S.F. Immigration Defense Unit Represents Immigrants Statewide Through Pandemic

Francisco Ugarte, managing attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender's immigration defense unit, holds a banner with the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi at a community rally for immigrants' rights in 2018.

Courtesy of the Office of the Public Defender

Francisco Ugarte, managing attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender's immigration defense unit, holds a banner with the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi at a community rally for immigrants' rights in 2018.

In California, a sanctuary state — where local law enforcement is barred from collaborating with immigration enforcement — people who have completed prison sentences have been handed off to immigration detention. State prisons can and do, however, comply with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for people considered deportable. The Guardian US has recently reported on two such cases that involved people who had fought wildfires while incarcerated. Some 500 people have been transferred from prison to immigration detention this year, the Asian Law Caucus told the Guardian.

San Francisco’s office of the public defender has a unit dedicated to defending immigrants in court. In most states, they often have no representation because there is no right to counsel in immigration cases. Francisco Ugarte, managing attorney of this unit, talked with “Civic” about how handoffs between agencies work and what happens to someone who is arrested by immigration enforcement in San Francisco, as well as a class action suit the unit helped litigate over COVID-19 outbreaks in detention facilities.

“ICE uses the language of criminality to target people, and to use a rhetoric to win people over to support deportation. The vast majority of people in this country, in my opinion, do not want federal agents coming into our neighborhoods, coming into our institutions, swiping people away, taking them away from their families. That causes devastation and trauma. And so the only way to win public support for this is to use the language of criminality to label immigrants criminals.”

— Francisco Ugarte

A segment from our radio show and podcast, “Civic.” Listen daily at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on 102.5 FM in San Francisco, and subscribe on Apple, Google, Spotify or Stitcher