When I was growing up, I’d spend my afternoons with my grandparents, watching a television show called "Citizen Pinoy." It’s a show about immigration, tailored towards Filipinos, and hosted by American lawyer Michael J. Gurfinkel.
Gurfinkel, who has been an immigration attorney for over 35 years, uses his show and online column "Immigration Corner" to explain complicated U.S. immigration news, laws, and developments to his mostly Filipino audience.
Since 1990, the Migration Policy Institute reports, the Philippines has been one of the top five countries of origin for immigrants to the United States. The country is currently led by a Trump-like president itself. But nonetheless, last month, Donald Trump suggested that immigrants from the Philippines could pose a threat to the U.S. And according to a 2009 Department of Homeland Security study, immigrants from the Philippines make up the fifth largest group of undocumented individuals in the United States. So although Trump often speaks specifically about his views on immigration in regards to Mexico, it is likely the estimated 270,000 undocumented Filipinos living in the United States would fall under Trump's deportation plans, too.
In the wake of Trump’s recent policy proposals regarding immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, I wanted to ask Gurfinkel what he thinks about the logistics and legality of what Trump has suggested.
"For the most part all they want is a better life for themselves and a better life for their families," Gurfinkel told Fusion. "They all wanna come here and work hard. They're no drag on the economy because they all are contributing."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Donald Trump discussed a 10-point immigration plan last week. It’s something that you wrote about in depth, but I want to ask you: what was your initial reaction when you heard the specific policies and proposals he discussed?
Michael J. Gurfinkel: When he originally announced his candidacy for the presidency where he was saying that he wants to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, and basically deport all aliens in the U.S. or undocumented who are out of status, I just did not believe that to be a common-sense or workable solution, and then I just started writing articles about it: the logistics, how to gather up the people, and send them out. Where do you send them to? And also, what about their day in court, which he just seems to gloss over? I mean certainly in rare circumstances you can turn a person away at the border, or if they already have a longstanding deportation order, but you can't just knock at the door of people and take them to the airport.
What’s the legal basis for that?
MJG: Generally people who are subject to removal have rights. They have a right to their day in court, [because] maybe they have a way to get a green card - perhaps they're married to a U.S. citizen or have a child over 21 - you just don't pick them up and put them on a plane and send them home. They have a right to go in front of a judge. They have a right to set forth their claims for relief or avenues for getting a green card, and then have at least one or two hearings. Then there's the appeal process as well, and as I pointed out in my article, when you had about 60,000 kids from Central America pouring over the border, Obama decided to put them to the front of the line, and push back the people already in queue, and that was resulting in postponements or continuances to 2019. A lot of my cases that already had pending hearing dates suddenly were getting notices that it was pushed back to 2019.
My point: if 60,000 people can push court hearings back for three years, imagine 11 million people suddenly added to the deportation roster. There's not enough courts. There's not enough judges. There's not enough court personnel to handle that. It's going to take a thousand years.
Trump also mentioned his zero tolerance position for people who have entered the country without legal documentation. What do you make of that?
MJG: He seems to be changing or evolving on the zero tolerance, certainly when he announced his candidacy he was zero tolerance, and every time he speaks, he keeps changing it. It’s now to the point where it's “Let's first focus on the criminals, the terrorists, and the really bad people.” But still, how do you deport a three-year-old child or an elderly person whose only crime is overstay? There has to be some realistic, humane solution to the issue of the 11 million undocumented here, not this deportation task squad. It gets scary the way it’s described, like commandos rushing into a town blocking off the street and then banging on doors and asking for papers? That's not what America's about.
What kinds of solutions do you suggest?
MJG: I'll give you a couple of ideas. Maybe even Trump, if he was made aware of it, would be in favor. There was an old law called Section 245-i. That was an extremely beneficial law for “TNTs” [short for "tago ng tago," a term Filipinos use to describe someone who is in a country out of legal status], and basically it expired April 30, 2001.
What that law allowed was if you were in the U.S. and if you were out of status, if you worked without authorization, if you overstayed your visa— all these people that Trump doesn't like— what they did back then is if you paid $1,000 penalty to immigration, you would not need to leave the U.S., but instead you could file for your green card in the U.S. Now, Trump keeps saying everyone is going to go out and the good ones come in, but he's a businessman: what if you bring back 245(i)? They would still go through the screening process. They do get fingerprint checks, background checks, and stuff like that, so that would be a starting point, bringing back 245(i) so not everyone has to depart.
Another thing that we can do, if we cannot yet do comprehensive immigration reform, maybe soften up some of those 1996 laws like the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 [passed under former president Bill Clinton], that can help this out as well.
[Note: Gurfinkel recently wrote about the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. In his column, he said it “brought about some of the harshest and most severe changes to immigration law, the effects of which are still felt today– after 20 years.” The law created a lifetime ban for individuals who are not U.S. citizens but claimed to have citizenship to do things like get a job, register to vote, or apply for a student loan. It also stated if an undocumented individual remained in the country illegally for more than a year and then left the country, that they could be banned for 10 years unless they got a waiver, among other things.]
I don't disagree with doing something to more or less secure the border, but building a Great Wall of China across the U.S.? I don't think that's a workable solution either.
A lot of the conversation around Trump's immigration policy revolves around his first point that he described: the literal, physical wall between the United States and Mexico. Are there other things that he’s mentioned that would particularly affect the clients you work with?
MJG: Is he even going to be able to get Congress to pass these supposed laws? That's something else he didn't think about. And building a wall along the Mexican border maybe deals with any issues at the border, but from what I understand, there are a whole host of people who are here undocumented who did not enter from the border, but flew in.
He keeps changing his plan, but always go back to, no matter what, “We gotta get them all out of the country.” It's causing a lot of fear and anxiety amongst not only the undocumented, but also their families. What do you do if you have an undocumented mother with three U.S. citizen kids? What happens to the poor kids? Do you put them in foster care? Do you have to have the other relatives adopt them if mommy or daddy gets sent home? If he is a businessman, and he realizes logistics of things, he's gonna have to come and realize that his plans are just not workable, and he has to come up with something more realistic and humane.
And I know they're out of status, but in all other respects — except for overstaying visas maybe —they're otherwise law abiding. He should do something better and more humane to bring them in.
I went to Staten Island and the ferry went right by the Statue of Liberty, and what does the motto say? “Give us your tired, your poor, your hungry.” Our country was founded on and encouraged immigration, and he's going just the opposite of that. And if he gets elected and he goes after people, I’m going to be here to help save or protect them.