Nina Rabin, Director of the Immigrant Family Legal Clinic at UCLA Law Schools shares Questions and Answers about Immigration Law


Is it possible for immigrants to obtain legal status in the United States?  If so, how?

There are three basic routes to legal status in the current immigration system: through employment, family reunification, and humanitarian protection.  But all three of these paths have very limited availability and lots of restrictions.  For example, employment-based visas are only available in very limited numbers and nearly all are reserved for highly skilled workers in specialized occupations.  Family-based visas are only available to certain relatives, and many types are available in such limited numbers that there are long waiting periods – in some cases, the wait can be over two decades long!  Finally, humanitarian protections are only available to very specific groups, including asylum-seekers (see below), victims of serious crimes, victims of human trafficking, and children who have suffered abuse, abandonment or neglect.  Many undocumented immigrants are not members of any of these groups, and so they have no way to apply for legal status.

You can find an overview of the immigration system here and more details about why most people can’t apply for legal status here.


What is asylum, and who is it intended to help?

Asylum is one form of humanitarian protection that is available to certain immigrants who are in the country or arrive at the U.S. border in flight from persecution.  To qualify, the person needs to meet the international definition of “refugee” – a person with well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.  You can learn more about the asylum process here.

Asylum helps just a tiny sliver of the total population of immigrants who receive legal permission to live in the United States.  In 2017 (the most recent data available), the United States granted green cards to approximately 1.1 million people.  Of these, over 700,000 were granted on family-based petitions and roughly 130,000 were employment-based.  Just over 25,000 immigrants were issued green cards based on asylum status.  You can see the data here.


What is DACA and what is happening with it right now? 

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a program that was created in 2012 to safeguard and support a certain category of undocumented youth, or “Dreamers.” Under DACA, eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States when they were children receive: 1) protection from deportation, and 2) a work permit.  DACA recipients must apply every two years for a renewal of this protection and the work permit.

On September 5, 2017, the United States Attorney General announced that he was ending the DACA program.  Several states and organizations filed lawsuits challenging this decision. As a result, DACA continues to accept renewal applications but not new applications.  The lawsuit seeking to maintain DACA, Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, is currently before the United States Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court is expected  to issue a decision in June 2020 whether or not DACA remains in place.

You can find out more about DACA, how to renew, and the current status of the litigation here.


What should a student who has an upcoming hearing in immigration court do, and where can they go for help?

If an immigrant student has a court hearing, whether they are a minor or over eighteen, they are expected to show up, even if they don’t have a lawyer.  If they don’t show up, the court will order them deported.

If you recently arrived in the country and think you may have an upcoming court hearing but haven’t received any information about it, you can find out by calling a hotline run by the immigration court system, 1(800)898-7180.  You will need to have your “A number,” which is a nine-digit number that should be on any paperwork you received from the immigration system.

Your chances of defending yourself against deportation improve dramatically if you have an attorney who can represent you.  Unfortunately, the government will not provide you with an attorney, so you will need to find one, either by hiring a private attorney or obtaining no-cost representation by an attorney at a non-profit organization.  Don’t assume that attorneys that you pay are better than attorneys who work for non-profit organizations – in fact, many of the best attorneys work for non-profits.  And be careful because there are many notarios who claim to be attorneys but are actually looking to charge a lot of money and not provide high quality representation.  You can search for trustworthy legal service providers by zip code at the directory here.


Can immigrants receive public benefits?

In California, starting January 1, 2020, all Californians under the age 26, regardless of immigration status, are eligible for healthcare under Medi-Cal, as long as their family income is below a certain level.   A few other types of government assistance are also available regardless of immigration status, like emergency medical care and prenatal care.  Many other programs do limit eligibility based on immigration status.

Most importantly, immigrant parents should know that they are not at risk of being labelled a public charge when they apply for benefits for their children.

There are many resources available to help immigrant families figure out what benefits they are eligible to receive.  One place to start is at (English) or (Spanish).  You can also see more resources related to the public charge rule here.


What is a sanctuary school? 

The term, “sanctuary school” refers to a wide range of policies aimed at making campuses welcoming to students and family members who are undocumented immigrants.  Schools that choose to implement these policies are also sometimes referred to as “safe zones.”

Regardless of whether or not a school designates itself as a “sanctuary,” all K-12 schools in the United States are prohibited from treating students differently based on immigration status.  Everyone has the right to attend public school; the Supreme Court made this the law of the land in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe.  But some schools choose to do more to make their schools welcoming to immigrants.  Some of the steps schools can take to be a “sanctuary/safe zone” include:

  • Refuse to share student information with federal immigration authorities except in very narrow circumstances
  • Restrict immigration agents’ access to campuses
  • Prohibit campus security from collaborating with federal immigration authorities for the purposes of enforcement
  • Provide resources and information to immigrant students and their families

In 2017, the Los Angeles Board of Education passed a resolution reaffirming LAUSD schools as Safe Zones for Families.  The resolution can be found here and an extensive companion reference guide is available in English and Spanish here.


How can I help make our city welcoming to immigrants?

  • Create a sanctuary policy for your school
  • Create a club to support newcomers
  • Volunteer with an organization that supports immigrant and refugee families
  • Write an op-ed sharing your immigration story or your views and beliefs about immigration issues
  • Contact your representatives and tell them you care about laws and policies that support immigrants in our schools, city, and state
  • When you turn eighteen, if you are a citizen, vote for legislation and representatives that support immigrants
  • Speak up if you see bullying or hateful behavior directed towards immigrants
Nina Rabin, la directora de la Clínica Legal para Familias de Inmigrantes de la Facultad de Derecho de UCLA, comparte preguntas y respuestas sobre la ley de inmigración
Patricia Gándara: Supporting Immigrant Youth in Schools