Any lawyer can tell you, that immigration law is one of the toughest fields in which to specialize. But for Biloxi attorney Ellaine Carr, it is a mission from the heart. An immigrant herself hailing from the Philippines, Ellaine has taken up the mantle to help immigrants to the United States in a variety of ways. She is also active in supporting other Mississippi attorneys by providing training and mentorship.
“I really love the law,” Ellaine said. And she must! Ellaine graduated at the top of her class at Loyola University’s College of Law. She is a member of the Immigration Lawyers Association. She has the opportunity to assist people with a number of legal needs. For people seeking naturalization, Ellaine said she can “make sure they are compliant with the law.” Some think just because they know someone, they can cut corners, she said. But the process of getting legal residency in the United States is no easy process. It can take several months to years, to gain citizenship, and longer if you do not keep up to date on new laws that might affect your legal status. Ellaine also has the opportunity to help natural citizens who are married to immigrants, or adopt children from foreign countries. Others who need immigration attorneys include missionaries and students.
Keeping a family together, and legal, is a priority for Ellaine, and it saddens her to see clients who have allowed their visas to lapse, or they came here illegally and now want to make things right. “I see them every day in my office,” Ellaine said sadly. “Employers ask me for help, because they are really good workers, and it’s sad to tell them there’s nothing we can do about it.” Ellaine believes our nation’s immigration woes cause a multitude of problems for citizens and immigrants alike. “We need to focus on solutions,” she said. “We need to give them a chance. Give legal status to those who deserve it. Those who contribute to society, pay taxes, have their lives here,” she said.
And not all undocumented immigrants are breaking the law on purpose. There are many, even here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who were brought here on job visas, but have been defrauded by their employers and kept in the country against their will. Ellaine sees her share of victims of human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery. Ellaine said that once law enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security certifies someone as a victim of trafficking, she can help them obtain a T-Visa, which allows victims and their families to remain in the United States until there has been a disposition of their case against those who defrauded them. The temporary status gives victims a chance for justice. Even the US Department of Labor can issue a T-Visa.
“There are three major groups of trafficking victims in our area,” Ellaine explained. “Hotel workers, welders, and teachers.” They are in “debt bondage” to those who brought them here for employment. They are promised good paying jobs in their fields of expertise, but once they get here, their passports are confiscated, and they are forced to work at menial jobs for below minimum wage. Many immigrants are threatened with violence if they refuse to work. Since last year, Ellaine has worked with school teachers who were victims of labor trafficking. Two hundred of some 350 teachers were sent to work in the East Baton Rouge Public School System. Other teachers were sent to work at Caddo Public School District, Jefferson Parish Public School System and Recovery School District, also in Louisiana. The teachers worked for very low wages and lived in cramped and overcrowded apartments for nearly two years before they were rescued. A class action lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers, and Covington & Burling LLP against Universal Placement International and PARS International Placement Agency. Staffing agencies are often used as fronts for labor trafficking. In another case, victims from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica were brought to Florida, then to Kansas, and ended up in Biloxi. A federal grand jury issued a 45-count indictment against 12 traffickers. The victims worked in upscale hotels including at least one Westin Crown Hotel. The indicted labor agencies in this case were Giant Labor Solutions, Five Star Cleaning LLC, and Crystal Management, Inc.
T-Visas are also issued to abandoned or neglected children of immigrants. “We can do something to help this child,” Ellaine said. “It’s not his fault. He didn’t cross the border by himself.” The humanitarian visa allows for time to locate a family member or a foster care provider for the children in these circumstances. Victims of domestic violence can get a U-Visa until their case is finished, and this protects women from being needlessly separated from their children because their legal status has lapsed. The U-visa is also issued to victims or witnesses of other violent crimes such as assault, robbery, rape or the murder of a family member. “Many victims are afraid to report crimes against them if they have no status,” Ellaine explained. By allowing victims to stay in the country until justice is served, it “upholds the peace and order of a community,” she said.
Ellaine is concerned about law enforcement, prosecutors and judges having a thorough knowledge about the powers they have to protect immigrants. “If they only knew what they can do for victims,” she said. So, Ellaine spends part of her time educating other attorneys in the state, as well as law enforcement agents, about the many ways they can protect and serve immigrant victims of crime. Earlier this year, she was invited to speak at the Mississippi Bar Association. The title of her presentation was, “What Every Criminal Lawyer should know about Immigration.” She also has ample opportunities to empower local law enforcement in the course of her business with them. Recently, she needed the Moss Point Police Department to certify one of her clients as a victim. It was evident to Ellaine that the officer was not sure what kind of paperwork had to be done. She explained it to him, and he was happy to issue this kind of protection. “I just gave him a hug,” Ellaine said with a smile. “He acknowledged this person was a victim and looked beyond her race.” Ellaine said that Biloxi Police have been very helpful dealing with foreign victims as well. “I really give praise to them,” she said. Many times it is a delicate situation dealing with immigrants who may not trust law enforcement because of their past experiences in their homeland, or based on what they have been told by those who have exploited them. Ellaine pointed out that they are often a long way from family, and they have suffered trauma. They need a compassionate advocate if they are going to heal.
Ellaine’s campaign to educate her peers is far from over. She said that more immigration attorneys are needed to take care of the many special needs of foreigners in our country. Ellaine is in the process of forming a nonprofit organization to provide services to those who cannot afford it. The Southern Law Center for Immigrants will be staffed with lawyers willing to offer free or affordable services, and will be connected to other local charities, like Advocates For Freedom, which specifically provide services and protection to victims of human trafficking. She also asks for volunteers to provide moral support and prayers to those who need it the most. She wants local community members to educate themselves about the many ways immigrants need our help. “It always starts with one person,” Ellaine said. “The little information you know can save a life.”