- By Lacie Pierson Staff writer, Charleston Gazette-Mail
This article originally appeared in the September 13 issue of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Paul Saluja doesn’t exactly know what kind of work awaits him in Tucson, Arizona, but he knows he has the opportunity to make a difference when he gets there later this month.
Saluja, a Charleston lawyer, will spend about 60 days in Tucson volunteering with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to people being held in immigration custody in Arizona.
The work being done by people with the Florence Project is the exact sort of work Saluja said he is qualified and compelled to do.
“I felt this great need to do something to help for the humanitarian crisis on the border,” Saluja said.
After researching ways to help, Saluja found the Florence Project. He said he hopes he will be able to help prepare cases for people seeking asylum in the United States, even though he doesn’t expect to make any court arguments in Arizona.
“I want to do anything and everything,” Saluja said. “I don’t care what I do, I just want to make an impact. I feel like I need to do something.”
In addition to doing “anything and everything” the Florence Project requires of him, Saluja plans to blog about his experience at www.ImmigrationX.com.
He said he would like to have a “welcoming of ideas” as to what sorts of issues people want to read more about, beyond his personal experience.
For those who simply want to follow along, Saluja said he wants to provide a new perspective.
“I hope that they really look at things differently and not look at what is being put out in the press, not look at the propaganda, both ways, and rather judge on their own what needs to be done,” Saluja said.
Changes in the legal landscape
Saluja has been a practicing attorney for more than 25 years. He began taking on immigration cases when he opened his private practice, Saluja Law Office, in Charleston, in 2011.
The changes in the treatment of people seeking asylum in the United States just in the past eight years are obvious and cannot be ignored, he said.
“It doesn’t take being an immigration lawyer to see the changes,” Saluja said. “All you need to do is turn on the television or see the president’s tweets.”
Most notably, Saluja said, the treatment of people who are seeking asylum has deteriorated, and he said efforts by President Donald Trump to remove would-be U.S. citizens from the country are clear.
“There’s nothing wrong with border control, but his implementation is not the best,” Saluja said. “What he has done is inundated our immigration judges and inundated the system such that you go into court for your [initial hearing], it may be six, 12 or 15 months before you have your next hearing. Your ‘merits hearing’ sometimes isn’t for two years.”
Saluja is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He said his experience growing up in West Virginia is motivation for him to use his expertise to pay it forward.
His father came to the United States from India in the late 1960s to study civil engineering at West Virginia University, and he later became a professor at WVU Tech, as part of a program that allowed him to stay in the country if he worked in an underprivileged area.
Saluja was just a few months old when his family reunited in the United States. His two younger sisters were born in West Virginia.
Saluja attended George Washington High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State College, now a university, and his law degree from Ohio Northern University.
Saluja said his experience growing up in West Virginia was a pleasant one, noting that his father, a practicing Sikh, still wears his turban.
“My dad is the embodiment of the American dream,” Saluja said. “My father grew up very poor. Due to his intelligence, he was able to come to the United States. He was able to attend WVU. He was able to get a job and get into a business to where he was able to raise my two sisters and I here in West Virginia.”
Moving the process along
By the time he gets to Arizona on Sept. 24, Saluja said, he worries he will have to give bad news to a lot of people.
He described those seeking actual asylum in the United States as a very small portion of the overall immigration cases in the country. He added that the conditions a person must meet to gain asylum in the United States are very restrictive.
“Not [just] anyone can seek asylum,” Saluja said. “You have to have either a credible fear of persecution in your home country or a threat of persecution, and it’s not just anyone that says, ‘Well, I’m going to go because my neighbor down the street was going to shoot me.’ ”
The United States grants asylum to people who are fleeing a country where they are being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality or involvement in a particular social group or political party, Saluja said.
The very nature of asylum means people seeking it, more than likely, haven’t filled out any paperwork or made prior arrangements before they approach the U.S. border, he said.
“Once you come to the border, you say you have a credible fear,” Saluja said. “You will be interviewed by an immigration officer, then you’re either detained or released. When you’re released, you’re allowed to remain in the country while your application is pending.”
Saluja said people who have a criminal history or who are deemed to be a flight risk may be detained while their application for asylum is pending in the court system. If a person is not deemed a flight risk, they also may apply to work in the country while their asylum case is pending.
“On the border, you typically don’t have someone who has any criminal record, but they have a tremendous flight risk,” he said. “If they’re willing to traverse 3,000 or 2,000 miles through some of that harsh terrain, why wouldn’t they take off the minute they get out?”
That detention, in practice, is what brings Saluja back to the point of poor implementation of border control.
“It seems the detention centers just aren’t sanitary or humane,” Saluja said.
Saluja said what he knows about the detention centers he has gathered from news reports. His legal expertise, paired with his personal experience and beliefs, are what led him to want to volunteer with the Florence Project.
“The reason we have an immigration problem in the United States of America is because the world still believes this is the greatest country on the face of the Earth to live,” Saluja said. “You don’t see a lot of countries with this problem, because people don’t want to move there. It allows for the American Dream. There’s opportunity for growth in this country.”