By STEVE SALDIVAR
On a recent Thursday evening, a new type of army began assembling in a nondescript Steuart Street conference room. The 24 men and women—most dressed in business attire—were to be part of a quick reaction force.
Their objective: Set free the rising numbers of undocumented workers detained in federal immigration raids in neighborhoods like the Mission. These foot soldiers—all Bay Area lawyers by day—were about to learn their rules of engagement.
“You have to get to your client as soon as possible,” said Sin Yen Ling, an attorney who works closely with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco
“There’s no policy. In many cases the law is still unwritten,” she said. “It’s balls to the wall.”
Ling is part of an effort lead by both by the Equal Justice Society and the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network, advocacy groups aimed at counseling new and settled immigrants, to develop and teach area lawyers to effectively counter the increase in immigration raids by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE.
Ling and Francisco Ugarte, a five-year Mission District resident and immigration attorney for Dolores Street Community Services, have opened this crash course in immigration law to any interested lawyer with hopes of building a new Rapid Response Network—lawyers working pro bono for ICE detainees.
The two-hour boot camp was designed to give attorneys an introduction to navigating what can seem to be a bewildering bureaucracy of the federal immigration and detention system.
These training sessions come at a time when ICE activity is escalating. Last September, Fugitive Operations Teams made more than 1,157 arrests, including 436 in northern California. Twenty percent of those in custody had criminal histories and were in the country illegally, according to ICE.
Even so, Ugarte believes these tactics deliver a greater hit to the overall health of a community.
Detainees are so terrified, they forget they have rights, said Ugarte.
“You will get a phone call within seconds of an ICE raid,” the instructors said. “Or you will get an email with names, numbers and locations.”
The attorneys in attendance all received a slim, black three-ring binder filled with the procedures and protocol of ICE raids, but Ugarte stressed that the handouts, and even their legal experience, would not be enough to counter the federal government’s efforts to detain and deport undocumented workers.
“You’re going to have to make split-second calls,” said Ling, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “Sometimes you have to be diplomatic. Sometimes it takes more than that with the officers.
The only rule to handling ICE detainee cases, she said, is that there are no rules.
“There’s no policy. In many cases the law is still unwritten,” said the 36-year-old. “You have to figure it out as you go along.”
On one wall hung a large photo of a wildfire. Another was adorned with a black-and-white photo of an immigrant woman holding her head, crying.
“An ICE raid, by definition, is when three or more are detained,” said Ugarte. “You have 24 hours to identify your client,” he continued. “If ICE wants to know your client’s country of origin, your client might want to plead the fifth, but not always.”
“Always remember to have your BAR card with you when entering the Federal Building,” he said, referring to a lawyer’s identification card. These are just a few things attorneys were scratching in their notes as quickly as possible, rarely making eye contact with the two instructors.
“We don’t do raids,” says Virginia Kice, spokesperson for ICE. “We do targeted enforcement actions. We conduct criminal investigations. It’s unfortunate some of these individuals mischaracterize our activities.”
For ICE’s part, they provide detainees with a list of free legal services. “If [Ugarte] is interested in getting on that list of free legal service, that’s something we would entertain,” said Kice.
Don’t be fooled, said Ugarte.
“Under federal regulation, ICE has a duty to advise people in custody that they have a right to an attorney. Everyone, technically, should be given a list of free legal service providers,” said the Mission District resident.
“That’s great. The problem is there is no right to appointed counsel. There’s no guarantee that anyone is going to take on a detainee’s case. They’re not public defenders. You get one phone call to the agency and they may or may not take your case.”
Ugarte hopes attorneys will volunteer to be placed on the Rapid Response Network. Once an ICE raid has been reported by a community member or otherwise, the attorney will receive a phone call from Ugarte and it will be a race against time for the attorney to dash to their new client before ICE officials have a chance to interrogate them.
Ugarte was only a couple miles away from his usual place of work, although it must have seemed like worlds away. Steuart Street is nothing like Valencia. When the meeting started late in the evening, the crosswalk was littered with sleek Jaguars, humming BMWs and a Lexus parked in front of a bar which was growing ever more crowded.
While the sounds of laughter and clanging glasses could be heard from the bars downstairs, upstairs there was nothing but pens rolling through paper.
“There are horrendous constitutional violations occurring everyday,” said Michael Flynn, who graduated from Golden Gate University last year and is currently an attorney with Talamantes Villegas Carrera. “It’s dividing families. There’s a violation of human rights.”
“I remember seeing 20 people in jumpsuits,” said Flynn about his days as a student watching the courts. “They were all chained next to one another while the judge spoke to them.”
“The Bay Area is being hit the hardest right now,” said Rhodora Derpo, a Daly City resident who has started her own firm, Immigrant Rights Advocate. Both Flynn and Derpo are interested in joining the Rapid Response Network.
This is not the first training, Ugarte has held a few before and, although he doesn’t clarify when exactly the idea of creating an army of attorneys occurred, it’s clear what started it.
“The genesis is the ICE raids,” said the CUNY graduate. “Mothers, fathers, sisters are getting deported. What are we going to do, sleep on this? In immigration court they don’t give people a right to an attorney. We’re trying to respond.”
Both the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network and the Equal Justice Society were started in 1990 as advocacy groups for immigrants.
For Ugarte’s part, he understands why many attorneys might shy away from such a critical issue facing many communities.
“It’s the unknown,” said Ugarte. “It’s the not knowing what to do. It’s a very complicated area of law. The stakes are extremely high. You are dealing with lives and with families.”
Ugarte, with rolled-up sleeves, adjusted his blue collared shirt and, after a short but intense two hours, closed his black three-ring binder and dismissed the group. “This is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “But it’s rewarding.”