Public Defender Attorney Fights For Immigrants Stuck in Limbo

By Jonah Owen Lamb

San Francisco Examiner

The deportation began with a random traffic stop in San Mateo County. The sheriff’s deputy had pulled over two women on their way to work to clean houses. After asking for the driver’s identification, he asked for the passenger’s.

When Christina handed over her Salvadoran passport, the deputy called immigration officials, who detained her. She’s been in the U.S. for years but was here illegally. But her 1-year-old daughter was a citizen.

Christina was deported, leaving her husband and daughter behind.

 “We weren’t able to stop that deportation,” said Francisco Ugarte, an immigration lawyer with San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office who cannot shake that 2011 case, even though it’s only one of more than 200 deportation cases he’s worked on.

It took months for Christina’s family to get the child a passport so she could be reunited with her noncitizen mother in El Salvador.

“If that case doesn’t motivate one to fight against this system, I don’t know what does,” Ugarte said. Probably now I would have been able to stop it.”

The 44-year-old is the only lawyer working in the Public Defender’s Office who deals solely with immigration cases — mostly deportation. With an average caseload of about 12 people facing deportation, he also advises other lawyers through the complicated system.

If one of two proposed efforts to spend millions of city dollars expanding San Francisco’s defense of undocumented immigrants comes to pass ahead of President-elect Donald Trump’s promised crackdown, much of the work will resemble Ugarte’s subterranean struggles.

His world is an often confusing, nebulous legal realm, where federal, state and immigration law all cross over one another and in which extra legal powers have been used against undocumented immigrants in ways that would seemingly appall most citizens.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Ugarte drove across the Bay Bridge to visit one of his clients — among 214 detainees in the West County Detention Facility in Contra Costa County, as of December. The school-like facility is one of three in the state that housed 931 detainees awaiting possible deportation on Dec. 28.

“This is a jail,” Ugarte said. “We’ve had people in here for months.”

The archipelago of facilities are part of a kind of parallel legal system in which rights are limited and, often times, immigrants have no lawyers and can be stuck in limbo for years with little contact with the outside world. Missing a court date in one of the two immigration tribunals in The City can lead to deportation proceedings for which no appeals are allowed, according to Ugarte.

As of Aug. 31, the courts had 35,987 pending cases — about half of that of New York City.

Ugarte’s client in the West County Detention Facility lives in San Francisco, but was picked up in another jurisdiction and sent to immigration detention.

Like many other clients, he has a wife and stepchildren in San Francisco; he is willing to fight deportation even if it means he will be stuck in detention for years. One of Ugarte’s clients was detained for three years. The time frame may also be a result of a very slow court system.

“The federal government has tremendous authority to do what it wants to immigrants,” he said. “They have the right to detain someone indefinitely.”

For Ugarte, whose clients often come to this country because of violence or deep poverty in their home land, “the concept of legal and illegal is really fluid.” He said his Irish ancestors came to the United States without papers from a famish-ridden land, and sees little difference between them and, say, a Guatemalan fleeing drug gangs and poverty today.

Bio

The Missouri-raised son of a Spanish exile and an Irish mill worker’s daughter — the pair met at at a student campus of occupation in 1968 — Ugarte has spent much of his professional life fighting for social justice.

That fight began after college as he traversed the country doing union organizing after being trained by the AFL-CIO.

When he was studying at the City University of New York he began doing legal work with immigrants who weren’t being paid by contractors. He’d organize a bunch of workers to shame the recalcitrant paymaster by picketing outside of their offices until they paid up. At one such picket he had a cop step in between him and a contractor. They all went inside and hammered out a deal.

The cop knew the contractor and managed to calm him down, but that didn’t keep him from telling Ugarte: “I’m really glad I didn’t bring my gun today, or you’d be a dead man.” He paid.

At the time Ugarte had a friend in California who told him to come and visit. He did and stayed, transferring to university here and then passing the state bar and making his way to legal immigration work.

He sees labour rights and immigration in many ways as part of the same issue. Most people here illegally came here for work and are exploited by their employers because of their voluntary status.

“Pure unbridled injustice really motivates me to keep doing this work,” he said.

Legal world

San Francisco’s immigration courts — at 100 Montgomery St. and 630 Sansome St. — are among the nation’s busiest with about 10,000 new cases a year and are the stage on which much of the Ugarte’s work plays out.

Anoop Prasad, with the nonprofit Asian Law Caucus, is one of a handful of lawyers aiding undocumented immigrants in a court system not required to give them representation.

“Less than a third ever talk to a lawyer,” Prasad said. “Most people end of representing themselves in a courtroom.”

Often, a defendant won’t understand the proceeding, or they may be a small child, of which there were 1,457 cases pending as of August.

“It’s an absolutely mind-boggling legal system,” Prasad said. “There are 5- and 6-year-olds often being asked to defend themselves in court.”

Prasad gets clients from referrals, calls from families and even judges in the immigration court.

Many of his clients are permanent residents who came to the country as children refugees from Laos or Cambodia. Most settled in rough neighborhoods, where, as teens, they fell into bad circles and served some time in jail.

Previously, such offenses did not lead to deportation. But many laws have changed, though his clients — now in their 30s or 40s with families — are often ignorant of such changes.

In all, the Northern California Immigration and Customs Enforcement office — encompassing half of the state, Oregon, Hawaii and some other territories — deported 4,747 people in 2015.

Still, the numbers vary, according to a local immigration lawyer who said there were about 1,200 people in detention a few months ago.

Either way, those local numbers make up a fraction of deportations nationally, which were 235,413 in 2015, mostly at the border. While deportations had a recent peak under the Obama administration — in 2012, there were 409,849 — the most recent numbers show a 40-year low in illegal immigration.

And of those, 59 percent had prior criminal convictions, which are the kind of cases Ugarte handles.

All of Ugarte’s clients have ended up in detention because of criminal cases, which, he said, makes their situation even harder than a normal deportation.

“The criminal case will define the noncitizen for the rest of their life,” Ugarte said.

Those who win in this court system can be allowed to stay for a number of reasons, according to Anna Herrera with Dolores Street Community Services, part of a group of nonprofits offering deportation defense.

Most people who manage to stay are granted asylum, which means they fear persecution, but that is a broad definition. Asylum-seekers must declare their request within a year of arrival.

But there are also cases adjudicated through administrative relief, Herrera said. This essentially allows them to stay, but does not give them any rights to stay like a green card. That, of course, could change under a Trump presidency.

“It’s a maze and it’s not clear at all,” Herrera said of the ever-changing rules that allow people to stay, often at the discretion of each office.

Ugarte advises lawyers in the Public Defender’s Office through that minefield. For instance, which state law a defendant pleas to may impact their immigration status. Anyone found guilty of more than one crime of moral turpitude, for instance, can face immediate deportation. That can result in someone pleading to a more serious crime instead of a lesser crime because it has been deemed morally turpitudinous.

Ugarte’s clients have other things to worry about as well once they are caught up in the system, which is often an opaque world that makes it hard even for their families to visit.

“If the family is like five minutes late, the visit is canceled,” Ugarte said.

But it is often these bonds that keep people fighting, he said, adding that most of his clients have families with mixed status. Ugarte has learned how much pain and isolation people will go through for their families.

“When you do this, you learn how strong the bond [is] between father and child and what people will do to protect their children,” he said.

“It’s not uncommon for us to see people who spend two, three, four years in jail,” Prasad said. “Some of them do end up in limbo for a really long period of time.”

Changes

Ugarte began working in immigration in 2008 for the Dolores Street Dolores Street Community Services under the Bush administration, which used some pretty forceful tactics.

“Teams would routinely be sent out on assignment with arrest quotas,” he said, noting that such efforts fed into a kind of reign of terror and fear in certain communities. During those years, about 30,000 people were being rounded up and arrested a year.

For instance, he was on hand in the El Balazo restaurant chain raids in 2008. “That raid was pretty ugly,” said Ugarte, who coordinated the Immigrant and Legal Education Network’s Legal aid afterwards.

What he has seen since also speaks of the power used by immigration officials, often an extrajudicial power. Everyone is protected under the constitution, technically, according to Ugarte, but ICE agents often step into a very gray area that catches citizens in their net. There are accounts of agents detaining houses of people — some undocumented, some citizens — without probable cause.

“We don’t want to be in a system where extrajudicial” powers are used by the federal government.

What he fears

While Trump has made threats, it is unclear what his immigration policy will look like. But that hasn’t stopped many from preparing for the worst.

Ugarte expects the Trump administration to at least return to the aggressive tactics used under President George Bush, co-opting local law enforcement and conducting raids.

“If you go further, then we’re looking at fascism,” he said. “We’re gonna need all hands on deck.”