By Nicholas Hittler*
When I began working as an immigration specialist at Catholic Charities in Chicago a little over a year ago, I marveled at my colleagues’ experience and knowledge. I eagerly began learning immigration law and practice points. Anxious to help, I wondered how long it would take before I was a confident representative. A veteran co-worker told me, “You aren’t truly an advocate until you get out and fight on behalf of your client.” While I have never had to throw down in fisticuffs with an adjudicator, I have learned what it means to be a real advocate; nowhere is my growth more evident than in one particular client’s story.
My client had been present in the United States for over 20 years, and in that time she had cultivated an irrational fear of immigration authorities. When she came into my office with her just-turned 21-year-old daughter for a consultation, I could sense her apprehension. As a woman from a small, rural town in Mexico, she was unsuspecting and unaffected, easily frustrated by the legal complexities of her predicament, but earnest nonetheless. We determined she was eligible to adjust status under INA § 245(i), and we filed soon thereafter.
Trouble reared its ugly head early on when we received a rejection notice from USCIS. They claimed we had sent the incorrect fee amounts, which I knew to be false. Furthermore, my client’s worries were exacerbated when two consecutive RFEs were sent shortly after the rejection notice. Both RFEs requested an I-864 from my client’s brother-in-law, who had filed the original petition in 1998. This not only perplexed my client but confused me as well. Why was USCIS asking for an affidavit of support from someone whose name did not appear on any of the adjustment forms? When provided a clear explanation, why did they send another identical RFE? Apparently, USCIS thought my client’s brother-in-law was the petitioner, although we were only using proof of his old petition for the 245(i) benefit. As a newer practitioner, I had gotten my first taste of the bureaucratic fallibility of USCIS. We mailed another response letter to clarify the issue and my clients received an interview notice.
Due to the multiple complications in this case, I decided to represent this client at her interview at the district office. This was to be my first time performing the duties of a legal representative at the local office, since my BIA accreditation arrived while the application was pending. I had been to the USCIS office previously, though only as an interpreter, and had seen a few interviews. This was going to be a new experience altogether.
As my clients and I prepared for the big day, I grew increasingly aware of my client’s uneasiness. Although this was a clean case, I feared my client’s candor could get her into trouble.
Finally, the interview date had arrived. While waiting to enter the adjudicator’s office, my client informed me that she had slept only two hours the night before because she was so nervous. Once we entered into the interview, I was hyper-vigilant. The adjudicating officer was direct and a bit curt, and my clients were hanging on her every word in silent tension. Although I did not anticipate participating to a great extent in the interview, I was surprised to find myself highly involved in the discussion, clarifying the 245(i) misunderstandings, the RFE issues, and fee payments. Since my client did not fully grasp all that was going on and since her daughter was shy, I had the opportunity to step up and elucidate matters for both sides.
At the end of the interview, I was once again compelled to interject when the officer announced that she would need a few weeks to investigate the basis of the petition, which she stated was family-based preference category. I respectfully reminded her that this was an application for an immediate relative, at which point she acknowledged the error and told us that she would be recommending the case for approval. The case was approved later that day.
Needless to say, my client was ecstatic. She now has a full-time job in a factory and is proud of her legal status. After so many years living in fear, she was relieved to finally receive residency.
I, too, felt proud as I walked out of the building that day. Not only did I assist my client, but I felt empowered by being able to employ the knowledge I had accumulated over the course of a year in practice under the apprenticeship-based model of the Chicago Catholic Charities office. It was not until I found myself in front of the USCIS officer that I really saw the impact of my casework. I was able to explain the issues clearly to both my client and the officer which ultimately led to residency approval for my client.
As a BIA accredited representative, I had made a positive difference in my client’s life. It pains me to think how rough that interview would have been if I was not present. Reflecting on the experience, this interview was the culmination of my journey to becoming a true practitioner. My BIA accreditation has broadened my ability to advocate for my clients, and that day at the district office I got to experience the power of my credentials firsthand. In that interview I found my voice as an advocate and fought for my client’s rights. So, until adjustment interviews can be contested in hand-to-hand skirmishes, I will continue to fight the good fight on behalf of our clients. After all, that is what makes this career worthwhile.
* Nicholas Hittler is a BIA Accredited Representative with Catholic Charities of Chicago, Immigration and Naturalization Services Department.