Portland immigration lawyer finds purpose helping families

Stephen Manning wishes that U.S. immigration law was simple to understand, easy to obey and fairly applied. Until then, he’ll just keep taking the government to court.


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Buried in the law

As the immigration debate heats up and the caseload grows, lawyer Stephen Manning finds purpose in helping families.

By Dan Sadowsky

Stephen Manning wishes that U.S. immigration law was simple to understand, easy to obey and fairly applied. Until then, he’ll just keep taking the government to court.

The 35-year-old lawyer is considered one of the brightest and boldest of the hundred or so immigration attorneys in Oregon. He hauls the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice into court with uncommon regularity, challenging what he considers “capricious and arbitrary” immigration laws and the often nonsensical way they’re applied.

“We have no immigration law. We have immigration politics,” Manning says. “You shouldn’t play politics with people’s lives. It shouldn’t be so hard to comply.”

Manning’s three-person firm, which operates out of a minimally furnished office in downtown Portland, opened 230 cases last year — 21 more than in 2004, an increase he attributes to what he thinks are increasingly harsh laws that would-be residents must navigate. In the last nine months, Manning’s firm bested the government in two closely watched cases, each of which challenged the removal of a Mexican national who applied for permanent residence based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen.

Federal appellate courts in Portland and Denver both decided that a 2000 law to promote family unity permits the men to become permanent residents if they pay a $1,000 fine and takes precedent over an earlier law that authorizes the government to banish anyone who enters the U.S. illegally and stays for more than a year. Government attorneys are appealing the decisions, which potentially impact thousands of green-card seekers nationwide.

ONLY A HANDFUL OF PRIVATE ATTORNEYS pursue this sort of “impact litigation,” says Nadine Wettstein of the American Immigration Law Foundation in Washington, D.C. Since Manning launched the Immigrant Law Group in 2002 with Jessica Boell, a law-school classmate (they hired a third lawyer, Jennifer Rotman, a year later), the team has filed 30 such suits in federal district court and appealed another 30 immigration-board decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals. They have lost only four.

Peers attribute Manning’s courtroom success to the same combination of intellect and commitment that enabled him to graduate with honors from Lewis & Clark Law School’s evening program while working full-time as an immigration caseworker with a local nonprofit. “Some lawyers, they talk but they don’t do the hard work, the research to bring the legal force behind their arguments,” says Philip Smith, past chair of the Oregon chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Stephen does that.”

Manning grew up in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania. Although he started out as an international business major at Gannon University, a 3,500-student Catholic school in Erie, Pa., a lively “peace and justice” class redirected his career interest toward social services, he says.

After graduation, Manning didn’t so much choose Portland as Portland chose him. Seeking to go west for the first time in his life, he opened a U.S. atlas, closed his eyes and laid his finger on the left side of the map. It landed on Medford. “I’d never heard of Medford, but I’d heard of Portland,” he says.

He credits his current profession to similar happenstance. While working as an overnight counselor at a Portland teen shelter, he began mentoring immigrant students at a North Portland elementary school and helping their parents understand the homework assignments. Three children in an El Salvadoran family weren’t cooperating. “They’d say, ‘Why should we study if we’re going to be deported?’”

So Manning did something that now seems incredibly naive. He loaded three generations of the family into his two-door Toyota Tercel and drove to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in downtown Portland. “I thought they’d give us a form to fill out, I’d kind of vouch for them, and they’d get whatever they needed to become legal.”

Instead, an INS employee quietly steered them to the nearby Immigration Counseling Service, a nonprofit that offers legal advice and help to low-income immigrants. There, Manning learned that American immigration law was more Byzantine that he could ever imagine. Fascinated by the law’s complexity, and galvanized by the organization’s needs, he became a volunteer and later an “accredited representative” authorized to represent people before the U.S. Immigration Court.

“Immigration law can be pretty convoluted. Stephen took on some rather complex matters, some that might have been better off referred to a lawyer,” recalls Teresa Statler, a local immigration attorney and longtime board member of Immigration Counseling Service. “The guy is very, very smart.”

MANNING SOON DECIDED A LAW DEGREE would help him meet what he saw as a “huge need” to challenge the basis for the immigration rulings harming his clients. “There was no accountability,” he says. “By suing, you can get some accountability. Even when it’s the government being sued, you can get their attention, wake them up.”

Manning’s beliefs are often out of step with not only Washington politicians, but also groups such as Oregonians for Immigration Reform. Organizer Jim Ludwick, a McMinnville retiree, says his group’s roughly 800 members believe the influx of poor, non-English-speaking immigrants threatens to overwhelm schools, health care and natural resources. He has little sympathy for those who enter the country illegally or the lawyers who defend them. “The fact that a group of attorneys want to finagle the law and reward people who break it is a slap in the face” to law-abiding citizens, he says.

Today, Manning, Boell and Rotman spend about half their time on federal lawsuits and appeals. The rest of their time is spent doing what most local immigration attorneys do — challenging deportation orders, helping domestic-abuse victims stay in the United States, advocating for families who might be split and aiding people seeking asylum. These cases allow the trio to pay the bills, spot trends and identify cases they can use to advance a broader cause.

On a recent Friday morning in U.S. Immigration Court, Manning and Rotman  fight a removal order for a 29-year-old Salem man, Victor Quevedo-Guzman, whose wife has permanent resident status and whose two children are U.S. citizens. He entered the U.S. without a visa, and to prevent him from being escorted back to Mexico, they must prove it will cause an “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” on his 6-year-old autistic son.

In the small waiting room, Manning warmly greets Quevedo-Guzman, his wife and four other relatives in fluent Spanish. Once the judge appears, Manning is all business, speaking solemnly and politely in a low voice as he  examines his client and tells the judge how deportation could “cause severe and significant setbacks” in the boy’s development. The hearing is brief; a decision is expected in August.

“Being deported can be forever, and you can be separated from everything you’ve ever known. It can be very emotional,” Manning explains. “Being part of that can be very depressing, but also exhilarating.”

Tom Day, the Portland-based deputy chief counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — Manning’s adversary in immigration court — defends his agency’s duty.

“I think most government attorneys see their role as doing the right thing,” Day says. “There is a legal way to come to the U.S., and there are people who wait in line to do that, and the people who come here illegally are basically cutting in line. A lot of removal proceedings are based on criminal convictions, and I don’t think this country wants to keep people who commit crimes here.”

“MANNING IS A TRUE BELIEVER,” says Ed Reeves, a prominent Portland labor lawyer who befriended Manning when both worked on a gay-rights political campaign in the mid-1990s. “What I mean by that is, he’s always had a central philosophy about people and the world and how it’s supposed to be that emanates from a sense of fundamental fairness.”

Manning is gay, but says his sexual orientation is only “one piece of the mosaic” that explains his drive. Friends describe Manning as fun, engaging and passionate, and say it’s no surprise he has chosen to make his mark in one of law’s most complex subjects. His work feeds a large intellectual appetite that in his personal life is sated by things such as salon-style dinner parties hosted by his partner of 11 years, architect Jim Wilson, and himself.

Manning’s legal peers praise his brains and his willingness to collaborate and share his wisdom. But even those who admire his work say he may too quickly resort to lawsuits. In February 2005, for example, he sued the local branch of the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, a successor to the INS, when the agency declared that people wanting to talk to an immigration officer could do so only by first making an appointment over the Internet. Manning lost the case, but won the battle; within weeks, the agency installed an Internet kiosk in its lobby and offered to help anyone use it.

“I’m not sure they had to go to court to insist on the stuff they got,” says Smith, the past AILA chair, “but on the other hand they made it happen. I know the agency they’re dealing with, and you don’t get a lot when you just nicely go and ask.”

Manning is unlikely to switch tactics. In late May, he filed suit so children holding “V” visas, which allows family members of green-card holders awaiting citizenship rulings to stay in the U.S., won’t lose them automatically when they turn 21. And he vows to sue the government to enforce a 1991 settlement agreement that grants asylum hearings to Guatemalans and El Salvadorans who fled persecution during those countries’ civil wars.

“There’s never a dull moment,” Manning says, “and I don’t think there could be because you’re dealing with people’s lives.”

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