L.A. lawyer and South African Citizen Peter Schey ruining America by helping hordes of illegal immigrants stay here
Originally published by now defunct New Times L.A. Jun 20, 2002
Critics say L.A. lawyer Peter Schey is ruining America by helping hordes of illegal immigrants stay here. Schey says his work's far from done.
By Susan Goldsmith
Peter Schey was raised on the story of the Nazis marching into Paris during World War II. His gentile mother and communist Jewish father escaped from France on one of the last planes to England. They were German refugees and knew what France's Jewish community was in for. In London, Schey's father met with Joseph Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to Britain. He pleaded with Kennedy to issue visas for French Jews so they could come to the United States. But Kennedy wasn't persuaded. These people weren't America's problem and the U.S. government was not interested in helping them. The elder Schey was ushered out of the ambassador's office; in the months to come, thousands of French Jews were murdered by the Nazis.
This was not a tale Schey's father told him over and over again. It was a story his father reluctantly passed on about his own personal history. He didn't like to tell it and only recounted the bare facts. There was no moralizing, no editorializing. It was just a tragic story about someone who tried in his small way to alter the course of history and couldn't. But the story touched something deep inside the dark-haired, inquisitive boy and launched him on a mission he's still on today. Schey is obsessed with doing what his father couldn't, and for the last 25 years he's been on a single-minded course to prevent the U.S. government from closing its eyes to human suffering around the world. His preoccupation has changed America's demographics and radically altered the ethnic makeup of U.S. public schools.
One of the nation's preeminent immigration attorneys, Schey has helped more than 1 million illegal immigrants become American citizens. He was one of the first lawyers in the country to bring class-action lawsuits against the Immigration and Naturalization Service on behalf of illegals. He successfully led the fight against Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that would have denied government benefits such as healthcare and education to undocumented residents of California. Schey also won the landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed illegal immigrant children to attend public schools. Currently, he's representing more than 300,000 immigrants who were shut out of the 1986 federal amnesty program after they briefly traveled abroad. In April, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that at least 50,000 of Schey's clients in the case should be legalized. (He'll continue to battle the INS on behalf of the other 250,000 undocumented residents denied amnesty.)
"I think the government is genuinely afraid of him because of Peter's consummate skills as a lawyer. The government finds it very difficult to litigate against him," says nationally known immigration attorney Ira Kurzban. "He has pioneered a number of major class-action lawsuits [on behalf of illegals] dating back to the 1970s... His work has affected millions of people."
Schey is part of the reason that the multicultural faces of Los Angeles and other big cities around the country look the way they do. He was one of two attorneys who helped win political asylum for 30,000 Salvadorans who fled the U.S.-sponsored war in their country in 1982. In another class-action case, he forced the INS to reverse its policy of denying political asylum to Haitian refugees. He eventually won the right for more than 5,000 Haitians to permanently reside in the U.S. Through a petition he filed with the Organization of American States in the '90s, Schey forced the U.S. government to stop automatically returning Haitian boat people apprehended at sea before they had a chance to petition for asylum in the U.S.
Because of Schey's negotiations with the State Department, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, who was ousted in a military coup, returned to power in 1994.
His legal and diplomatic swashbuckling has made him a god among human rights activists, the left-liberal crowd and many clergy members. He is the guy who brilliantly uses the Constitution to make sure this country keeps its arms open to the world's tired, huddled masses. He pushes the courts to protect the rights of those who've come here illegally -- until he can persuade the government to make them citizens.
"This man has championed this cause. It's in his blood," says Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles). "Peter is one of the most prominent people in the world of immigration and he is willing to blaze his own path. Peter does not give up."
Congressman Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), a member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims since 1985, says Schey is one of a tiny handful of attorneys who've "had the greatest imprint on immigration law in the country. The guy is smart, he's very forceful and he's a passionate advocate."
But for those concerned about our porous borders and out-of-control immigration, Schey is the Antichrist -- the lawyer who manipulates America's own legal system to allow illegal immigrants to break our laws, become U.S. citizens and flood our schools and public hospitals.
"He places himself in the position of being the ultimate immigration arbiter and his lawsuits are designed to crack away at any semblance of border control," says Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican. "You have to give this gentleman credit for using and abusing the legal system in order to achieve his political goals of eliminating our borders. I can't respect him for essentially helping to destroy our nation."
In post-9/11 America, the issue of immigration is more fractious than ever. Schey is at the center of the maelstrom, armed with complex and innovative legal arguments to help immigrants fleeing the world's turmoil to come to the United States and stay. He's not only highly effective, he's completely radical. He thinks the United States should have no border controls and only a handful of people in the world should be shut out of the country. Immigration laws simply don't work, in Schey's opinion, and should be abandoned, since they've had absolutely no impact on the number of illegals who are here.
"Every 10 years the INS has a new set of reforms and every 10 years the INS says there are 5 [million] to 10 million undocumented people here. No matter what they do, the numbers stay the same," he says. "The reasons people come to the United States are more powerful than the laws intended to stop them."
Pressed about who does not deserve to be here, Schey is quiet. He has to think for a few moments. "I think there are some people we should keep out, like the shah of Iran and the Marcoses of the Philippines. I think people who committed serious violations of human rights should be excluded."
Other than such notorious figures, the INS is likely to collide with Schey in court whenever it tries to turn away foreigners who want to be here. And American taxpayers will probably end up paying Schey's legal bills in the process.
Although Schey's 1982 Supreme Court case is studied in law schools and he's revered by powerful members of Congress, he's got nothing of the powerhouse aura about him.
You have to strain to hear him and he's extremely hesitant to boast about his accomplishments. His manner is that of a slightly befuddled professor. He speaks in a monotone even when relating amazing tales about meeting with rebel leaders in the jungles of Nicaragua or negotiating Aristide's return to power with former secretary of state Warren Christopher.
Only occasionally is there a break in the even-toned presentation, but when it comes, listeners definitely take notice. During an interview, Schey tells of the Texas judge who oversaw the case that later resulted in the landmark Plyler decision. One of Schey's expert witnesses, a highly educated international law specialist, took the stand. The expert's testimony was riveting and sophisticated. When the witness finished talking, the judge turned to him with a few questions. Schey imitates the judge in a thick Southern accent:
""Weeell, pro-fessah, Ah listened to evera-thang you said and Ah have one question. Let's take all ya vera interestin' theo-ras and Ah want you to ponder dis situation, pro-fessah. Let's say an alien spaceship come over all the way to Texas and it lands right here. And outta dat spaceship come all these alien chil'ren and first thang they wanna do is go to school. All these theoras you been talkin' 'bout, would they apply to alien chil'ren or not?'"
Schey stops his imitation and comments: "We just about shit and thought, "This guy is so far gone. The fate of 200,000 children is in this guy's hands.'"
Underneath the sober, pensive surface, Peter Schey is a hoot.
At 55, he looks like an aging movie star. He's small-framed, about 5-foot-8 with a chiseled, distinguished face, brilliant blue eyes and teeth so white they look like he drinks bleach for breakfast. His philosophical vantage point is clearly reflected in his vocabulary and his distaste for phrases like "illegal aliens." Every time a New Times reporter asks a question about "illegals," Schey answers by referring to them as "undocumented immigrants," as if the papers to make them legal residents will be arriving at any moment.
Thankfully, Schey isn't all PC. He drives a gas-guzzling Jeep Cherokee, owns a yacht and lives in a fancy Spanish house worth about $700,000 in the tony mid-Wilshire neighborhood called Carthay Circle. A reporter saw him smoking a cigarette after one interview, but he vehemently denies he's a smoker. As with many divorced men his age, he replaced wife No. 1 -- the public-interest lawyer who works on behalf of mentally ill people -- for a hot young Russian babe named Irina. She's so much younger than Schey that he refuses to disclose her age. "Young," he says for about the fourth time. A few years into the bachelor life, he met Irina -- who looks about 21 in a picture on Schey's desk -- through a client, a Turkish man he helped obtain U.S. citizenship. The grateful client took to bringing Schey a box of chocolates every few months. On one of those trips a couple of years ago, he brought something even sweeter -- a young blond friend then studying at Santa Monica College. "I kind of looked up and thought, "Wow!'" recalls Schey. The trio went out for dinner and, after a year and a half of dating, Schey married Irina.
Despite his pretty young wife, beautiful house and legal successes, there is a deep undercurrent of sadness in Schey's life.
His 16-year-old daughter, Alexis, a product of his first marriage, suffers from a baffling and debilitating neuromuscular disorder. She's spent her life in a wheelchair although doctors are not quite certain what the problem is. When she was three, doctors said Alexis might not make it past her sixth birthday. Today, Schey calls her his "miracle child." His house and backyard are outfitted with wheelchair ramps and outdated handicap-accessible playground equipment from when she was younger. Schey shares custody of his daughter with his ex-wife. He's even fought Los Angeles Unified School District, in his spare time, on behalf of handicapped children.
After fleeing the Nazis, Schey's parents wound up in South Africa, one of the few nations in the world that opened its doors to Jews -- but not because it cared about helping Hitler's victims.
"While there was some sympathy for the Nazis in South Africa, that was overridden by the desire to build white power," Schey explains. Consequently, South Africa's government, hell-bent on keeping its black population down, invited in the Jews and they came in droves. Schey's parents settled in the seacoast city of Durban. His father, the onetime communist agitator, became a toy salesman and rarely talked about the Nazis or what happened back in Germany.
But life in South Africa proved unbearable to the family, especially when the teenage Peter started marching in anti-apartheid demonstrations. Concerned about the white leadership's increasing repression and the growing revolt among blacks, the Scheys fled with their son and daughter to San Francisco in 1962. (Even today, Schey retains his South African accent.) At the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests in the late '60s, Schey attended UC Berkeley and then went on to California Western School of Law in San Diego.
In law school, Schey worked with illegal immigrants at a legal clinic. His first case involved a pregnant woman from Mexico who wanted to have her child at the San Diego County hospital so the baby would become a U.S. citizen. But hospital workers were turning over illegal pregnant women and new moms to the Border Patrol. After the woman learned that she'd be expelled from the United States, she returned to Mexico voluntarily. But the young Schey crossed the border, found her and brought her back. He then arranged for her to have her child in a different San Diego hospital without the intervention of immigration authorities.
Schey later threatened to sue the county hospital that was turning over women to the Border Patrol and, in his first legal victory, administrators agreed to end the notification policy. "They buckled," he says, obviously still relishing his win.
Uncles, aunts, cousins and friends of the pregnant woman began contacting Schey for help. By then he'd graduated from law school and was working for the legal aid society in San Diego, doing mostly immigration work. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and his client base just kept growing.
By 1978, he filed his first class-action suit against the INS and once again, he got the authorities to buckle. This time he forced the federal agency into a nationwide settlement that required its agents to advise all illegals in deportation proceedings that they were entitled to free legal counsel. "Every INS district office in the country was forced to provide a list of free legal services available in the area and make that list available," he says.
Peter Nuñez, the former U.S. Attorney in San Diego under President Reagan, has kept abreast of Schey's litigation and sees one thing to be hopeful about: "I'm very happy Peter Schey is not an elected official who would try to implement legislation."
But Schey doesn't need an elected office to change public policy. He has the nation's courts, which proved far more effective.
In the late '70s, he was brought into a Texas case in which the state had passed a law barring children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools. By the time Schey arrived, at least 200,000 mostly Hispanic children had been kicked out of Texas schools and were prohibited from returning. They'd been out of school two years by the time the case was heard in federal court. The case was titled Plyler v. Doe.
The state argued that undocumented kids were not entitled to constitutional protections because they were not citizens. Schey's legal reasoning was complex. He believed that Texas law violated federal law by denying the children equal protection under the 14th Amendment. He also believed that Texas had violated international human rights laws. To deny any group those protections, he reasoned, required a rational basis. "We argued there was no rational basis for excluding these children from the public schools," Schey explains.
To demonstrate why the law was irrational, Schey hired a former INS commissioner, who testified that between 90 and 95 percent of the children would never leave the United States, and that not educating them made no sense. They were innocent children, Schey argued, who were not responsible for their immigration status. He had experts testify there was enough space in the schools and that illegal immigrant parents paid more in taxes than they received in benefits. The coup de grâce was Schey's discovery that the state was reporting these children to the feds as migrant children who were legally entitled to federal school funding.
"On the right hand, state officials were secretly getting federal funding for these children, while on the left hand they had expelled them," Schey says with a big grin, obviously still pleased, more than 20 years later, with his find.
Schey produced experts who explained that to keep the illegal kids out of school was likely to push them into lives of criminality and that it would cost the state more to prosecute and imprison them than to simply educate them. He also found a nine-year-old poster child to humanize the issue. Kicked out of school two years earlier, she met with the judge in his chambers and talked about her dilemma. She'd come to the United States when she was two years old and considered Texas her home. Her siblings, born here, were able to attend school but she was not, since she was illegal. So she used her younger siblings' textbooks to study every day and explained to the judge how much she missed attending school and wanted to go to college when she grew up. "She described how tragic the whole situation was and allowed the judge to see the face of what the state of Texas had done," Schey says.
The stakes were big in Plyler. "We knew if the state of Texas fell, other states, like New York and California, would fall too," he recalls.
In 1980, U.S. District Court Judge Woodrow Seals wrote a 120-page opinion holding that undocumented children were entitled to 14th Amendment protections and that the state statute was unconstitutional. Furthermore, the judge reasoned, the state had no interest in kicking them out of school.
Texas officials appealed the decision a month before school was to resume for another year. Schey went to the U.S. Supreme Court and filed an emergency petition that sought to get the kids back in classes during the appeal process. The high court agreed, ordering the kids back until the appellate review was finished.
In 1982, Schey argued the case before the justices himself. And in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court determined that the Texas law violated the 14th Amendment and that America's laws apply to all people whether they are citizens, visitors or illegal residents. The court also agreed with Schey that denying children a public education would harm not only the youngsters but society. "Illiteracy is an enduring disability. The inability to read and write will handicap the individual deprived of a basic education each and every day of his life," the court majority wrote. "The inestimable toll of that deprivation on the social, economic, intellectual and psychological well-being of the individual, and the obstacle it poses to individual achievement, make it most difficult to reconcile the cost or the principle of a status-based denial of basic education with the framework of equality embodied in the Equal Protection Clause."
The opinion concluded, "In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education."
Schey, then just 35, had established the right for children of illegal residents in Texas and anywhere else in the country to attend America's public schools. It was a decision that affected hundreds of thousands of children at the time; by now, that figure is easily more than a million. Schey was in the jungles of Nicaragua doing "human rights work around the Contra war" when he heard the news of his Supreme Court victory on the BBC.
What made Plyler so significant was that the Supreme Court stepped in to prevent Texas and other states from oppressing a group of people by denying them education, explains Jeremy Elkins, a professor of legal studies at UC Santa Cruz who specializes in constitutional law.
"What the decision essentially says is, the government can do whatever it wants to keep people out but once they come over here, the government has certain obligations. If the government is not going to deport these people and live with the knowledge and be complicit in the fact those people are here illegally, there are limits as to how the government can use that illegal status," Elkins says. "The Plyler decision says that even though people are here illegally, there are certain limits on the state's ability to create an underclass."
Elkins believes Plyler is one of the seminal Supreme Court cases involving undocumented residents, because the court determined "that people who are not citizens and who are not even here legally have some special kind of claim to protection against unequal treatment."
The landmark case made Schey a hero in the world of immigration law and to this day it is his most significant legal victory. After Plyler, he was off and running.
In the early '80s, he took on the case of 5,000 Haitian immigrants who fled Jean-Claude Duvalier's regime and had been rejected for political asylum by the United States. When Schey was brought in, the refugees were on the verge of deportation. Through a class-action case, Schey won them permanent U.S. residency. Later, in a petition to the Organization of American States, he challenged Washington's policy of intercepting the refugees at sea and automatically sending them back to their country. The OAS ruled that the interdictions violated international law and prompted the U.S. to abandon the policy.
Through the connections he established with the Haitian community from the class-action suit and OAS action, he was retained to negotiate with the State Department and White House for the return of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti.
Aristide was the first democratically elected president of the island nation but had been overthrown in a 1991 military coup. A former priest, Aristide wanted to resume his presidency and there was growing political pressure on the U.S. to do something about it. Aristide had one key condition for his return: no immunity, no pardons for the military leaders in Haiti. That meant, in effect, that the U.S. had to find a new home for them.
"The government's initial position was Aristide should agree to return to complete his term of office but with the understanding that he would pardon the military leaders," Schey recalls. "Aristide was not going to extend immunity to people who've engaged in gross violations of human rights."
To back his client's position, Schey developed a long document about Haiti's obligations under international law and argued that to pardon the leaders would undermine Aristide's presidency. Schey communicated these views again and again to the Bush administration and later to President Clinton's people.
"Finally," Schey remembers, "Secretary of State Warren Christopher leaned on Clinton and said these guys need to get out of there. With only 24 hours before Aristide returned, the U.S. government bought the military leaders' houses and provided them transportation to Panama."
In 1994, Aristide returned to resume his presidency. He was flown back into Haiti on a U.S. military plane, accompanied by Schey, Warren Christopher and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Meanwhile, Schey continued his work pounding the INS into submission from his Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law near MacArthur Park.
As a result of one of his suits, the federal agency was pressured into improving detention conditions for unaccompanied minor illegal children. Before the changes were implemented, Schey visited many of the detention centers and said the conditions the children were held in were deplorable.
"Children were being assaulted, they had no access to education while they were detained and we felt that was just atrocious," he says.
The settlement agreement requires the INS to provide illegal minors with schooling, reading materials and visitation rights, among other things. It also mandates that the federal agency hold children no longer than 72 hours before placing them in a licensed group home or with a foster family.
Another class-action suit resulted in the court-ordered requirement that all deportation proceedings held in INS detention facilities be open to the public. Because of his legal jackhammering, the INS later was ordered to provide detainees with medical care, law libraries, outdoor exercise and telephones.
"The government does not like litigating against Peter because he is tenacious," says L.A. immigration attorney Bernard Wolfsdorf, who has known Schey for years. "Peter is the most articulate, analytically brilliant lawyer I've ever seen. He could persuade you to do anything... He never gets emotional, never raises his voice. He's calm and he's smooth."
Schey's critics see little polish or finesse. To them, he's the man who pushes the courts into legitimizing illegal immigration and they believe he's largely responsible for the destruction of the public school system. "Peter Schey is a one-man nation-wrecking crew," says Glenn Spencer, president of the anti-immigration group American Patrol in Sherman Oaks. "There is a special class of people in this country with special rights above others, and that's illegal immigrants, thanks to Peter Schey and people like him."
Ask Schey what his work is about and there's no lecturing or grandstanding or alpha-dog posturing. "I just follow ideals that I think would be fair to people," he says in a barely audible voice.
Up until the 1960s, the United States banned immigrants from certain countries, such as Poland and Italy, to limit the number of Jews and Catholics allowed in. But immigration laws changed dramatically in 1965 when Congress passed the Immigration Reform Act, ending the national quota system. The new law opened the floodgates for Asians and Latin Americans to come here and the whole complexion of the United States changed as a result, most profoundly in California, says Philip Ethington, a USC history professor.
"By the '80s and '90s, you had immigration flows into California that were greater than Ellis Island," he says.
Schey loves the transformation he's seen in Los Angeles in the past two decades. "I think Los Angeles is one of the most amazing cities I've ever visited in terms of multicultural, multiracial aspects, which bring a wide variety of music, food, dance all together in one place." But, he says, that wild, interesting multiculturalism has had a nasty side effect: an underground economy in which undocumented workers are exploited by greedy employers.
"We have a large population of indentured servants here in L.A. and it's all related to national immigration policy, which knows they're here and prefers to keep them in the illegal status," Schey says.
The attorney says the events of September 11 have not altered his views on the need for border controls.
"I felt before and after 9/11 that it should be the function of the U.S. government to exclude people from the United States who seek to do harm, particularly those who would wreak violence against civilians or the country's institutions," he says. "I also think that it should be the function of the government to exclude those who've engaged in atrocities, war crimes or other criminal conduct, which would bring into question and raise concern about public safety."
The federal government, he says, "appears to have difficulty focusing on who is desirable and who is undesirable. Before 9/11, the U.S. government was more concerned with keeping Mexican farmworkers out of the U.S. than Saudi visitors coming to learn how to fly without...[knowing how to land] jets."
Naturally, he's contemplating a lawsuit. This one would be on behalf of four Iranian nationals who were detained for nine months even though, he says, they had nothing to do with the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.
September 11, says Schey, "brought out all of the repressive tendencies and views of the government. There's no doubt that thousands of innocent immigrants -- in particular Arabs and Muslims -- have been arbitrarily and capriciously targeted for arrest, detention and all manner of discrimination as a result of tragic events over which they had no control or involvement."
The future of immigration in this country, he believes, depends largely on two factors: whether there are future terrorist attacks here, and whether the economy improves and stays strong. In the absence of further attacks and economic stagnation, he says, "the receptivity to immigrants will...improve and, once again, there'll be talk of a new amnesty program and opening the gates to new immigrants."
Amid his work with Haiti's President Aristide in 1994, Schey was hired in an effort to overturn a divisive California ballot initiative that echoed the Texas law he had fought years earlier.
Passed by 59 percent of California voters, Proposition 187 barred illegal immigrants from receiving public school education and a host of other state and county-funded benefits, including nonemergency health care. Soon after the measure was approved, Schey was brought in to represent a coalition trying to dismantle it in the courts. The group included state Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), Congressman Becerra, the League of United Latin American Citizens -- the largest Hispanic civil rights group in the country -- and several other human rights and immigrant groups.
With 15 plaintiffs paying his legal bills, Schey sued then-governor Pete Wilson and a lower court ruled in his favor, declaring the entire proposal unconstitutional. Schey's legal argument was simple: Immigration law falls under the purview of the federal, not state, government. Wilson promptly appealed.
"We argued that when you looked at the totality of the California law, [Proposition 187] was an effort to control immigration by, in essence, deputizing hundreds of thousands of police, teachers, doctors and hospitals to become informants to the INS [and turn illegals in]," Schey explains. "We argued the law was preempted by federal law under the U.S. Constitution, which mandates that only the federal government can control immigration."
Gray Davis replaced Wilson as governor while the appeal was pending. Schey, worried that tens of thousands of kids would be kicked out of school in the meantime, wrote an impassioned letter to Davis urging him to settle the case. "I told him that as the education governor he didn't want to turn a couple hundred thousand children out onto the streets. I told him he would go down in history for that," he said.
Not long after sending the letter, Schey was summoned to Sacramento. Davis' top political advisors told the immigration attorney they agreed with his letter and the two sides worked out a deal to refer the case to mediation before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A compromise later was reached in which the governor dismissed the state's appeal and the lower court decision that declared the measure unconstitutional became the final ruling.
"That," says Schey, "was the end of Proposition 187."
"One single judge overruled 59 percent of the voters," says a still angry Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group in Los Angeles. "This should have gone through the court system... It was political considerations that kept it from going farther."
Immigration experts say the victory against the measure was critical and the entire country could have been affected had it prevailed.
"The defeat of Proposition 187 stopped a very negative trend that could've spread throughout the entire United States," says immigration attorney Ira Kurzban.
Congressman Becerra says what Schey did was ensure that undocumented residents receive the same rights extended to everyone in America.
"In the Proposition 187 fight we were trying to help people retain their constitutional rights," Becerra explains. "They had rights to due process. What Peter was saying was, whether you are a fifth-generation immigrant or a new person here, I'm going to help you retain your rights."
But those who want to see the country truly crack down on illegal immigration believe the initiative was sent to mediation because it probably would have withstood the legal challenge. "The governor made sure the issue didn't get before the Supreme Court," says Glenn Spencer.
As for Schey's role in the Proposition 187 fight and other immigration battles, Spencer just sighs. "He really did it to us... I think history will not smile kindly on him."
For Schey there's yet another opportunity on the horizon to control immigration policy from the courts.
He's the lead attorney for about 300,000 illegals who were shut out of the 1986 federal immigration amnesty. His plaintiffs are immigrants whose amnesty applications were rejected by the INS because they left the country briefly without permission from the federal agency. Schey is challenging the INS rejections and has asked the court to approve an INS-funded publicity campaign to increase the number of class-action participants. And once again, an immigration case has made him a lightning rod for opponents.
"We [in Congress] would never pass a bill similar to what he's trying to get the courts to allow regarding amnesty," says Congressman Tancredo of Colorado. "What this guy has done is tried to take away from the Congress the ability to make a determination as to who should come into this country, for how long and what purpose."
The case has been winding its way through the federal courts for more than a decade and if Schey is successful, it's likely he'll follow up his victory with another suit against the INS for legal fees, which he's done again and again. "I had a case where the suit took one year to resolve and the attorney's fees took five years to resolve," Schey says. "It's difficult to win the fees because the government is only obligated to pay attorney's fees when you can show the government's position in defending the case was not "substantially justified.'" Time and again, Schey has managed to convince a court the government's position was not justified.
In his spare time, he's fixing up Charlie Chaplin's former 8,000-square-foot mansion near MacArthur Park so it can serve as a shelter and job training center for homeless immigrant youths and poor youngsters from the low-income neighborhoods around it. The house has turrets, dark wood paneling, six fireplaces and gated grounds. Schey raised $500,000 to buy the house and another $300,000 to renovate it--much of it in government grants. He says he'll personally ride around in a van to find the homeless immigrant kids to populate the shelter when it's ready in a few months. He also is developing a multimedia program for the kids once they're at the house so they "can document their own immigrant experiences while learning about film and media at the same time."
Schey climbs into his car after showing off the mansion. It's a gorgeous old place but it's decaying and needs lots of work. Schey has lined up workers and is fixing up the mansion room by room. Marble fireplaces are being restored, a new roof will be installed, the wiring's been completely redone. It's as if the old house were a microcosm of America itself and Schey is doing all he can to make sure it's ready to accept the world's tired, hungry and poor.