“I come from a very conservative family, but my parents raised me to believe we are all equal in God’s eyes,” says Ashley Deadwyler-Heuman, an immigration lawyer in Macon, Georgia. “Our horrific immigration court system treats many people without dignity or respect. Being able to level that playing field is something that attracted me to immigration law.”
Deadwyler-Heuman devotes about half her time to representing immigrants. The work is more important now than ever, she says. Since the 2016 election, Deadwyler-Heuman says she has seen “an excessive” increase in deportation and removal cases. Even minor offenses, like traffic tickets, put people at risk. “We’ve about tripled,” she says. “People are afraid and taking whatever action they can to try and get their records cleaned up.” More recently, it was announced that White House would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to stay and work legally. Deadwyler-Heuman finds this development especially troubling, because a young undocumented immigrant first inspired her to take up immigration law.
In 2013, she was volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Heart of Georgia when she met Lisbeth, a Mexican-born girl whose parents had brought her to the United States at age 4. Though still very young, Lisbeth dreamed of attending college and becoming a lawyer or a police officer. “She is a fantastic person and very hard working,” says Deadwyler-Heuman. “I was always looking out for ways to help her, and fortunately, during the Obama administration, I was able to.” When DACA went into effect in 2012, Deadwyler-Heuman helped Lisbeth apply for protected status. The designation allowed her to get a driver’s license, apply to colleges, and legally hold a job. It was life changing.
In 2016, when Deadwyler-Heuman applied to renew Lisbeth’s DACA status, her protected status expired before the approval came through, despite filing the paperwork months in advance. “It was scary,” she says. “Every day it was like, ‘What’s going on?’” Lisbeth also missed the application deadline for college scholarships and grants — the only way she could afford tuition at Middle Georgia State University, where she had been accepted. In Georgia, DACA students pay out-of-state tuition — generally higher, and at some schools nearly three times the in-state rate — and are not eligible for federal financial aid. “She’s still planning to start in January 2018,” Deadwyler-Heuman says. “But Lisbeth has so much to give to the United States and our community, and it’s frustrating that she’s starting her education with a hindrance.”
These people are trying to contribute, not take advantage of the system.
That is why the Macon attorney wants elected officials to do something about immigration — now. At the top of her list is some sort of long-term protection or citizenship for Dreamers, as DACA recipients are known. If more people only took the time to get to know these aspiring Americans, she says, they would see what an asset they are to the United States. Deadwyler-Heauman also advocates reforming the deportation process. “If someone has an American wife or children and gets placed in removal proceedings, we can apply to have that dropped,” she says. “Unless they have something ‘bad’ on their record. And when I say ‘bad,’ I mean a guy who has worked loyally for his employer for 20 years and then gets a DUI.”
She also is critical of the regulation that forces undocumented immigrants who marry a U.S. citizen to return to their home country before they can apply for a visa. “To see the fear and impact it has on these families, it’s unnecessary,” she says. “There is no reason they can’t stay and clear up their immigration issues here.”
Lastly, she wants to see the immigration system work better for foreign-born workers and the American companies that hire them. In her congressional district, immigrants make up key segments of the agriculture and construction industries. Not only do the work visas required for these positions cost employers thousands of dollars, they also come with a lot of “hoops to jump through,” like having to advertise each job in multiple states first. “I understand it’s because they want employers to hire local, but there are some industries that rely on immigrants,” she says. “Right now, it’s too excessive and needs to be modified.”
The only way to move forward, says Deadwyler-Heuman, is to pass comprehensive immigration reform. “There needs to be a complete shift in the mentality of the immigrant court system,” she says. “These people are trying to contribute, not take advantage of the system. Most of the immigrants I see come here to escape war-torn areas or persecution in their home country. We should be treating them gently and respectfully for what they’ve been through.”