The legal team led by Francisco Ugarte, center, seen here with public defender Jeff Adachi, in July 2018 successfully briefed every would-be deportee on the docket. Photo: Joe Rivano Barros

Last week, for the first time, every potential deportee on the local immigration team’s docket was represented by an attorney.

[dropcap]In[/dropcap] recent weeks, Gabriella Rodezno passed the bar, got a job, and watched an NBA finals game in person. “I died and went to heaven,” says the 32-year-old Mission native. “I won the lottery.”

Well, jackpot.

Now, winning the lottery is pretty nice. And pretty rare. But, in a manner of speaking, it’s something Rodezno gets to have a hand in every working day now. She is one of four young attorneys hired by the Public Defender’s office on June 18, 2018, to staff its growing immigration unit, now eight lawyers strong. Because the law of the land can be bewildering, a person accused of spitting on the street and facing a minimal fine is entitled to legal representation, but a person embroiled in deportation proceedings and facing expulsion from the country is not. That’s the difference between criminal or administrative proceedings.

But that’s where Rodezno and her colleagues come in. The public defender’s immigration attorneys offer their services to unrepresented men and women in the process of being deported. Like winning the lottery, it’s a wholly random process — and, often, an unexpected and out-of-the-blue stroke of luck.

“We debated: How should we take cases? Intakes? Referrals? Screenings? Or should we simply go to court and offer representation?” recalls Francisco Ugarte, who leads the immigration unit. “We opted to do the latter. We don’t want to be the judge and decider of whether someone has a good case or not. Why should we be making those decisions? Once we’re deciding someone is unworthy of an attorney, we’re making moral decisions to deprive someone of their rights. We just want to offer representation to anyone who’s making an appearance.”

So, yes: Men and women slipping down the greased skids of the nation’s deportation machine are asked, randomly, if they’d like to be represented by a top-notch immigration attorney. For free.

You’re not going to believe this, but people tend to say yes. And, on June 26, for the first time in the brief existence of the city’s expanded immigration team, every last person on an immigration court docket was represented. It was, for Ugarte, an exhilarating sight. The clients, several of whom appeared via video from the West County Detention Center in Richmond, were notably more at ease than usual, with attorneys sitting beside them in the East Bay jail.

Those attorneys were feeling pretty good, too.

Hector Vega, a 30-year-old from San Jose, was also hired last month. He’d spent years representing immigrants as a private attorney, which was satisfying — until it wasn’t.

“Sometimes,” he says, “in the private sector, you cannot help the people who are truly in need because of resources. If a family doesn’t have enough money or management above you says ‘no,’ that’s it.”

This resonated with Genna Beier, 32, who also found her way to the public defender’s office after a stint at a prestigious immigration firm. “This is a totally different model of representation,” she says “You can do a lot more for your clients. When you’re not billing your time down to the six-minute increments, there are just a lot more opportunities.”

The client could be a grandma or a gang member (or both). It doesn’t seem to matter to the defense attorneys. Actually, what matters is that it doesn’t matter. “I don’t have to consider whether this person has no criminal history or a lot of criminal history. I don’t have to consider if it’s a strong case or a more difficult case. I don’t have to consider whether he or she has sufficient resources,” rattles off Vega. “All I have to consider is that a person needs representation and merits representation. The fact we are able to help someone in need, regardless of what they have to offer” — he pauses and shakes his head a bit — “that gives us a lot of power.”

[dropcap]When[/dropcap] Public Defender Jeff Adachi made his initial ask for an immigration unit to protect vulnerable would-be deportees in Donald Trump’s America, skeptical members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors sniped about how he brought along a documentary filmmaker with him.

Well, that sounds about right. Adachi can be theatrical, if need be. He is not shy. And he is not about making pals. He’s about getting the money to hire lawyers to represent clients and that’s what happened. In 2017, his office secured $872,000 for an immigration team, and, this year, received $1.9 million (that’s enough to bring in a cadre of lawyers and paralegals but, don’t forget — San Francisco spends some $1.19 million a year on toilet paper).

The city now has more boots on the ground in this fight — but the Jeff Sessions Department of Justice has altered the terrain, and it’s now more of an uphill battle. Prosecutors now no longer have the discretion to close even a weak case, forcing defenders into lengthy proceedings. Immigration judges have been given quotas, encouraging rapid proceedings. Judges also are no longer permitted to delay a deportation case while a separate visa petition is proceeding — leading to the very real possibility of a visa being awarded to a man or woman who has already been 86ed from the United States.

Ugarte estimates that between his team and the consortium of private immigration attorneys in the Bay Area, perhaps 50 percent of detainees in deportation proceedings are now represented. This is a figure that is simultaneously better than you’d think and worse than you’d hope. The dream of universal representation is both further along than it ever has been — and far, far from reality. His team, since last May, has taken on nearly 120 cases. That doesn’t sound like a lot, especially considering the ludicrous workloads public defenders routinely subject themselves to. But, Ugarte notes, you can’t really plea-bargain a deportation case. Just about everything is going to trial.

And, in the meantime, the unit has thus far gotten 58 detainees out of stir and back with their families.

Well, jackpot.

The word is getting around, on both sides of the bars, that help is available. “I got three or four calls just today” from detainees, confirms Vega. “My number is spreading.” So is everyone’s. “It’s one of the gifts of this job,” he continues. “It’s not about the merits of the case. It’s about defending the people.”

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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