By Deane Morrison
After graduating from the University’s Law School in 2006, Marissa Hill-Dongre knew she wanted to practice public interest law, helping marginalized communities access legal services.
After working in criminal defense and labor law, she found her calling in immigration law, where her background in Spanish and sociology was a good fit for helping people navigate a complex and often emotional system. As director of the U’s Immigration Response Team (IRT) since its inception in March 2017, she has been clarifying the “super-complicated web of rules and regulations” for students, staff, and faculty affected by U.S. immigration law.
“Law school made me realize that most things aren’t black and white, but shades of gray,” Hill-Dongre says.
Nowhere does that observation apply more than in immigration law. Given today’s ever-shifting ground of rules, IRT’s services and Hill-Dongre’s expertise have never been in greater demand. She and IRT’s communications director, Holly Ziemer, are its two members.
Lighthouse in the fog
IRT often helps University faculty, staff, and students who are foreign nationals concerned about re-entering the United States from abroad.
“Those with current visas, for example, are worried that the rules will change when they’re gone, or that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will exercise their discretion [to bar them entry],” she says.
Students on F1 visas get their visa documents from International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), and Hill-Dongre works collaboratively with them to keep the office updated on rules that affect ISSS’s work. She has written letters for faculty—she’s also available for staff—to present to CBP officials on their return to the United States. In them she “tries to guess what CBP would want to know” about the faculty member’s visa status and their position and work at the U.
“The letters are mostly for people from Muslim majority countries, not just the six [specifically restricted by the current U.S. administration],” she notes.
To help the most people, the IRT is taking several steps. Ziemer is assembling a statewide resource referral list on immigration issues, loosely focused on U of M campus locations. She and Hill-Dongre also read court decisions, distill information on issues of concern to U communicators, and disseminate it via the IRT listserv—signups are available on the IRT website.
The website also has a form where people can report their experiences. Hill-Dongre tracks responses to understand how policy changes affect individuals and the University as a whole.
The “extreme vetting” form allows people to share their experience obtaining a U.S. visa. Colleges and universities have expressed concern that burdensome and poorly defined visa requirements will discourage international students from coming to the United States.
Another form tracks experiences with CBP when entering the country, including whether laptops or mobile phones were searched. Anyone, including U.S. citizens and immigrants, can share what happened at a U.S. point of entry.
“We’re trying to teach about issues that may arise around difficulty getting back to the United States, such as border inspections,” says Hill-Dongre. “We want to gather enough data to answer people’s questions about what to expect and how to prepare.”
Every day, Hill-Dongre collaborates with other campus offices dealing with issues like recruiting faculty, undergrad, and grad students; or the status of a DACA (Deferred Action for Children of Arrivals, an Obama Administration policy) student.
“One department admitted a graduate student they really wanted, but the student currently has DACA and wanted to know what the U could legally do if DACA goes away,” Hill-Dongre says.
Dreams of a doer
Reading the papers, a person might think most immigration problems stem from Trump Administration policies, but plenty of issues have been complicated for a long time. Many problems are “unforeseen consequences of laws to fix other problems in the immigration system,” Hill-Dongre says.
“People have opinions about the system that they don’t understand. Some say, ‘Why not just wait in line?’ They don’t realize there’s no line, no legal way to get into the United States. Most undocumented immigrants come because there’s no work at home, or they can’t educate their kids or earn enough money for food and a decent house. Many children and youth at the border are escaping gangs that [grab] kids right out of middle or high school.
“Every immigration attorney’s dream is comprehensive immigration reform. It would not just look at rules to make the United States safe and take advantage of skilled people’s skills, but would allow mutually beneficial relations. That’s hard to think about comprehensively.”