Terrence Green (Courtesy/KJ Johnson)
After graduating college in 2003, Terrence Green spent three months waiting for the permit that would allow him to work in the U.S.
“I was kind of in limbo – I couldn’t accept employment and I didn’t know how quickly it was going to be processed,” Green said.
He eventually received a visa that allows recently graduated students from foreign countries to work for one year in the U.S..
Green’s application for a green card in 2004 put him in a similar spot, waiting about nine months for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process his paperwork. He found getting even a brief consultation with an immigration attorney who might be able to help was costly.
Green, who’s originally from Jamaica and grew up traveling around the Caribbean with his missionary parents, now operates his own immigration law practice in Salem.
He became a naturalized citizen in 2009 and graduated from Willamette University’s College of Law in 2011.
Green, 43, is returning to his alma mater this fall to teach a course on immigration law.
In both his practice and teaching, he aims to bring a human element to a system that’s highly politicized and can be maddening to navigate from within.
“I want them to know: I take your case very seriously because this is a personal journey I’ve been on as well. Clients really, really appreciate you telling them that because it builds a lot of trust,” he said. “You know what it’s like to be fearful of the system. You know what it’s like to be somebody who’s trying to navigate the system, trying to get somebody to help them and be mistrustful.”
He doesn’t charge immigrants for initial consultations about their cases, a service that can cost $100 to $250 at other practices.
Jeffrey Dobbins, the dean of Willamette’s College of Law, said he brought in Green to teach immigration law, an elective course, because of his experience running his own practice for the past decade, and because Willamette students tend to connect well with alumni.
Dobbins said to his knowledge, it’s the first time Willamette has had an immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen teaching the course. As a result, he said Green can help his students understand “not only what the law is like from the client end, but also what the clients are thinking and going through.”
Green’s interest in law developed when he worked at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington, after finishing college in Massachusetts. There, he sat in on meetings following complaints about the college’s treatment of women’s sports and served on a committee reworking the college’s Title IX policies to guarantee equal treatment based on sex.
Those experiences showed him “the law works in a way that can bring equity and fairness in an institution that’s not paying attention,” he said. But, “you can have laws in place and still have inequities. People aren’t necessarily complying with the rules as they should be, or they just don’t realize.”
Green said in the decade since he opened his Salem practice, immigration has become much more politicized, with people often having little understanding of how the system works in practice or how little sense it often makes.
That makes it difficult to make improvements, even on issues where Americans broadly agree.
He cited the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, more commonly called DACA, which allows many children brought to the U.S. without legal authorization as minors to apply for a work permit and a deferral saying the federal government won’t seek to deport them.
That program, first created under the Obama administration in 2012, was intended to be a temporary solution as legislators worked on a permanent path to legal residency and citizenship.
Green said despite broad support among Americans for the young people covered to have access to citizenship, Congress has been unwilling to pass a clean bill giving those immigrants a path forward, and their fate has become mired in larger debates about immigration reform and border security.
“It’s a lot of politicking and unfortunately these DACA students get caught in the middle,” Green said. “It’s not controversial, but we can’t get anywhere with it.”
In general, he said native-born Americans often assume there’s a line or pathway for anyone who wants to come to the U.S. to do so legally and are frequently unaware that the wait for family-sponsored visas is years long.
Mexicans face among the longest waits, he said, with about 22 years needed to get a visa for a brother or sister in the U.S. as a sponsor. Work visas also only cover specific industries or seasonal work and aren’t an option for many jobs.
“Once you start explaining to people the complexity, they can’t believe it’s that complicated,” he said. “You see them literally realize that the system is injust when you explain it to them.”
Green now teaches one day a week at Willamette while maintaining his practice from a central Salem office.
He brings in his own passport with his original student visa to show his students, walking them through what interviews and processing are like for the clients they’ll someday represent.
“I feel like I can bring it alive for them a little bit,” he said.
Correction: This article was updated to clarify the nature of Terrence Green’s work on Title IX policy at a community college. He worked with attorneys following a complaint about the college’s practices, but did not participate in depositions. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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