed and co-counseled by AILA’s Administrative Litigation Task Force, an incredibly talented group of AILA members who are developing new litigation strategies to challenge these policies and are truly changing the litigation landscape.
So one of our primary areas of focus this year is that AILA will continue to work, together with the Council, to do everything we can to support the efforts to challenge and block the Administration’s illegal policies through impact litigation.
On a more individual scale, we are providing training and resources for AILA members to challenge the bad decisions that we are seeing on a day to day basis on petitions for H-1Bs and other immigration benefits.
More and more, our members are filing lawsuits challenging these decisions, which are often poorly written under made-up policies and standards, and we are seeing significant successes. And bringing a case before a judge and focusing a bright spotlight on an egregious decision can illuminates the path for your client and can inspire others to follow. It also demonstrates how likely the government is to shrink back into the shadows when they are required to account for their policies in the sober and objective environment of a courtroom.
Also, AILA is launching a new initiative to support you in filing mandamus cases to compel the government to adjudicate long-delayed cases. We are committed to providing you with resources and support to challenge these denials – so that we can win these cases, turn back the tide, and hold the agency accountable.
Now, for the most important part – what can you do?
The AILA staff works very hard but the true impact we have as an association is in you – our membership.
Many of you are here today – not only because this is your livelihood but because, like me, you care deeply about your clients and you know how important immigration is to our country. Some of you are already deeply engaged in litigation, advocacy, media, and other critical work, including pro bono, and I thank you for that.
But in this unprecedented environment, we all need to consider what more we can do.
There are more than 15,000 AILA members nationwide and around the world. We are all lawyers. Each of you is an expert on immigration. But as a community we are more than that. Each of you has a network. You have connections to your families, places of worship, alma maters, and community organizations. You are all leaders. Together we must take action.
The truth of the matter is, we don’t have a choice. Because if we don’t push back today, things will just keep getting worse. But if we engage, if we fight, if we work hard, if we litigate, things will be better.
Because we are all lawyers. And we are damn good lawyers. Because we represent the individualism, optimism, and generosity of the American spirit. Because our passion drives us and we know we are doing the right thing.
Our power together is not a currency represented by a stack of coins with our faces on it. Our power together is when we shine our light, and then plug into our networks, together – and it surges like electricity through a circuit. Please light up, and please plug in. And together we will surge and light the beacon of hope for our clients and our country.
Anne Frank said, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” And if each of us lights up, all these candles together can drive out the darkness.
I can’t wait to see how brightly we will all shine together. Thank you.