Q&A: An Interview with Iván Espinoza-Madrigal

By Melissa Wells

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the son of a single mother who took him and his brother to the United States when he was nine years old, believes the American dream she instilled in him has brought him a long way since. 

“America is the type of place where if there are more people who come over for dinner, you add chairs to the dinner table. The way I was raised, my concept of what America is — as a country, as a society, as a democracy — is that we are able to work and learn with and from each other to progress together.”

Espinoza-Madrigal, now 38, lives in downtown Boston. He fights for that America as the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a role he has filled for more than three years. Under his leadership, the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization has led efforts in litigation, advocacy and resistance defending people of color and immigrants threatened by the current political climate. Or, as he describes the last two years, “Instead of adding seats to the table, we are taking the seats away.”

On Feb. 22, the Lawyers’ Committee partnered with Centro Presente, an advocacy group focused on immigrant rights, worker rights and civic engagement, to file a lawsuit against the federal government’s decision to rescind Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for El Salvador and Haiti; the landmark case is Centro Presente v. Trump.

As Espinoza-Madrigal explains, Temporary Protected Status is a humanitarian program that provides refuge to immigrants of select countries affected by crisis or natural disaster from deportation, granting them legal status to live and work in the United States.  

The Lawyers’ Committee and Centro Presente amended their pending lawsuit to challenge the Trump administration’s decision to rescind Temporary Protected Status for Honduran recipients on May 4. In addition to the eight individual recipients named as plaintiffs initially, Haitian-Americans United, a Boston-based organization committed to empowering Haitian immigrants and refugees, joined the suit. Six other immigrants entered as well. Among them, he mentions, is Patricia Carbajal, a Honduran immigrant whose story made the front page of The Boston Globe on Aug. 25

From the conference room of the Lawyers’ Committee office in downtown Boston, Espinoza-Madrigal spoke to me about recent developments in Centro Presente v. Trump.



Q: The Lawyers’ Committee was the first to sue the Trump Administration on behalf of sanctuary communities in 2017. Following this suit, what can you tell me about the committee’s recent work?

A: We followed that work with the first lawsuit to protect TPS recipients from Central America. These individuals, who we represent, are fixtures in their communities in Boston and throughout the country. It is deeply unfair for the Trump administration now to target them, to punish them by stripping them of the humanitarian protections that they have enjoyed for nearly two decades.


Q: How would you describe the mission of Lawyers’ Committee and how is it reflected in the committee’s work?

A: We are a nonpartisan organization and that means that we carry out a mission, which is very straightforward: We are here to protect the constitutional rights of people of color and immigrants, and if that means we have to sue the federal government, that’s what we do. If that means we have to sue the city of Boston, that is what we do. In our view, the political affiliation of our defendants in completely irrelevant. What matters is the communities that are affected by unconstitutional policies and practices and we vindicate their rights, regardless of who the defendant is or what their political affiliation happens to be. 


On Oct. 4, a federal court in California blocked the Trump administration from terminating the Temporary Protected Status of immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan and Haiti. The ruling addressed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. In response to this decision, the Lawyers’ Committee announced it would continue pursuing its case to include Temporary Protected Status recipients from Honduras not included in the suit filed in San Francisco.

Q: What differentiates the two lawsuits? 

A: Our lawsuit has countries that are not included in the San Francisco litigation. We represent the Honduras TPS recipients. We filed our lawsuit against the Trump administration in February. At that time, Honduras had not been canceled. Honduras TPS was still valid. We sued on behalf of people from Haiti and from El Salvador. We waited until the Honduran people had actually been harmed because the federal government took away their TPS status. And then we immediately went into court to add them to the TPS lawsuit. There is no other lawsuit in the country that covers Honduras. 


The Lawyers’ Committee noted that the California ruling relied on a favorable decision Centro Presente v. Trump secured in federal court in Boston. This was on July 23, when a federal judge denied the Department of Justice’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit alleging the Trump administration is discriminating against Haitian, Salvadoran and Honduran immigrants by ending temporary protections.

Q: Can you tell me about that court hearing?

A: It was noteworthy because it was the first federal court hearing after the Muslim ban case in the Supreme Court where the Supreme Court found that the Muslim ban was constitutional. We were going into federal court shortly thereafter, even just two weeks later. What we argued is that that precedent did not apply in our case because the TPS recipients are known immigrants.


Q: What differentiates Temporary Protected Status recipients as “known immigrants” from immigrants involved in Muslim ban cases?

A: They are immigrants who have lived and worked here for decades and who register basically every year with the federal government — making their address known, making their personal information known. They are screened for interactions with the criminal justice system, in fact. Criminal offenses are disqualifying for TPS, so by definition, you cannot have TPS if you are a criminal or a threat to the public in any way. So, we were saying our clients are very differently situated and they have significantly more constitutional protections than the type of legal protections that would apply to somebody who is not known to the federal government. 


Q: Why was the decision from this hearing significant for other lawsuits defending Temporary Protected Status recipients against the Trump administration’s termination of the program? 

A: The court, rightfully so, found that our case could proceed and that it was very different from the Muslim ban cases. Our victory in July not only opened a door for what we saw in San Francisco, but for interpretations in federal court of ways to address some of the roadblocks set up by the Muslim ban case as it was decided by the Supreme Court. 


Q: What was the public reaction to this ruling?

A: It was an immense outpouring of public support and concern for what was happening and there was a really great showing of community support for this case. This matters to people. There are real lives at risk. This affects the lived experience of families and children in Massachusetts and around the country. They came out to show the judge that they care about what happens in this case and to put a human face on TPS. Before Trump started dismantling anything dealing with immigration, most Americans were not aware that [TPS] even existed.


Senior Trump administration officials suggest Temporary Protected Status holders use the next 18 months to prepare to return to their countries of origin or explore legal options for staying in the U.S.

Q: What do those efforts look like? 

A: Some TPS recipients have been here so long that they have U.S. citizen children that are 21 years old. Those 21-year-old U.S. citizen children can file an immigration petition for their parents. A lot of TPS recipients have talked to immigration lawyers to try to get a sense of what is happening with TPS, to get a sense of what are other options available. There are going to be some TPS recipients who might have other options and there are going to be many who don’t. That is why it is critically important that we continue to fight this in court.


Q: Do any of the recipients that the Lawyers’ Committee represents in its joint lawsuit, Centro Presente v. Trump, have any other options?

A: We represent people like Patricia Carbajal, who was featured on the Globe, on the front page, who is a single mother raising a 5-year-old daughter. These are immigrants from low-income backgrounds, with limited resources, who have extraordinarily limited options. They rely on TPS as a life-saving humanitarian program. Depriving them of this life-saving protection will subject them to be forcibly removed by the federal government to countries that are unsafe and unable to receive them. This is it for these immigrants. Someone like Patricia Carbajal doesn’t have other options. It is unfair to force them to find other options.


Q: Why does the Lawyers’ Committee believe it is unfair for the Trump administration to advise recipients to look into other options in place of Temporary Protected Status?

A: [TPS recipients] are participating in a lawful program, a program that has existed in Democrat and Republican administrations over the course of two decades and that is being dismantled for no reason other than racism and discrimination. It is despicable and unAmerican to force them to find other avenues of immigration relief when the program they participate in is lawful and should continue to remain in place. The federal government is trying to hide behind the smokescreen of national security. That may have worked in the Muslim ban cases, but it is certainly not going to work in our case. And we look forward to seeing them in court on that.


On Sept. 25, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Stephen Lynch introduced a bicameral congressional resolution to honor the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice on the 50th anniversary of the committee in Boston. Following the announcement, Sen. Warren said, “With the foundations of our democracy under attack every day, it is critical that we have organizations such as the Lawyers’ Committee at the forefront of the fight for equal justice.”

Q: Would you say that the foundations of our democracy are under attack every day?

A: Absolutely. What we’ve seen over the past couple of years, for example in Charlottesville, where people are literally duking it out on the streets — as if this is a zero-sum game, as if there is a finite number of opportunities or resources. That is the biggest threat to our American values and our democracy because that mentality is eroding and corroding and diluting our institutions, the way that they work and the way that the rule of law works. Even in the emergency lawsuit that we filed this summer, the government was up there in federal court, unable to provide a single explanation for how it had used federal resources and federal officers to tear apart immigrant families. That is such a powerful example of how our institutions are being used in a manner that is not just racist and discriminatory, but completely illegal and unlawful. If that is not a threat to democracy, I don’t know what else could be. 


Q: Looking back at what the Lawyers’ Committee has achieved, what comes next?

A: We’ve already achieved a lot. Here at the Lawyers’ Committee, we’ve been able to help reunite maybe a dozen children, who were victims of the federal government’s border crisis. That, in and of itself, is incredibly meaningful. We’ve been able to hold back the federal government from punishing sanctuary cities. We are making significant progress in the TPS front. We are already seeing transformative results because we have been able to use the law as a tool for social justice to protect vulnerable communities and rely on the courts as a bulwark against the abuses of the Trump administration. For the next year, what we would envision is more of the same. We’re going to continue finding more cases and we’re going to continue to win those cases. We’re going to make sure that immigrant families and children have no fear of the federal government.

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