KC’s ‘top-notch’ immigration lawyer on her immigrant roots and Supreme Court win

How The Clinic in KC helps poor immigrants who have no where else to turn

For poor people facing deportation, The Clinic, a nonprofit immigration law office in Kansas City, provides legal representation at very low rates or pro bono in certain circumstances.
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For poor people facing deportation, The Clinic, a nonprofit immigration law office in Kansas City, provides legal representation at very low rates or pro bono in certain circumstances.

She was a preemie — 3 pounds, 10 inches long — born in rural India at a hospital ill-equipped to save her.

For months Rekha Sharma-Crawford’s father cupped her in his hands and held her like a kitten to his chest, keeping Rekha warm as she fought on.

“People didn’t think I was going to survive,” said Kansas City’s top immigration lawyer. “I think that fight has remained in me ever since.”

Diminutive still, Sharma-Crawford this year has waged deportation battles drawing national, even global, notice. One case alone — the detention and near-deportation of Lawrence chemist Syed A. Jamal — prompted calls to her desk from CNN, The Washington Post and BBC News.

Her victories include a case she brought three years ago to the U.S. Supreme Court.

She fights alongside husband Michael Sharma-Crawford, an ex-cop and partner at their practice (though he usually stays away from the cameras).

Together, “they’re among a handful of people in the heartland who rank with the top-notch litigators in the immigration world,” said Charles Roth, director of litigation at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, a nonprofit advocate for immigrant rights.

The couple’s office has never been so busy. Clients fill sofas in the tidy lobby, children in tow, because the word-of-mouth is that undocumented residents may find help keeping their families together.

Sharma-Crawford Attorneys at Law has been serving local immigrants since 2000. But something changed beginning around Thanksgiving 2017, and that something accelerated activity around the firm from merely bustling to what Rekha Sharma-Crawford only half-jokingly calls “chaotic.”

What changed?

Immigration laws hadn’t changed. And while President Donald Trump’s administration quickened enforcement of removal proceedings against unlawful migrants, many of whom were ordered out years ago, deportations nationwide remained fewer than in some years Barack Obama sat in the White House.

“The big difference,” Rekha said, “is that for years you couldn’t get local media, much less national media, interested in immigration stories. ... That’s the shift we’ve seen.”

She said news reporters aren’t so much ginning up alarm as doing what they’re supposed to do — responding to activism bubbling up from the people they cover: “You’re seeing communities here in the middle of the nation organizing overnight, asking, ‘What is happening in our country?’

“You’re seeing motivated people saying, ‘No, not in our community.’”

Rekha currently is lead attorney for scientist Jamal, a locally admired father of three and 30-year area resident who overstayed his work visa in the early 2000s.

News outlets worldwide tracked the public outcry following Jamal’s arrest in January while taking his daughter to middle school. Though Sharma-Crawford kept her distance from rallies arranged by his relatives and neighbors, in March she convinced a federal judge to order the native Bangladeshi’s release pending a review of his deportation case.

That same month, she was retained as attorney for Leticia Stegall, manager of the River Market’s popular hockey-themed Blue Line Bar and Grill. The wife and mother of U.S. citizens, Stegall was apprehended on her way to the gym and whisked by week’s end to her home country of Mexico. She had illegally crossed the border 20 years ago.

Stegall’s case brought more rallies, more media.

In December, Rekha Sarma-Crawford took up the deportation of Carlos Bringas-Rodriguez, a Mexican national who was beaten and sexually accosted by relatives in his native land for being gay. He married a Leawood man and, while raising their daughter, Bringas-Rodriguez won a federal court order granting him asylum.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flew him to Mexico anyway — dropping him off with a skimpy supply of his HIV medications three days before Christmas.

“Two weeks later Rekha called me in Mexico. I was torn apart, devastated,” Bringas-Rodriguez said. “I had heard of so many cases of people having to wait 10 years or longer (to return legally to the U.S.). I’d never met anyone in my experience who found ways to get back sooner.”

The Sharma-Crawford firm pressured authorities and had him back within five weeks.

“She was genuinely angry about what they did to me. And not because she’s my lawyer. It was the way (ICE) did it; she told me that herself,” Bringas-Rodriguez said.

Her older sister, Ila Patel, knows well Rekha’s impulse to grapple with power.

When they were growing up in India, Rekha once challenged a boy bullying Ila. He was 12. Rekha was 5.

“She told him, ‘You don’t mess with my sister,’ so she beat him up,” said Ila, an accountant in Houston, Texas.

“That’s still there, in this petite little woman. It’s like a switch that gets flipped when she sees someone bullied.”

What troubles Rekha

It’s not that Rekha Sharma-Crawford seems an angry person.

At times loud, she admits. But she’s cheery enough to provide cushioned pet quarters next to her desk for the office cat, Kaashi, who roams.

“Kaashi? Oh, she keeps everyone calm,” Rekha says.

Rekha and Michael can talk salty (though he’s not as loud). But on the whole their office banter is playful, as when Michael silently waves a hand her way when asked which of the two decided that they should take on immigration law together.

Rekha was a Sedwick County assistant district attorney at the height of the 1990s drug wars when she met Michael, then a sheriff’s investigator pursuing a law degree from Washburn University.

“I was known from time to time to bust down doors,” he said. They worked in sync to take narcotics peddlers off the streets.

As she tells it, they did so abiding by rules of evidence and due process, allowing criminal suspects the most rudimentary of rights,such as ceasing questioning when defense lawyers show up at the jail.

Such rights aren’t routinely extended for undocumented detainees, Rekha said: “I spent probably the first two years of my practice just yelling — very, very loudly — what’s going on here?

She came to learn that, by law, the immigration court system treats deportations as civil matters, not criminal cases.

The Trump administration, however, is increasingly referring to undocumented migrants as criminals. The president stresses enforcement of existing laws, but until Congress changes the laws, people facing orders to be removed are civil defendants in administrative court.

“If you’re now saying they’re all criminals, fine,” she said. Then they should have rights afforded criminal defendants.

“Give them due process, give them the right to an attorney ... allow them rules of evidence, rules of discovery. You can’t have it both ways.”

For most persons who have illegally crossed U.S. borders, “there is no fair hearing,” Rekha said. No public defender, no jury trial, little chance for an ICE arrest to be judged in violation of a detainee’s rights.

In an interview earlier this year, ICE’s then-acting director Thomas Homan said immigrant detainees were entitled due process: “They get a decision from the immigration judge — most times (they) will appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, then to a circuit court.

“When that due process is over,” Homan said, “that final order from a federal judge needs to mean something or this whole system has no integrity.”

Whether or not the process is fair for deportees, few lawyers looking to get rich would choose the oft-aggravating practice of defending migrants in trouble — a legal realm rivaled in its complexity only by tax law.

For the information-sharing cadre of Kansas City attorneys specializing in immigration, “anger fuels a lot of it,” Rekha said.

One of those other attorneys, Jessica Piedra, has a small office upstairs from Southwest Boulevard, a few blocks west of the Sharma-Crawford firm. Piedra mostly works with immigrants seeking work permits, green cards or citizenship, and she calls Rekha Sharma-Crawford “my hero.”

“I tell people all the time to definitely get a final opinion from the Sharma-Crawford law firm.”

The Kansas Bar Association this spring honored Rekha Sharma-Crawford with its Courageous Attorney Award, given to lawyers who the group said “displayed exceptional courage in the face of adversity.”

In 2015 she won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her client, a legal green-card holder, was facing deportation after being pulled over and found to be possessing in his sock four Adderall pills, a controlled substance.

Under an agreement, a felony drug charge was dropped and her client pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of possessing drug paraphernalia (the sock, Rekha argued). ICE and lower courts weren’t amused.

At the time Rekha called the high court’s 7-2 ruling, which spared the man from removal, a sign of the “promising trend (to) protect the due process rights of immigrants and protect them from the often harsh punishments” for those who come under ICE’s radar.

For the government to spirit detainees away without notifying attorneys or family is “cheating,” she says. “It’s cheating. ICE holds all the high cards in these cases. Why do they have to cheat, too?”

Supporters of stricter enforcement of immigration laws say nobody is cheating.

Immigration agents, administrative judges and officers contracted to detain immigrants for removal are simply following the laws of Congress, said Andrew Arthur, resident fellow of law and policy at the Council for Immigration Studies. It’s a conservative think tank based in Washington.

“Final orders of removal are final orders,” he said.

Though aliens facing deportation have no right to a government-paid attorney, they may hire one and perhaps spend months waiting out appeals.

Often behind bars.

“The purpose of immigration detention isn’t to punish,” said Arthur. “It’s like a pre-trial detention you’d see before a criminal proceeding” to make sure the person accused attends his or her hearing.

Around the U.S. in fiscal year 2017, 40,579 migrants failed to appear at their deportation hearings, he said: “That’s what you’re trying to avoid.”

Rekha takes a much different view.

“ICE is code enforcement,” and nothing more, she said. “That’s like the guy who comes to your door to say your grass is too long.

“If you look at it as code enforcement, the goal is not to throw people in jail. The goal is compliance.”

That being: Give families a chance to stay together by finding safe, agreeable ways to return them to a home country or provide a permanent place here.

Their specialty

Setting the Sharma-Crawfords apart from most other immigration lawyers is their focus on courtroom litigation, arguing before a bench.

It’s why professor Jamal’s friends and family raised the money to retain the couple.

“They’re pretty expensive,” said Syed H. Jamal, brother of the chemist whose plight to remain in America is nowhere close to over. “All I can say is we’re looking at multiples of tens of thousands of dollars.”

Firms that include “immigration law” as part of their menu of services can help navigate through the documents and rules of temporary visas, green cards and U.S. citizenship.

“A lot of immigration lawyers are a dime a dozen,” Syed H. Jamal said. “But to get up in front of a judge and argue a case, that’s a specialty.”

Parsing that specialty more narrowly, the Sharma-Crawfords belong to a tight network of few dozen immigration litigators nationwide who alert one another to cases that otherwise may never get noticed.

These lawyers know each other well. Via internet listservs and text messages, they mobilize on the belief that if they can’t collectively resolve an immigrant’s residency or visa issues, nobody can.

Texas lawyer Jodi Goodwin, who belongs to the brainstorming group, said a recent post compelled 35 fellow litigators to respond with advice aimed at a single client. “You can’t get a sharper set of minds than that group,” Goodwin said.

But good luck to detainees whose cases hide in the confidential files of immigration courts, and who can’t afford a lawyer. They’re the majority, said the Sharma-Crawfords.

So the firm in 2012 created a nonprofit called The Clinic to help indigent persons facing deportation. Those who qualify can get legal representation at one-third the cost of the going rate charged by immigration attorneys, said lawyer Genevra Alberti, who works solely for The Clinic.

About 10 percent of The Clinic’s clients pay nothing at all. And that’s substantial, given that the operation juggles roughly 170 open cases at any one time.

Her immigration story

Sharma-Crawford’s commitment to what immigration lawyers call “removal defense” stems from her own achievements as a foreign-born woman aspiring to the American Dream.

Her Indian parents first came to the U.S. in the early 1960s, a decade before her birth. Dad arrived with a student visa to attend the University of Pennsylvania; mom came on a family-based visa sponsored by her sister in Philadelphia.

It took only three months for them to legally immigrate.

“The same rules were in place. The only difference is now it takes 25 years” for immigration papers to be approved, Rekha said. “Can you imagine? If today we could say, ‘Come here without any documents or just wait three months and come legally,’ everyone would wait three months.”

Her parents, Ramesh and Niru Sharma, met in Pennsylvania and returned to India to marry. They spent several years there raising the two girls. In the 1970s Rekha’s father, an executive at India’s largest steel company, chose to move the family to the U.S. to escape an Indian culture both politically corrupt and dismissive of women.

Life in Michigan wasn’t ideal: Ramesh Sharma juggled odd jobs in Michigan after being laid off from a Ford Motor Co.

Said Michael Sharma-Crawford: “Rekha’s father could’ve had a luxurious life staying in India. But he wanted to provide his daughters a better life in the western world. At one point he was making do managing an apartment building and Mom worked at K-Mart.

“Seeing the struggles her parents went through affects what Rekha does now,” he said.

Her family ultimately prospered, Rekha obtained her law degree from Michigan State University, and she and Michael Crawford married after fighting drug dealers in Wichita.

They agreed to wed on Rekha’s two requirements: One, she would adopt Crawford’s two children as her own.

Two, “the Sharma name should go forward just as the Crawford name goes forward,” she said.

And what if Michael had resisted taking this Sharma-Crawford name?

Rekha laughs. “Then I would’ve told him, I don’t know if you can handle me.”

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