Q&A: Lawyer discusses work on immigration reform at White House, Justice Department

As the current session of Congress winds down, chances are that immigration reform – and how the United States deals with roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants, a quarter of them in California – will have to wait.

In the 2012 fiscal year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 409,849 people from the country, the vast majority of them convicted criminals or undocumented immigrants who had been caught, deported and caught again. But more than 13,000 children a year are detained and placed into removal proceedings, including kids as young as 7 or 8 who have no legal guardian, said Daniel Olmos, who worked on immigration reform at the U.S. Justice Department and the White House from March 2010 through January 2013.

A son of the Central Valley, the 35-year-old Olmos attended Harvard University and graduated from Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley. He now lives in Davis, where he practices criminal law and closely follows the nation’s immigration policies.

What’s the most critical part of immigration reform?

The Obama administration made a tactical error in its first two years for not pushing for a federal Dream Act, because we wanted a more comprehensive approach. A so-called Dream Act would give permanent legal status to an 18- or 19-year-old kid who wants to join the military, go to college and join the workforce. Conferring legal permanent status on high school graduates allows them to qualify for federal student loans.

In June 2012, Obama instituted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that allows undocumented high school graduates in good standing to get two-year temporary work visas, but there’s no guarantee that the temporary status is going to be renewed, and now all your information is on Homeland Security’s radar.

Why should we legalize undocumented kids whose parents broke the law by entering illegally?

We’re putting on even footing kids who came here through no fault of their own. All the things American citizens want for their kids, we should want for all our kids. The idea that they are not entitled to be on equal footing with other kids because their parents brought them here when they were 4 years old is not consistent with American values.

The last time the United States addressed illegal immigration – the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 – 2.7 million undocumented immigrants received green cards, and sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers were strengthened. How could it work this time?

(An undocumented immigrant would) have to demonstrate a history of paying taxes here and, on top of that, you’d pay a fine. You’d have to get in line and wait your turn so you wouldn’t jump in front of people who are already going through the immigration process. While you’re waiting, we’re not going to kick you out. After six or 10 or 15 years – when you’ve been working, paying taxes and not committing any crimes – you can become a citizen.

What will it take to pass immigration reform?

There was momentum just after Obama’s re-election that we could get it done because the Republicans lost so badly with the Latino vote, they could see the need for it. But unfortunately, many members of the Republican-controlled House feel that if they pass the federal Dream Act as part of a huge, punitive immigration reform bill, they risk not being re-elected. It looks like Congress could take a “piecemeal approach” suggested by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., separating the Dream Act from a path to citizenship and a more comprehensive bill.

What was your focus in the Justice Department?

I went to the Access to Justice Initiative, designed to help guarantee that more federal resources were directed to provide legal services to indigent clients, including immigrants and the mentally ill. About 80 percent of immigrants who are detained pending the adjudication of their deportation hearings don’t have a lawyer – including many who entered the country legally on a visa. Thousands are unaccompanied minor children who are getting deported, because they don’t have a lawyer. It could be a kid whose parents or guardian is caught and deported, or a kid in juvenile proceedings. Eight-year-old kids are being deported without lawyers. It’s disgraceful.

Some kids are put on a plane and sent back to Honduras or Guatemala or wherever they’re from and federal officials are supposed to contact officials in those countries and let them know the kids are coming back. But this is a very vulnerable population. We don’t do enough to ensure that there is somebody there to receive them, or there is a sufficient support structure to prevent them from turning around and coming back to the United States.

How would you characterize the Obama administration’s immigration policy?

The administration has made a very positive impact in several ways, including DACA and the “Morton memo” that directs ICE prosecutors to prioritize deportations of people with criminal backgrounds or who may be a threat to national security, basically leaving alone people who aside from their immigration status are paying their taxes and raising their families. The administration is clearly very passionate about immigration reform, but I don’t believe you demonstrate your bona fides by deporting more people than any administration in history.