Fresno immigration attorney Justin Sweeney says the early months of this year have been the busiest of his career. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)
Justin Sweeney’s desk is piled with file folders and law books. He’s been practicing immigration law for five years, and so far this has been the busiest of his career -- he's seen a 400 percent increase in consultations and new client contracts over the same period last year.
“I used to do an appointment every hour, but now because there’s so many people coming in we do an appointment every half-hour,” he says. “It gets crazy.”
A steady stream of clients files through Sweeney’s small downtown Fresno office. While he meets with one client, his secretary helps another. A toddler crawls around in the hallway while her parents wait for their appointment. The phone rings off the hook.
When Sweeney picks up the phone, it’s a last-minute request for him to represent someone at an upcoming court appearance.
“OK,” he tells the caller. “So on Friday I have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... 15 -- 15 appointments for Friday already scheduled. So I obviously can’t go Friday.”
Immigration lawyers across California have been scrambling to meet rising demand, as people worried by President Trump's tough talk on immigration are rushing to solidify their legal status -- or defend against deportation. Perhaps nowhere is the crunch so tight as in the Central Valley, where a huge immigrant population is vying for a tiny number of immigration attorneys.
The lack of attorneys poses one challenge to potential clients, as well as the fact that most of the lawyers are based in the cities that dot this vast agricultural region. But money also keeps a lot of people from getting legal help. Sweeney is well aware that most of his clients are farmworkers, with little cash to spare.
"This is an expensive case," Sweeney tells a green-card client who’s trying to help his undocumented wife become a legal resident. “I charge $5,000, and I need a $1,000 retainer upfront.”
He adds: “I know, it’s a lot.”
For someone like Lupe Santoyo, that’s just too much.
“Where are you gonna get that? Can’t do it,” she tells me. “It’s all low-income families that work out here.”
Santoyo lives in rural Firebaugh, about an hour outside Fresno. She’s eager to get her husband some legal help. She says he’s had his green card for 30 years, but he’s scared to apply for citizenship because of an old DUI.
“He really is afraid,” she says, explaining his concern that submitting the application requires alerting immigration authorities to this criminal history: “‘What if I submit the application and they’re going to deport me?’”
Lawyers are hard to come by in Santoyo’s town, and money’s tight. So when she heard about a presentation on immigration law in town, she jumped at the chance to get advice.
At a local library, attorney Allison Davenport of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center leads a presentation on immigration law basics. To reach people like Santoyo, Davenport is going out into rural communities. Nonprofit groups like hers are trying to fill the gap for those who can’t afford private lawyers. But they’re overwhelmed, too.
California-based OneJustice, an organization that works to expand access to legal help, has been mapping immigration services in the state. It has identified more than 400 nonprofit immigration providers in California. Only 28 of them work in the Central Valley.
Part of the reason there are so few immigration attorneys or nonprofits working here, Davenport says, comes down to logistics.
“Geography makes it a complicated place to practice,” she says. The nearest immigration courts are in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and though attorneys can often make their appearances by phone, in some instances they’ve got to show up in person. That makes for lots of driving, and additional expenses for clients.
When Davenport’s Firebaugh presentation comes to an end, a crowd forms around her. Hardly anyone here says they’ve consulted with any kind of immigration provider, and everyone is bursting with questions.
“I’m gonna stay to answer a few individual questions,” Davenport says, “but they’ve got to be quick because there are so many.”
For Lupe Santoyo the advice was well worth the wait -- she got some good news about her husband. “The lawyer said, 'Tell him to go ahead and fill it out and become a United States citizen.'"
Now Santoyo’s challenge is finding trustworthy help with the paperwork. Because there are so few lawyers, the Central Valley is ripe for immigration fraud. “When you cannot connect people to quality service providers,” Davenport says, “they’re going to go to the person nearest them.”
Often that means an unqualified provider. In California, immigration consultants -- often known as notarios in Spanish -- are barred from giving legal advice to clients, as they are not attorneys. In Mexico, notarios, or notaries, are licensed to practice law, which leads some immigrants in the United States to trust any legal services they charge for. Some of these businesses are incompetent, while others are swindlers.
“It’s a big, big problem,” Davenport says. “A lot of attorneys in the area, a lot of their caseload is cleaning up the mess created by fraudulent providers.”
Fresno attorney Sweeney does his share of cleanup. But sometimes it’s too late.
“Two weeks ago, a grown man in my office, crying because his wife is in Mexico,” Sweeney tells me. “The notary sent her to Mexico.”
Sweeney says the notary wrongly told the family the wife would be eligible for a green card after returning to Mexico for an interview at an American consulate.
“In five minutes I determined she was not eligible,” Sweeney says. “And he’s like, ‘What can we do now?’ Nothing. There’s nothing legally that I can do to bring her back. And I literally see that every week.”
Things have gotten a little better here for immigrants seeking help to navigate the complexities of immigration law. There’s a bit more funding than there used to be, and nonprofits have expanded services in the Central Valley. But there’s a long way to go before people get the legal help they need.