Immigrants helped by UC Davis law students

Published: Saturday, Sep. 29, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

The West African refugee on a football scholarship to Sacramento State was arrested for pulling a telephone out of a wall.

He spent six days in jail for destruction of property, then was thrown into removal proceedings and detained in Eloy, Ariz. – one of millions of immigrants who have faced deportation by the Obama administration.

Students from UC Davis Law School's Immigration Law Clinic got him released on $5,000 bond and had his case transferred to immigration court in San Francisco, said supervising attorney Holly Cooper.

"He'd endured horrific forms of persecution, and the court found he was not deportable and ended up dismissing his case," she said.

The clinic – which celebrates its 30th anniversary today – is busier than ever thanks to the record number of deportations by the administration.

Founded in 1982, the clinic was the first in the nation to train law students to represent non-citizens in immigration court, said Dean Kevin Johnson.

Guided by supervising attorneys, about 30 law students per semester have represented clients from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Jamaica, Romania, Fiji, Laos, Cambodia, India, China and the Philippines. (The State Bar and federal immigration courts have regulations allowing students to practice under faculty supervision.)

"We've always saved the lives of people who could be tortured or killed if they were sent back to their native countries," Johnson said. "Today, with the administration deporting hundreds of thousands of people and breaking up hundreds of thousands of families, the need for the clinics increased."

The Obama administration has been deporting about 400,000 people a year, said professor emeritus James Smith, the clinic's founder.

Until the administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program was launched in June, "Obama had deported more people than any other president by far," Smith said.

"One of the ironies of American politics is the more anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from Republicans, but when the Democrats get in office they actually adopt those policies," Smith said.

President Bill Clinton, for example, presided over the 1996 Immigration Reform and Control Act, "which was exceptionally draconian and made a lot of cases subject to federal court review, which obviously takes longer," Smith said.

Smith said he founded the clinic to give students hands-on experience because classroom work and research weren't enough. It has produced about 100 practicing immigration attorneys over the years.

Smith recalled a case involving an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was studying to become a priest when he had a schizophrenic breakdown working in the fields of Yolo County. The young man was arrested after showing up at a home and, deprived of his medication, was persuaded to plead guilty to burglary, Smith said. "He became catatonic, and after a huge legal battle we got him medication, got the guilty plea and the burglary withdrawn and helped him get his green card."

Clinic Director Amagda Perez, whose parents are immigrants from Zacatecas, Mexico, said she became an immigration lawyer after she saw her childhood friends separated from their parents. "There are many more families being placed in removal proceedings than ever before," she said.

Many immigrants receive bad advice from immigration consultants or sign away their rights to an immigration hearing without ever talking to an attorney, Perez said. "They have to either leave their children behind or take them back to a country where their own lives are at risk," Perez said. "These are choices no parent should ever have to make."

The UC Davis clinic has represented more than 700 people in court, she said. "We've assisted about 525 families, helped 37,000 lawful permanent residents apply for citizenship,and made presentations to 40,000 individuals about changes in immigration law and the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens."

The clinic has also partnered with Sacramento's Mexican Consulate to help hundreds of young immigrants apply for deportation relief under the administration's Deferred Action program. Several hundred more are scheduled to get help applying for their work permits from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the consulate.

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