Legal Aid Leads Deportation Defense Campaign

Tim Clark

Tim Clark

When San Mateo County decided, under pressure from community advocates, to earmark $764,000 to defend low income San Mateo County residents threatened with deportation, the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County found itself in the middle of the negotiations. Legal Aid had earned that position.

After faith-based activists at Faith in Action and its community allies—San Mateo County clergy, congregations and communities—brought the energy, the County Board of Supervisors came up with the cash while M. Stacey Hawver, executive director of Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, rounded up the legal talent.

Together they mustered the resources that will, by September 2019, provide deportation defense services (“removal defense” in legal lingo) to 150 San Mateo County residents. That’s about $5,000 per case, a relative bargain for removal defense work. All in all, four FTE attorneys will handle 150 cases, an average caseload of 35-40 cases, a significant expansion of indigent immigration services.

“These cases won’t end in a year,” says Hawver. “We told the county that we would come back for more money this year because many or most of the cases will continue.”

The goal of 150 cases by September appears within reach--through five months ending January 2019, 50 cases had been opened, but the program had to ramp up to hire and then train attorneys for the work. And demand outstrips even the increased supply - an estimated 1,400 county residents currently face deportation proceedings without legal representation.

But this immigration law story really began back in 2017, recounts Lorena Melgarejo, executive director of Faith in Action, which she describes as “building leadership in everyday people, mostly through churches and schools.” Immigrant communities in San Mateo County, like those across the nation, were terrified after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

Faith in Action’s 2017 San Mateo County immigration push resulted in $276,000 in county funds for immigration workshops, brief legal consultations, and “affirmative immigration cases”— new legal help for county residents who wanted to apply for citizenship, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), U Visas for victims of crime, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Special Immigrants Juvenile Status for child victims of parental abuse, neglect, or abandonment, or other forms of immigration relief. The county then declined to fund deportation defense.

“That was a good win in 2017, and Legal Aid managed the funds and built a network of attorneys to do the work,” says Melgarejo. “Working with Stacey has been great.”

So when Faith in Action and clergy in the Peninsula Solidarity Network and hundreds of advocates asked San Mateo County for $764,000 to defend immigrants in deportation proceedings—not just “affirmative cases”— both the county and advocates naturally turned again to Legal Aid as a procurer of legal talent. Spread out to match lawyer language abilities to clients and ensure access in all regions of the county, seven agencies share revenue in the current contract:

  • International Institute of the Bay Area added one full-time attorney.

  • Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach added one full-time attorney to serve North San Mateo County, particularly the Filipino community and speakers of Asian languages.

  • Catholic Charities hired two half-time immigration attorneys.

  • University of San Francisco Immigration & Deportation Defense Clinic added a half-time attorney to spend at least two days per week in Pescadero and Half Moon Bay because the Coastside area was recognized as underserved with immigration legal resources.

  • Legal Aid of San Mateo County hired a half-time attorney, who splits time with its LIBRE program for immigrants.

“It was important that county government put in money to say to immigrants ‘You belong here,’” Hawver says. “We want them to feel secure in raising their children and in going to their jobs, to reduce fears that at any moment someone could be snatched and disappear with no recourse, with no one to help.”

The contract also includes funding for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which helps train lawyers, and Faith in Action’s Rapid Response Hotline for verification of ICE enforcement activity, attorney activation, information and referrals, and accompaniment services to support immigrants attending immigration court hearings. In addition, other legal agencies that did not participate in the contract also provide immigration legal services in the county: Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto (CLSEPA), Pangea Legal Services and Tahirih Justice Center.

Of the program’s first 50 clients through January 2019, 29 were younger than 18 years, with 20% under age 6. The preponderance of young undocumented immigrants surprised County Supervisor David Pine; it in part reflects Legal Aid’s active practice with special immigrant juvenile status cases.

The largest number of cases were from Guatemala and El Salvador, followed by Honduras and Mexico. Initial clients live in Daly City, East Palo Alto, Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Mateo and elsewhere in the county.

The San Mateo County contract serves low-income county residents in deportation proceedings and prioritizes:

  • Residents at imminent risk of removal

  • Unaccompanied minors

  • Elderly immigrants and those with special needs

  • Immigrants with strong claims for relief from removal

  • Immigrants with longstanding ties to San Mateo County

  • Immigrants who do not have serious criminal records.

The issue of immigrants with criminal records almost derailed negotiations last summer and ultimately delayed the contract by a month. Immigrant advocates sought to avoid an absolute bar on representing clients with criminal records. In the end, the contract requires legal services agencies to screen applicants for criminal convictions and get the County Manager’s approval to represent a client who has committed a serious or violent felony in the last decade. The issue hasn’t arisen so far under the contract.

When the first contract ends in September, Hawver says it will have produced “a well-trained cadre of removal defense attorneys” hired and trained under the contract. The community, she hopes, will have “a sense that there’s a bigger safety net for deportation proceedings.” As for the County, “We will meet our goals and have good stories--but they’ll still wish we could take 150 new cases in a second year. Which we can’t.”

Melgarejo effuses more. “We don’t celebrate our victories enough. Rejoice a little bit. Sometimes we can win. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s 100% better than it was last year.”