Holly Cooper has fought for the rights of immigrants and refugees for more than 20 years, and she has never been busier than these last six months.
The two lawyers and 20 students who work during the school year in the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, where Cooper serves as co-director, have been on the frontlines defending the country’s newcomers in the face of tougher immigration policies rolled out by President Donald Trump’s administration. Since Trump took office in January, federal authorities have dramatically widened the pool of undocumented immigrants targeted for deportation while trying to block the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees.
Cooper’s lawyers have fought the administration every step of the way. They rushed to San Francisco International Airport on the night of Jan. 21 as soon as the travel ban was implemented, aiding arriving travelers who had been detained by immigration authorities. On July 5, Cooper helped score a major victory for immigrant children when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case where Cooper served as co-counsel that immigrant children can’t be held for deportation without getting their day in court.
But for all the legal tools at the clinic’s disposal, there’s only so much Cooper and her team can do from their cottage tucked behind the UC Davis Arboretum. Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order pushed for the hiring of an additional 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officers. In the following three months, immigration arrests across the country grew by more than a third compared to the same period last year. The arrests of immigrants with no criminal convictions jumped by 150 percent in that same period.
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“The most striking thing I’ve seen is the level of fear, more than I’ve seen in 20 years,” Cooper said. “The number of requests we’re getting for help is at an all-time high.
“Trump has clearly articulated he’s targeting basically the entire undocumented community.”
Apurva Behal, a 24-year-old student from India who speaks Hindi, and Salvadore Torrez, the 27-year-old son of Latin American immigrants, have spent the summer assisting Cooper on her trips to detention centers around the state. Behal said she met a 17-year-old boy being held in Woodland who was arrested on the streets of Long Island east of New York, placed in juvenile custody and sent to a detention camp in Arizona when he turned 18.
“He was not given any knowledge of what was going to happen when he turned 18,” Behal said. Cooper and her team were able to get the boy returned to Yolo County where they can represent him.
Cooper has also taken student lawyers to the Yuba County Jail and Sacramento County’s Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center once a month, where hundreds of immigrants have been picked up by immigration agents and are facing removal proceedings.
With every new presidential order, “it seems every week there are going to be massive changes in immigration law all of a sudden,” said Cooper, who’s also a UC Davis School of Law graduate and professor.
The clinic’s work has caught the attention of the 1.3 million member Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national organization that seeks to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants in the country.
“The UC Davis Immigration Law program and its professors have got a national profile and they’re pretty radical,” said Michael M. Hethmon, senior counsel for the federation’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute.
Student clinics thrive because “most illegal aliens don’t have the funds to obtain a lawyer of their own, and the sad truth is the business community often finds the availability of illegal aliens an asset,” Hethmon said. The number of law schools with immigration law clinics “has been expanding quite significantly,” a trend that raises possible legal conflicts when public universities are footing the bill, he said. UC Davis runs five other law clinics, including ones in prison, civil rights and social justice law.
“The goal of immigration law is delay; the longer you’re in the country, the odds are some favorable life event will happen. You’ll marry an American, you’ll get amnesty and something will allow you to convert your status,” he said.
The UC Davis clinic, the first of its kind nationwide, was founded in 1980 at a time when Harvard Law School didn’t even teach immigration law, said UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson, who attended Harvard Law.
“We were doing immigration law before people realized it was a big civil rights issue, and have trained hundreds of immigration lawyers,” Johnson said.
Cooper “has had an amazing impact in the state and also nationally,” Johnson said. “She’s one of the few people in the Central Valley defending juveniles, and she’s single-handedly motivating students, bringing lawsuits and making sure these vulnerable young people are not forgotten.”
Cooper said she has a soft spot for displaced migrant children because her grandfather was a refugee from Czarist Russia who wound up in an orphanage after he landed in the U.S. at age 10.
Before Cooper and her team won their case this year in the 9th Circuit, undocumented children were being picked up by immigration agents on the East Coast and shipped to detention centers across the country, far from their families and legal assistance.
Hundreds of youth in federal detention had already lost their families and been forced to flee violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Central American countries with some of the highest homicide rates in the world for countries not at war, Cooper said.
“A lot of time detention is viewed as a coercive weapon to get kids to give up their rights,” she said. “Less access to counsel and family support can make people sign away their rights and agree to deportation because they can’t handle it.”
In Hethmon’s view, the work of the clinic and other immigrant defenders was setting up the system for a fall.
Trump and his aides know “this intentional obstruction of the system is going to collapse, it’s going to literally go into meltdown,” Hethmon said. “The president is looking at what some immigration lawyers are calling the ‘nuclear option,’ to take the immigration courts out of a large part of the removal process.”
Cooper responded that it’s not immigration lawyers nor their students who are causing the problems, but the mass removals of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants – 500,000 during Barack Obama’s presidency alone – and the expanded net of people the government is targeting.
Many immigrants try to mount a defense without legal help, despite their language challenges, Cooper said.
“Seventy-five to 80 percent of all immigration detainees defend themselves in court because they don’t have an attorney. It’s almost like asking someone to perform their own brain surgery,” Cooper said. “You’re asking an individual with maybe a third-grade education who doesn’t speak English to fill out a lengthy form as to why they qualify as a refugee.”
Cooper said she and her students are not just battling an overtaxed immigration court system but misconceptions about who’s being detained. On a recent trip to the Yuba County Jail, Cooper and her student lawyers met 90 male detainees ages 18-75 from Vietnam, Haiti and India as well as from Mexico and Central America.
The reasons they’re detained “are as vast as the ocean,” Cooper said. “Most don’t have papers, but it could be the failure to pay a traffic fine.”
About 15 percent of all detainees either had outstanding deportation orders or were caught after being sent back and re-entering the U.S. illegally, Cooper said. This spring, Cooper worked on the high-profile cases of Hugo Mejia and Rodrigo Nuñez, two undocumented immigrants from Mexico with American-born children who were arrested at Travis Air Force Base while they were renovating the hospital there.
Some of the most tragic cases involve immigrants “who hired bad lawyers to protect their lives and got defrauded,” she said.
Sometimes, lawyers don’t realize their clients had prior orders of removal before they arrived at court, only to have their client deported, Cooper said. Other lawyers have filed for asylum thinking it will help their clients get work permits.
“And then asylum’s denied, here’s your removal hearing,” she said.
In California and Texas, notarios – notary publics or fraudulent lawyers working in Hispanic communities – have collected as much as $5,000 or $10,000 from clients, then disappeared. Other notarios have completed expensive green card applications although the client was ineligible.
Assembly Bill 638, the Immigration Fraud Prevention Act of 2017, would crack down on immigration consultants, notarios and others who provide legal services without licenses. The bill is currently working its way through the state Legislature.
“There are grown men, women and children and everybody’s crying,” said Cooper, who recently took 11 student lawyers to teach more than 100 inmates how to apply for asylum and defend themselves from deportation. “It’s so overwhelming, every time I leave the detention center I feel sick.”
Possible deportation defenses
Asylum – This protection is granted to people who were persecuted in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group the government perceives as a threat. Social groups may include tribes, ethnic groups, privileged classes, a group based on sexual orientation or family groups. “But being the victim of a cartel, even if the cartel has supplanted the government in your hometown, is not grounds for granting asylum and neither are victims of criminal behavior eligible,” said Jennifer Walker Gates, a veteran immigration attorney in Texas.
Cancellation of removal – This is a remedy available to people who have been in the U.S. for 10 years or more and who meet stringent tests. Applicants must show good moral character and that their U.S. citizen child, spouse or parents will suffer extreme and exceptionally unusual hardship if they’re removed, Gates said. If a family member is suffering from a major illness, a stay of removal might be granted, “but even people who have children with Down syndrome have been denied,” Gates said. “It’s very hard to win.”
Human trafficking victims – Those who cooperate with law enforcement can apply for T visas. Victims of domestic abuse or other crimes committed against them in the U.S. can apply for U visas. But Congress only authorizes up to 10,000 U visas a year with a current backlog of 60,000 cases, Gates said. Trafficking for slave labor is on the rise, said clinic co-director Amagda Pérez, who has filed both T and U visas for clients. Undocumented immigrant day laborers have been recruited to work at nurseries “that have been turned into pot farms, and once the workers get there, they’re prohibited from leaving,” Pérez said. “They’re told, ‘If you leave, we’re going to call ICE on you or kill you.’”