‘Our worst fears are coming true’: Immigration attorneys struggle to advise clients alarmed by new policies

Haitham Ballout said the wait list to see clients at his immigration law practice in Burlingame has doubled since President Donald Trump took office.

Aggressive policies proposed by President Donald Trump are inviting swells of concerned locals to seek advisement from immigration attorneys who claim the prevailing hysteria is unlike any they have ever seen.

Fears of deportation, rumors of harassment by federal officers, anxieties over traveling and uncertainties regarding the ways more stringent immigration reforms could affect employment are among the most pressing concerns harbored locally, said Priya Alagiri, who operates a law office in San Mateo.

Such critical questions deserve thoughtful answers, said Alagiri, who expressed dismay over her occasional inability to offer clear guidance due to the seeming unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policy making.

“It’s extraordinarily challenging as an immigration attorney because we don’t know,” she said. “It’s like a chess game and we are trying to figure out how to advise our clients, but we don’t know what the administration has in store.”

The widespread confusion hit its peak following President Trump moving swiftly and unexpectedly in late January to temporarily limit the travel rights of immigrants from select countries.

The action was ultimately struck down in court, but not before inciting rallies in opposition to the ban seen by critics as a xenophobic betrayal of the welcoming values which shaped the nation.

Alagiri said perhaps most alarming is President Trump implementing policies reflecting the aggressive rhetoric he expressed on the campaign trail which some advocates for immigrant communities had previously hoped served only to rally his base.

“My first thought was that he cannot possibly do what he is talking about, it is so extreme. And then he did it,” she said. “It seems like our worst fears are coming true.”

She said it is not uncommon to receive calls from crying clients overwhelmed with fear for their quality of life and safety under President Trump.

Haitham Ballout, a Burlingame immigration attorney, said he too has experienced an uptick in visits from clients grappling with the unfamiliar uncertainty they face.

With increased frequency, Ballout said his work responsibilities are more akin to a grief counselor than an expert charged with offering legal counsel, as he is constantly trying to comfort unsettled clients.

He said the most effective means of quelling concerns is reminding those seeking advice that if they have not committed a crime, and have not been deported previously, they are likely safe.

“Lots of people walk out of here smiling,” said Ballout, who claims his normal weeklong waiting list to see clients has doubled in recent months. He said he will often clear space in his busy calendar for a walk-in appointment, because he has found those are potential clients who most urgently need help.

Keeping an open-door policy is inspired by his belief that anyone seeking immigration advice should have access to an attorney who specializes in that field of law, rather than leaning on other attorneys or paralegals who may not be authorized to address specific and complex legal issues.

Ballout’s more than two decades of experience affords him the expertise to inform clients they may be eligible for protections that they were previously unaware of, such as being eligible for immigration protections after having aided law enforcement in an investigation.

“We find ways to help them because they sought out competent legal advice,” said Ballout, who immigrated from Lebanon as a teen and ultimately pursued a career in law after finding the legal aid he was offered as a youngster dissatisfactory.

Knowing the difficulties associated with adapting to a foreign country, Ballout said he is compassionate to the vital role many immigrants play locally.

“They are the fabric of our community,” he said.

But Michael Wang, an attorney with Wilner & O’Reilly immigration lawyers, said greater powers offered to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officers may begin to pull at the threads of that fabric.

“What you see now is people who thought they were going to be left alone, they are getting transferred to ICE custody,” said Wang, whose firm keeps an office in San Bruno.

Such a shift was enabled under President Trump authorizing officers to use their best discretion when enforcing the types of crimes potentially justifying a person being deported. Under the previous administration, Wang said federal officers were only instructed to pursue deportation in cases of more severe offenses.

“Any crime could be a deportable crime,” he said, while noting anyone facing such prosecution still has the right to trial.

This policy has given rise to great uncertainty regarding the security of many locally, said Alagiri.

“It is just creating fear at a level that I have never seen,” she said.

Ballout agreed the anxiety is unprecedented, but said he was heartened to hear President Trump declare in his most recent speech that he intended to pursue an immigration bill rather than double down on his commitment to signing far-reaching and temporary executive orders. The traditional path to passing a bill and exposing it to the critique of fellow lawmakers could result in a more diplomatic and well-considered piece of legislation, he said.

But considering the tremendous power the Oval Office holds in influencing the lives of his clients, Ballout said he believes his work is as critical as ever.

“People know their lives are on the line, so you got to take that seriously,” he said.

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