The Post-Deportation Human Rights Project (PDHRP), based at the Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice, successfully returned a deportee to the United States earlier this year.
According to an Oct. 7 press release, the PDHRP worked with the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School in order to overturn the deportation order for Victor Veloz-Risik, a permanent U.S. resident since 2006, who had been deported in 2011 on a drug conviction. His conviction, however, was based on a drug certification signed by crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who is currently on trial for tampering with evidence and falsifying results at a Massachusetts lab. Her trial has cast doubt upon the reliability of evidence used in at least 34,000 criminal cases, including Veloz-Risik’s.
BC Law professor Daniel Kanstroom and Lynch School of Education professor M. Brinton Lykes founded the PDHRP approximately seven years ago.
“They very much saw this as an opportunity to create an interdisciplinary project,” said supervising attorney Jessica Chicco, who joined the project in 2010. “The idea was based on Professor Kanstroom’s interest and experience in what happens to people after deportation … particularly the idea that even individuals that have been physically deported from the country should have access to the justice system and the ability to challenge their deportation orders if there are some grounds to challenge them.”
The PDHRP is the only project in the country devoted to working with people who have already been deported. Most of the project’s work, Chicco said, is with people who have already been physically deported from the country and have limited prospects for legal return. Oftentimes the deportees have been separated from family, including spouses and children that are U.S. citizens or green card holders in the U.S.
The PDHRP uses email, phone calls, and Skype, when available, to coordinate with the deportees and build a case either to challenge the original deportation orders or find a way for the deportee to return lawfully to the U.S. The project also relies upon communication with family members who are still in the country.
Under the Obama administration, Chicco said, the number of deportations has risen greatly, with over 400,000 people being deported from the U.S. every year. A subset of those people, she said, arrived in the country legally and held green cards, often for a significant period of time, and were deported for criminal convictions.
“Now, sometimes those criminal convictions are very serious, but sometimes they’re non-violent or fairly minor criminal convictions,” Chicco said. “But because of the immigration laws that are on the books today-that have been on the books since 1996-for many of them there is no discretion that an immigration judge can exercise.”
For example, she said, immigration judges cannot factor into their decisions the length of time a person has resided in the U.S., whether or not their record has stayed clean since the crime was committed, or whether they have U.S. citizen children.
The PDHRP does not only consider deportations based on criminal convictions. A subset of its cases, Chicco said, have to do with people who were deported on grounds that were legally overturned after they had already left the country.
“Supreme Court cases that came after their deportation recognized that they should not have been deported or should at least have been given the opportunity to seek relief-to make a case for themselves as to why they should be allowed to stay, and they were denied that opportunity,” she said. “So then we try to reopen their cases so that they can be given that opportunity, but that has been very difficult.”
According to Chicco, the PDHRP usually handles between five and 10 cases at a time. “Direct representation is only a piece of what we do,” she said. “What we do a lot of is talk to individuals who have been deported, or their family members, and give them information, information to both help them understand what happened to them when they were deported from the United States.”
Because there is no right to government-appointed counsel in deportation proceedings, Chicco said, many people navigate these events on their own, and often end up without a good understanding of what happened, or what the consequences are in terms of being able to return to the U.S. During 2012-13, the PDHRP spoke to over 175 people about these matters. Only a few cases have sufficient grounds for the PDHRP to be able to challenge the deportation orders.
“In [Veloz-Risik’s] case we were able to convince the government to join us in our request to the immigration judge to reopen the case-and essentially to dismiss the case-because he was no longer subject to deportation, because he no longer had any conviction,” Chicco said. After the judge granted the request, arrangements could be made for Veloz-Risik to return to the U.S. as a green card holder.