Work earns local a trip to White House: City attorney attends ceremony where Biden announces major change to immigration policy

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at an event marking the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the East Room at the White House on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at an event marking the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the East Room at the White House on Tuesday. GETTY IMAGES/TNS PHOTO

Northampton attorney Dan Berger stands outside the White House with Marielena Hincapie, a distinguished fellow at Cornell Law School. They were invited to Washington to hear President Biden’s announcement Tuesday of immigration policy changes.

Northampton attorney Dan Berger stands outside the White House with Marielena Hincapie, a distinguished fellow at Cornell Law School. They were invited to Washington to hear President Biden’s announcement Tuesday of immigration policy changes. COURTESY DAN BERGER

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 06-23-2024 7:00 AM

NORTHAMPTON — When President Biden stepped to the podium in the East Room of the White House last Tuesday to announce a major change in immigration policy, a Northampton attorney was there to witness the moment.

Dan Berger said he was invited to the event for his work on helping immigrants, mainly in higher education, obtain visas that will allow them to work and stay in the U.S.

When Biden announced a plan to streamline the process for immigrants to obtain work visas, he was relying in part on work done by Berger and his law partner, Megan Kludt. The visas, known as H-1B, will provide sturdier protections than the work permits offered by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which is under legal challenge and is no longer taking new applications.

With no congressional action likely on the Dream Act, Berger said, the Biden administration has been trying to find ways to help immigrants within the law as it stands. He and Kludt came up with the idea of using a waiver program to help undocumented students secure their future.

“We’ve been working a lot with colleges and universities to think about how to support the undocumented population,” he said.

They tested the waters by helping some employers, including two hospitals, sponsor work visas for DACA recipients under the old rules.

“We ran a test program, and we reported on what was working and what wasn’t,” Berger said.

One client, an oncology resident in Boston, was quickly able to move onto a work visa, while another has been waiting more than seven months.

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Berger said he and Kludt will be involved in implementing the rollout of streamlining the work visas, which is expected to take 30 days.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “We meet with a lot of people and this increases the number of people we can help.”

Parole in place

The other initiative Biden announced is an expansion of what’s known as “parole in place,” which will allow qualifying immigrants to get on the path to U.S. permanent residency without leaving the country.

The change applies to immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens and have lived in the country for at least 10 years. Under current law, they have to leave the country before they can apply for permanent residency, and may never be allowed to return.

With approximately 500,000 people living under DACA, and another 500,000 eligible but unable to get in, as many as a million people stand to benefit from the changes.

Biden noted that he is not creating fundamental change, but expanding on authority used by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to allow “parole in place” for family members of military members.

Andrea Flores, a former policy adviser in the Obama and Biden administrations who is now a vice president at FWD.us, an immigration advocacy organization, called it “the biggest win for the immigrant rights movement since the announcement of DACA 12 years ago.”

Kludt and Berger, along with dozens of other attorneys, signed on to a May 31 letter to the president laying out the legal basis for expanding parole in place.

“We’ve been sharing ideas, helping them see what paths they could take,” Kludt said.

Tuesday’s announcement was tied to the 12th anniversary of DACA, and Biden said “we’re a much better and stronger nation because of it.”

The president also noted that he took action to secure the southern border two weeks ago, temporarily shutting down asylum requests and deporting asylum seekers because of the high volume of immigrants trying to cross the border.

“We have some concerns about that,” Kludt said.

She acknowledged that it’s a difficult situation, but she cited concern for the human rights of refugees vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping and other crime while waiting at the border. U.S. asylum law previously allowed migrants on American soil to request humanitarian protection, even if they crossed the border illegally.

Kludt did some work at the border in New Mexico in 2014 and 2015, when the Obama administration started the family detention program. She provided representation and started a network to prepare support documents and case management.

Her and Berger’s current focus is a grant-funded initiative called Path to Papers. With a focus on the Bay Area of San Francisco, the project, based at Cornell Law School, is trying to reach every DACA holder and consult with them on ways they can move to a more secure status, such as the H-1B visa for working professionals.

DACA faces twin threats, Kludt noted. As an executive order it can be undone by another administration, which former President Trump tried to do. He was rebuffed by a narrow U.S. Supreme Court majority, which objected to the manner in which the Homeland Security secretary had rescinded the policy.

DACA also could be undone through the courts. Several states, led by Texas, are suing to overturn the policy, saying it was illegal from the outset. That case is working its way up to the appellate court, Kludt said, and could be heard by the Supreme Court as early as next year.

Many Dreamers are in their 30s now and have established themselves in their professions, Kludt said. The Cornell clinic is working to spread awareness to companies, nonprofits, schools and other employers of how to sponsor immigration applications.

Work-based options for legal residency are showing the most promise, Kludt said.

“Of the people we’ve met with and evaluated, about 74% potentially have some employment path” to legal residency, she said.

Material from The Associated Press and The New York Times was used in this report.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.