UPDATE: An earlier version of this story stated that Sup. Fewer’s legislation would have allocated $7 million for immigrant defense. That amount was subsequently revised down to $2.24 million.
Supervisor Sandra Fewer is breathing new life into Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s plan to defend undocumented immigrants facing deportation. On Feb. 16, she asked the Budget and Finance Committee to set aside $2.24 million for that defense.
The funding, if approved by the Board of Supervisors, would allow the Public Defender’s Office to hire nine more attorneys and six staffers, all of whom would be dedicated to defending people in detention facilities facing deportation. Some of the money would also go toward education and outreach, Adachi says.
Last year alone, 1,500 people were detained by immigration officers locally, and 1,005 lack legal representation, Adachi says. However, it’s tough to tell how many of those are San Francisco residents. It’s also hard to pin down how many San Francisco residents are subject to deportation orders, he says.
Fewer, who represents District 1, is picking up the proposal — first floated by former Supervisor David Campos in November — that would have given Adachi’s office $2.5 million. Another $2.5 million would have gone to local nonprofit organizations that provide legal aid to immigrants. In late December, however, Mayor Ed Lee said he’d give $1.5 million to the nonprofits — and none to the public defender. (The Board has already approved that amount separately.)
Adachi told the committee that’s not nearly enough to protect San Francisco’s immigrants who are in deportation proceedings.
“Contributing to legal organizations is an important first step, but there’s a gap — people who aren’t covered by current services, and that’s people in detention,” Adachi says. Defendants in immigration court aren’t guaranteed attorneys and often wind up representing themselves. But they have much more success when they have legal representation, he says.
California’s detention facilities — located in Richmond, Sacramento, and Bakersfield — are indistinguishable from prisons, Adachi says. Detainees wear the same orange jumpsuits.
Unlike prisons, immigrant detention centers tend to be more remote, and inmates are even more isolated from family and legal services than prisoners.
Fewer was moved to take up the legislation after hosting a Mexican immigrant in her home for four years. The student’s grandfather was picked up by immigration officers and shipped to the border with little warning. It was only because his family was able to pool resources and hire an attorney that he was saved from deportation, Fewer says.
“They were able to pull him from the van on the way to the border. That’s the power of legal representation,” she says.
The community organizations now receiving the mayor’s funding boost say there’s no way they can handle the hundreds of deportation cases that arise in San Francisco each year. They are eager to see the Public Defender’s Office pick up some of the caseload.
“Our organizations have come together to fill a tiny fraction of that need, but it’s far, far from enough,” Niloufar Khonsari, executive director of Pangea Legal Services, one of the funding recipients, told the committee.
Adachi says that while the nonprofits’ attorneys can handle 20 to 30 cases per year, his attorneys will each be able to take 40 to 60 cases annually, largely through a plan to station each of 10 attorneys in a different immigration courtroom in the city. Adding support staff will also allow his office to take on a heavier case load, he said.
District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee, who sits on the Budget and Finance Committee, noted at the meeting that even handling 600 cases per year wouldn’t cover everyone in detention.
“How would you choose which cases to take?” Yee asked.
“We have to do that now,” Adachi said. However, his attorneys can only defend a handful of people facing deportation each year, and they’re people his office has defended against other criminal charges in the past. An expanded team would assess which detainees were in the most need, and which ones had issues that needed to be litigated.
The committee — which also includes District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang and District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen — grilled Adachi at length about the finances of the plan. That led some in the packed supervisors’ chambers to accuse Tang of being stingy.
Tang shot back, noting that the city is already spending nearly $7 million on immigration services, and that thinking about allocating more deserves caution.
“We are a leader, and we stand up for what we believe in, but it doesn’t mean we can’t scrutinize proposals that come before us,” Tang said. “I generally don’t support supplementals, but I have supported every supplemental on immigration so far. Please don’t confuse my questions for saying this isn’t incredibly important work.”
The supervisors have to be careful with the coming year’s budget, given that “there are so many unknowns,” Yee said.
President Donald Trump has threatened to yank funding from sanctuary cities, and San Francisco is so committed to its sanctuary city status that it is suing the federal government over Trump’s threats. The city receives roughly $1 billion in federal funding each year.
After three hours of discussion and public comment, the committee postponed voting on Fewer’s proposal for at least two weeks. That sets Adachi back; he said that with swift approval, he would have been able to get his new attorneys to work by April 1.
And he’s eager to do so, anticipating that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities will increase under the Trump administration.
When Trump announced his candidacy, he whipped up fears about immigrants, claiming that many Mexicans, in particular, are “criminals” and “rapists.” Early in his campaign, he promised to deport “millions and millions of undocumented immigrants.” He also used the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle — by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant with a criminal history — to argue that sanctuary city policies in places like San Francisco should be abolished.
Trump signed an executive order in January approving the construction of a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. That order also pushed for more immigration enforcement. Since then, reports of ICE raids have cropped up in Southern California, although ICE officials told NBC News that those actions were planned before the executive order was issued.
Deportation efforts were already very active under President Barack Obama, earning him the title “deporter-in-chief” among immigrant-rights activists. Between 2010 and the end of 2014, ICE says it deported almost 2 million people — 850,000 of whom were convicted of a criminal act other than being in the United States without permission. Even in San Francisco, which has been a sanctuary city since the late 1980s, roughly 7,000 residents were deported each year between January 2010 and February 2015, according to Adachi’s office.
One of those was Joaquin Sotelo, an immigrant from Mexico and father of two who served in the U.S. Navy. A couple of years ago, he was arrested and placed in an immigrant detention facility, where he remained for almost a year and a half before he could afford to hire a lawyer. He’s out of custody now but is still facing deportation from a country he has served and defended.
Deporting immigrants who are U.S. military veterans “isn’t right,” he said during a press conference before the Feb. 16 meeting. “There’s something wrong with the system.”