In a potentially huge breakthrough for Cecilia Gomez and her legal team, the judge and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed to open the door to placing her back on track to gain permanent legal status. How did it happen, and what might this mean for other immigrants seeking relief in court? Let’s take a closer look at the astonishing case of Cecilia Gomez.
How did Cecilia Gomez get here?
In March, ICE agents arrested Cecilia Gomez during what was supposed to be a standard interview with USCIS (or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). She was detained and physically assaulted by ICE, then fast-tracked to be deported.
But last month, that all changed when public support for Gomez pressured ICE to release her. Then, a federal immigration judge in Los Angeles ruled to vacate the 1998 order of removal that the Las Vegas ICE office used as justification to arrest Gomez. Since then her case has been moved to Las Vegas, where Judge Munish Sharda heard it this morning.
What happened in court today?
After all the fire and fury surrounding Cecilia Gomez’s case, today’s hearing felt anticlimactic. It lasted less than 20 minutes, and there was hardly any disagreement between Gomez’s legal counsel and the DHS attorney. Ultimately, today’s action came down to two legal documents: The charging document from 1998 that was central to DHS’ case against Gomez, and the tourist visa that Gomez originally used to come to the United States.
The 1998 charging document was removed due to the notario submitting wrong information and not notifying Gomez of her case, and DHS agreed to consider a new form relating to the original tourist visa that Gomez will submit next week. If all goes as expected, Judge Sharda will terminate the legal case next Tuesday and allow Gomez to proceed with her green card application with USCIS.
Laura Barrera, the UNLV Immigration Clinic attorney who’s acting as Gomez’s legal counsel, explained the case to us like this: “The charging document was incorrect. It said she entered without inspection, and that’s significant because that’s a different part of the law. […] If it all looks good to them, they will terminate this case.” And from there, Barrera noted, “The case will continue with USCIS. They never actually denied her a green card. They just closed the case […], so it will pick back up there.”
How is Gomez’s case (and immigration court in general) different?
And yet, this case won’t be entirely slammed shut, even if the judge rules in Gomez’s favor next week. As Laura Barrera put it, “It won’t be closed. It will just be terminated, which means there will not be a case against her any more.”
Why is that? Unlike standard federal courts, which are removed from the executive and legislative branches of government, immigration courts are under the purview of the U.S. Department of Justice. As such, they operate under a different set of rules. If Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants Cecilia Gomez deported, he can reexamine the case and restart the process in immigration court.
As Barrera explained, “The Attorney General has always had the authority to do these things, but no one has done it as much.” She then explained the limits to Sessions’ authority to intervene in Gomez’s case: “When a case is terminated, it can’t be reopened, but it can be refiled.” Or in other words, the federal government would have to start from scratch if it wanted to pursue a different outcome.
“It was that community attention [… that helped] stop that deportation and allowed enough time for the legal process. For me, that shows the importance of community action. There is hope.”
– Laura Barrera, Cecilia Gomez’s Attorney
As we examine the fine print of Cecilia Gomez’s case, then notice the bigger picture of the American immigration system under President Donald Trump, it’s important to keep in mind that some immigrants’ legal cases may closely resemble Gomez’s, while others may be drastically different. Just before Judge Sharda heard Gomez’s case, he heard that of an asylum seeker and set the next court date for January 2020. Under new rules being pursued by Sessions, some asylum seekers may not even get another court date while other immigration cases that have been subject to “administrative closure” (as in, put on pause due to the extensive backlog of cases) must be reactivated and expedited. Essentially, Sessions wants to place his thumb on the legal scale in order to fast-track more deportations.
And yet, Cecilia Gomez and her allies persist. Barrera gave major props to community allies, such as the Arriba Las Vegas Worker’s Center, for exposing the truth of Cecilia Gomez’s case and demanding that ICE release her: “They could have deported her before the motion to reopen was granted. It was that community attention [… that helped] stop that deportation and allowed enough time for the legal process. For me, that shows the importance of community action. There is hope.”
For now, there’s good reason for Gomez to hope for a favorable outcome next Tuesday. DHS seems amenable to terminating the legal case, a breakthrough that may finally allow Gomez to get her green card and assure her children that their family will stay together in America. It’s a conclusion that seemed nearly impossible less than two months ago, and it may be a conclusion that offers a beacon of hope to the larger immigrant community that maybe, just maybe, the American Dream is still within reach.