On a rainy Thursday evening in November, nearly thirty Latinos crowded into a tiny auxiliary room at the Queens Library seeking wisdom and advice from immigration lawyer Farzad Siman. They rested wet umbrellas and coats underneath seasonal messages of “Happy Thanksgiving” and “Fall in Love” taped to yellow walls. Many looked tired. Some had children in tow. All listened intently.
Siman has practiced immigration law for more than two decades. He spoke at the legal clinic for the neighborhood’s many Dominicans, Ecuadorians, and Mexicans with a clear attempt to lower expectations.
“For about thirty percent of people who come into my office,” he said, “there is nothing I can do.” He paused to allow Spanish translation, then continued: “No matter how much money, there is no program.”
Judging by the desperate expressions on some faces in the audience, Siman’s initial message was disappointing. But adjusting expectations is important, said Haydee Zambrana, founder and executive director of Latin Women in Action, which organized this legal clinic with the Queens Library.
Despite Siman’s acknowledgement that he often cannot help, every chair in the library room remained filled as Siman continued, with warnings about particular dangers that face immigrants.
For example, immigrants may suddenly find themselves accidental targets when immigration authorities knock on the door asking to speak with a previous tenant. Told that the person no longer lives there, authorities may quickly shift focus to the person standing in the doorway and demand documentation of legal status. If papers can’t be presented, the person may be arrested. This “has happened so many times to my clients,” said Siman.
Siman also warned attendees to be wary of a program called “cancellation of removal,” which he sarcastically described as “popular” among some immigration lawyers.
The cancellation program offers a chance for a noncitizen to avoid deportation in very limited circumstances, Siman explained. For example, after an arrest for a criminal offense and the start of deportation proceedings, a noncitizen can ask the immigration court to “cancel removal.” But “cancellation,” or the blocking of deportation, would only be granted if a judge determined that the immigrant was of good moral character, had lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, and would be leaving his or her family in hardship if deported.
“About once a month,” Siman said, he gets a client who was advised by another attorney “to turn [himself] in to immigration in order to be placed under [deportation] proceedings.” Then, he is told to “apply for cancellation.” This is rarely advisable because satisfying the cancellation of removal criteria is “very hard,” even in New York where judges tend to be more liberal in immigration cases. In 22 years of practicing immigration law, Siman said he has only advised two clients to turn themselves in to immigration authorities in order to initiate a petition for cancellation of removal.
In the middle of Siman’s presentation, an old woman rose from her chair and walked with arms extended to the front of the room. Speaking in Spanish, she told Siman that her son had been deported and she needed help to bring him back. Zambrana took her hand at the front of the room and asked the woman to return to her seat.
Later, an elderly man entered the room and walked directly to the front, waving papers and identification cards. Zambrana quickly shuffled through the pages, then asked the man to save his questions until the end. He found a seat in the back, and Siman moved on to other topics, including advising the audience to save all doctor bills, medical records, library cards, rent and Western Union receipts – even parking tickets. All could be used as evidence of residence in the U.S., if such proof were needed for a cancellation of removal proceeding, he said.
Finally, Siman broached the topic of pleading guilty to minor criminal offenses, warning that guilty pleas risk deportation for a person without legal status. Siman cautioned everyone to seek advice from an attorney with expertise in immigration law prior to accepting a plea deal for any crime.
As the meeting neared its end, a middle-aged man with shiny black hair and a toffee complexion raised his hand. He had sat quietly through the talk, in a red jacket with tattered cuffs and white plastic grocery bags surrounding his feet. In English, he said softly that he had been arrested for disorderly conduct 14 years ago. Immigration officials had just begun deportation proceedings against him, he said, and he needed help.
The man’s question was lost in a rush of announcements that the library was about to close. Siman offered the man his business card as people gathered their belongings and children.
Outside the library, Siman was quickly surrounded and pressed to answer questions. He offered quiet words of advice and told everyone they could connect with him later through Zambrana. After a few minutes, the crowd dissipated. Siman walked to the subway, briefcase and umbrella in hand. The rain had stopped for the night.