Caught in a web of bureaucracy, longtime local businesswoman Uzoamaka was arrested and put on a plane to London in August. Her lawyers blame the inefficiency of post-9/11 immigration enforcement.
Baird represented Uzo in a hearing on Sept. 21, 2001. Her request for what's called a "cancellation of removal" was denied, and an appeal to the Board of Immigration three months later ultimately resulted in the same decision. Such denials have become commonplace since the laws were changed in 1996, increasing qualification requirements and limiting the number of cancellations granted each year.
In fact, Uzo never had much of a shot.
In 1996 Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which tightened immigration laws in response to the public's increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the early '90s.
Billed as a measure to strengthen national security by improving the government's ability to identify and deport illegal aliens, the act, say its critics, ignored due process standards guaranteed by the Constitution, and poured an extraordinary amount of resources into tracking down long-term immigrants who had nothing to do with terrorism, a criticism that's also often applied to the Bush administration's sweeping legislative response post-9/11.
Among other provisions, the '96 act limited the number of cancellations of removal that could be issued by immigration courts to 4,000 a year, a miniscule number compared to how many requests are filed annually. Cancellations of removal, which in their earlier unlimited form were called "suspensions of deportation," allowed judges to grant green card status to potential immigrants with good moral character who'd been in this country for at least seven years and could show that they'd face extreme hardship if forced to return to their home countries. New qualifications for this form of relief imposed under the '96 laws made it significantly more difficult to obtain. For instance, green card applicants must now prove "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to a close relative who is a citizen or permanent resident to be granted the cancellation.
When the act passed, immigration advocacy groups went ballistic. The media quickly began churning out heartbreaking stories that illustrated the often tragic implications of the new laws. Even the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) found the '96 act too rigid.
Former INS commissioner Doris Meissner testified before Congress in 1999 that the new laws were overreaching and needed reform. The argument was that there needed to be a restoration of forms of relief granted to immigrants by judges. The issue became a high priority on the legislative agenda.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
"Any discussion got wiped out with 9/11," says USCIS spokesperson Bill Strassberger. "Reform got put on the very back burner."
In March 2003 the INS was divided into three separate agencies under the expansive Department of Homeland Security (DHS): USCIS, which handles the processing of all service and benefit functions; Customs Border Protection, which is concerned solely with border-related security; and ICE, which handles the nationwide enforcement of immigration laws. The idea was to streamline responsibilities so that each agency was concerned with only one part of the process, making it easier to monitor criminal activity.
Whether the DHS has made our country safer is debatable. But what many believe it has done is turned an already convoluted immigration system into an almost incomprehensible web of government bureaucracy, fueled by lack of communication among the three agencies. In addition, the broad power and copious funding of ICE-the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, with a budget of $3.6 billion-combined with the stricter laws put in place in the mid-'90s, have made immigrating to the United States a vague, inconsistent and sometimes terrifying experience.
Current immigration law offers few options for those trying to delay deportation until other pending petitions are processed. And because USCIS and ICE operate independently, pending forms such as the I-130 Uzo's mother filed on her daughter's behalf are almost never taken into consideration in the deportation process.
According to current protocol, once an immigration judge issues an order of removal, ICE immediately begins working toward removal. Though petitions for a visa don't affect the removal process, ICE does have the authority to consider cases on an individual basis. But Homeland Security's stated goal of 100 percent removal of people with final orders leaves little room for clemency.
ICE would provide no details on Uzo's case, explaining that it doesn't comment on individual cases.
"There's a lot of discretion," says Baird, Uzo's former attorney. "But now, the majority of the time, it's all exercised against the immigrants."
Philadelphia's USCIS and ICE offices are both located at the Philadelphia Immigration Center at 16th and Callowhill streets. The problem, says Joe Hohenstein, who's practiced immigration law for more than a decade in Philadelphia and central Pennsylvania, "is that they continue to share the same building but do not share the same central mission or procedures. There's a conflict in missions and bureaucracies that leads them to duplicate things in both places. People in both agencies are frustrated by this."
Representatives at USCIS and ICE executive agencies in Washington wouldn't discuss operations at the local level, and those at Philadelphia district offices declined to comment for this story.
"There is absolutely a disconnect," says Regan Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Philadelphia Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC). "They're entirely different agencies. My impression is that they were rather better coordinated before this division under Homeland Security. It's just become a rather confusing maze of paperwork and processing."