The pregnant woman on the other end of the call sounded despondent. It was about her partner, she said. He was a permanent resident, but the government wanted to deport him.
Keli Reynolds, an immigration attorney, agreed to take the case and began studying the 2013 joyriding charge that triggered the deportation order. The man had recently pleaded guilty and accepted a 365-day sentence, but Reynolds knew that if she could get the punishment reduced to 364 days, it would no longer be considered an aggravated felony and wouldn’t require mandatory deportation.
She had spotted the workaround in a heartbeat, but the man’s first attorney — an L.A. County deputy public defender — had missed it.
Christian, whom Reynolds identified only by his first name to protect client confidentiality, is one of several immigrants highlighted in an American Civil Liberties Union report released Wednesday that criticizes the public defender’s office for its handling of cases involving clients who aren’t U.S. citizens.
“There is a crisis today in our county’s public defender system,” the report reads, arguing that the office “underserves a large and vital segment of the Los Angeles population: the immigrant community.” The report credits the diligence of many attorneys in the office and acknowledges the “enormous complexity” at the intersection of federal immigration law and state criminal law, adding that the problem stems from being “grossly under-resourced.”
The 61-page report, which relied on confidential interviews with dozens of attorneys in the public defender’s office, ultimately makes an appeal to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to fund 15 more attorneys in the office’s immigration unit. The report says that the office of roughly 700 lawyers has only two designated immigration law experts.
Because individuals in immigration court don’t have the right to free representation, it’s crucial they get a vital defense from their court-appointed lawyers in criminal cases, said attorney Andrés Dae Keun Kwon, who wrote the report. In Los Angeles County, he said, public defenders “are the first line of defense against Trump’s deportation machine.”
In a statement to The Times, Interim Public Defender Nicole Davis Tinkham defended the office, saying it has “always been committed to providing strong representation to all of our clients, including immigrants, who are facing some unique challenges in this difficult period.”
“We are still reviewing the ACLU report but our initial assessment is that it is based on incomplete information about our practices,” Tinkham said, adding that employees from the office recently met with immigration advocates. The office understands the importance of the issue, she said, noting that they’re already in budget discussions with the county’s chief executive and Board of Supervisors.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement that the board plans to beef up the office’s immigration unit. They’re working to add eight lawyers to the unit this year, she wrote, “with the goal of adding more next year depending on need.”
“The county and the public defender’s office is moving forward to ensure everyone, regardless of citizenship status, has access to high-quality legal representation,” she wrote. “Increasing immigration law training across county departments is essential.”
The ACLU report argues that the office should require attorneys to receive foundational training about the intersection of criminal and immigration law. Currently, the report says, only new hires have to get that type of training.
California law requires judges to offer a blanket warning to defendants before accepting a guilty or no contest plea in a criminal case. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, the judge advises, a conviction could lead to deportation, exclusion from the U.S. or denial of naturalization.
L.A. County Superior Court Judge Sergio C. Tapia said he pays careful attention to how defendants respond to his advisement. Their answers, he said, can serve as hints.
“There have been times where I suspect that, perhaps, a defendant is not getting adequate advice,” said Tapia, a former L.A. County deputy public defender. When that happens, he gives the defendant a chance to talk to their attorney about any concerns. Defense lawyers sometimes then ask for more time to research an immigration issue, the judge said, noting that he has granted the requests in the past.
The judge said he’s had concerns in cases involving both public defenders and private defense lawyers, adding that it seems to happen more frequently among private lawyers. Still, he said, he supports the ACLU’s call for more immigration personnel and training within his former office.
“It’s long overdue,” Tapia said. “For the immigrant community, it’s critical that the office addresses this issue.”
For Christian, whose family moved to the U.S. when he was a toddler, his partner’s dejected phone call to Reynolds a few years ago shifted the trajectory of his life. After noticing the 365-versus-364 issue, Reynolds asked her client about the discrepancy.
“He had no idea the difference between that day,” she recalled. Reynolds then contacted the public defender’s office and eventually spoke to one of the office’s two immigration experts, who asked, “What needs to be done?”
“He needs a 364-day sentence, which he should’ve gotten from the beginning,” Reynolds recalled saying. The public defender’s office acted immediately, she said, and helped secure the lowered sentence.
By that time, an immigration judge had already ordered Christian’s removal and the case had gone to the Board of Immigration Appeals, a panel that interprets and applies immigration law. After Reynolds provided paperwork showing the new sentence, the case was returned to immigration court, where a judge terminated the removal proceedings.
Another of Reynolds’ clients, Norberto, also faced the possibility of deportation after taking an ill-advised plea. In 2015, Norberto, who was initially represented by the public defender’s office, pleaded guilty to possession for sale of methamphetamine. Although it sounds counterintuitive, he would have been better off pleading up to the more serious, but not deportable, offense of transporting methamphetamine, so Reynolds filed a motion asking the trial judge to amend the plea. The judge granted the request and the removal proceedings were stopped.