SF Public Defender's Office hires immigration attorney

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office has hired a full-time immigration attorney to help clients handle the immigration implications of their criminal cases, according to a spokeswoman. Francisco Ugarte, formerly a senior immigration attorney at Dolores Street Community Services, began Tuesday in the public defender’s office, assisting clients who are facing deportation or similar consequences, according to Tamara Barak Aparton, communications and policy assistant for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

“Even a minor brush with the law can trigger devastating consequences for San Francisco families,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi in a statement. “This collateral damage is far worse than a jail sentence and includes losing the right to work, to support one’s children and to stay in the country.”

Since 1996, federal legislation has expanded the range of criminal offenses that trigger deportation and mandatory detention, even for legal immigrants, Aparton said.

With nearly 36 percent of San Francisco residents being foreign born, and about seven percent of the public defender’s 23,000 annual clients being undocumented immigrants, the public defender’s office concluded that providing immigration assistance was priority, Aparton said.

The new immigration attorney position is being funded by the public defender’s office’s existing attorney budget, with no additional city funds being allocated, Aparton said.

The position is relatively unique among public defender’s offices, Aparton said.

Public defenders in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. also offer civil immigration services, according to Aparton. In California, the Alameda County Public Defender also has an immigration attorney on staff.

In San Francisco, Ugarte will advise attorneys on the immigration implications of criminal charges against non-citizens, as well as conduct trainings and represent certain clients in immigration and federal court.

In 2010, one of Ugarte’s cases gained media attention when he represented a woman who faced deportation after she called police for help during a domestic violence incident.

“Time and again, we have seen long-term San Francisco residents deported without access to counsel,” Ugarte said in a statement. “They face family separation, economic devastation and psychological trauma.”

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