To walk in their shoes: immigration attorney Veronica Granillo knows the trials of the undocumented
on October 14, 2014
The law degree that hangs in a frame on the bright yellow wall in Veronica Granillo’s office tells a story. To her clients, many of whom come to this office on the second floor of the Market Square Mall in Richmond’s Iron Triangle seeking advice on how to gain U.S. citizenship, perhaps it tells them that she is official, and she has the piece of paper to prove it.
But it tells more than a professional story; it’s personal. That’s because ten years ago Granillo herself was nearly deported, before she gained her residency and put herself through law school, and finally opened her own practice.
Living in Richmond, undocumented
In 1987, when Granillo was four, she, her parents and her younger sister used temporary border passes to come to the U.S., where they moved in with relatives in Richmond. Her parents believed the U.S. could offer their children better opportunities, and in Richmond her mother would be reunited with her sister and mother. It was not a small decision, because they left behind a stable life to do it.
In Mexico her father had been the supervisor in a factory, with a pension, private health insurance and a mortgage. In the U.S. his first job was washing dishes in a restaurant, while her mother, who had worked in the same factory as her father, cleaned houses.
Her parents explored applying for residency through legal means, seeing several attorneys about it, but ultimately it never came about.
President Ronald Reagan had granted citizenship to three million illegal immigrants a year earlier in the 1986 immigration reform bill, but they just missed it. And though Granillo’s aunt became a citizen in 1992, her mother would not have been eligible to gain residency through her sibling visa—one of only 65,000 F4 visas currently available right now, according to Granillo—until 2008.
The earliest Granillo’s mother could obtain citizenship and petition for residency for her own children would have been 2013. The whole time, Granillo and her sisters would not have been able to work, which would have made it harder to go to college.
“There was a legal channel, but it would have taken forever,” she said. “The system takes forever and can often be very confusing.”
So they stuck it out, living normal lives, except without papers or security. Her mother had two more daughters, both of whom were U.S. citizens by virtue of their birthplace. For Granillo and her sisters, the routine involved being aware of police and not telling too much to people outside the family. For her parents, she said, it was much scarier.
Twelve years later, fate intervened. Granillo was a sophomore at Richmond High School when an attorney from San Francisco came to speak to her ROTC class.
“He was a white attorney, blond hair, blue eyes, very handsome,” Granillo remembers.
The teacher suggested he meet Granillo, because she wanted to be an attorney. He asked what her grades were, and was told she was a straight-A student. He then offered her a position as his file clerk—adding that as a minor, she would need a provisional work permit.
He called her three times and asked if she was going to do it. Finally she told him she couldn’t, because she wasn’t a citizen.
“I remember when I told him I felt so guilty,” Granillo said. “I told my mom and I was terrified because I had revealed the deepest, darkest family secret we had.”
The attorney was shocked. When Granillo told him they had lived in Richmond for 12 years without citizenship, he could not believe it. Then he said he had a lawyer friend in Berkeley who owed him a favor, and he was calling it in.
Against that attorney’s advice, the family applied for asylum, despite knowing that their chances were slim. They had missed the one-year deadline to apply for asylum upon entering the country, and anyway they had not fled to the U.S. due to persecution. More troubling was the knowledge that should the asylum petition fail, the family could be torn apart. Granillo, her parents, and the next oldest sister had been born in Mexico. The two youngest daughters were U.S. citizens.
Despite the risk, they went ahead. Granillo’s parents worried about the ability of their daughter and her Mexican-born sister to go to college without citizenship. Her father wanted to start his own carpet installation business, but he could not do so without a social security card. And they were tired of living always in fear that one slip up—a traffic stop, a nosy teacher or neighbor—could tear the family apart.
A judge to determine suffering
The answer came quickly: Their asylum application was rejected, and the oldest four family members, all Mexican citizens, entered deportation proceedings.
Their last chance was a form of relief available only during deportation proceedings known as cancellation of removal. Their attorney would need to make the rarely successful argument that deportation would cause one or all of the family “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.”
Proceedings stretched over five years due to a case backlog in the legal system. But eventually, officials determined that the case would rest on how the deportation of the older family members would affect Granillo’s middle sister. At 16 years old, she held U.S. citizenship and had never lived outside California. The family’s attorney argued she would suffer substantially if her parents and sisters were deported, and she was forced to either assimilate into a foreign country at a vulnerable age, or be left behind to live with relatives.
The judge’s decision was made more complicated shortly before he was scheduled to rule, when a therapist from Kaiser Permanente testified in court about something the family had only recently learned: Unable to process the stress of the situation, Granillo’s sister had resorted to cutting herself.
“The judge asked if she would kill herself,” Granillo said. “And the psychiatrist said I don’t think she wants to, but cutters can always cut too deep unintentionally, it’s always a possibility.’”
After a short deliberation, the judge ruled in the family’s favor: The potential loss of her family to deportation warranted invoking the hardship standard for Granillo’s sister. Within two months, the rest of the family was granted residency. They could stay.
They had been spared the break up their family, but the cost was high—the mental distress of her sister.
“[The cutting revelation] came out and [family and friends] were just shocked at how this whole immigration proceeding, the possibility of going through separation, could affect somebody so much,” Granillo said. “But it does take a physical, psychological and emotional toll on a person.”
Giving back through immigration law
Granillo took advantage of the opportunity granted by residency, working her way through college until she earned a degree at San Francisco State, and three years ago, her law degree at San Francisco Law School.
Now 31, she spends her time helping other immigrants acquire citizenship. She estimates that 90 percent of her casework involves clients from Latin America seeking asylum—women who have run away from abusive husbands, or gay, lesbian and transgender people in search of a society where they can live as themselves without fear.
Recruitment by gangs in Central America, and drug cartels in Mexican states such as Michoacán and Sinaloa, often spurs other refugees who eventually seek asylum. Granillo says she’s noticed an increase in violence south of the border within the last two years.
“The violence is getting worse, I’m not really sure why,” she said. “There has to be something that’s causing it. I know in Mexico it was getting worse because of the drugs. In the other countries I’m not sure why.”
While she does what she can, there are cases she won’t take. Most undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for asylum. They seek other ways to gain residency or citizenship, such as cancellation of removal.
“I have clients coming to me all the time saying I heard if you’ve been here for at least 10 years you can become a citizen,” she said. “And it’s like, no. They haven’t done that since the 1980s. There’s a lot of misinformation passed around.”
Meeting the cancellation of removal standard has gotten even tougher in the 10 years since Granillo and her family won their residency, and she does not want to advise people to intentionally get picked up by immigration services and potentially deported.
Until the U.S. Congress passes legislation providing a path to citizenship for the tens of millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, Granillo said there is little she can do as an immigration attorney.
“People say what should I do? I tell them, if you get caught, give me a call,” she said, calling her family’s experience, “basically a last resort. Even though that’s what I did, it’s a one and a million.”
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