Meet the Oakland Lawyer Working with Immigrants in 2017
Posted March 2017
Mindy Phillips is an Oakland lawyer helping immigrant families navigate life under the new Administration's executive orders on immigration.
On a rainy Thursday morning in Oakland, Mindy Phillips stands in front of parents in an elementary school auditorium. The walls are colorfully decorated with photos of students, posters about the school Safety Patrol, and aspirational college pennants—Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of North Carolina—even though the school only teaches kindergarten through fifth grade.
Typically, the room serves as a gathering space for uplifting school activities like assemblies and awards presentations. But on this day, a week after President Trump signed executive orders targeting immigrants in the United States, parents gather for a different reason—a free immigrant rights Workshop. The school had advised Mindy, the immigration lawyer giving the workshop, to bring her bilingual “Know Your Rights” informational packets for 20 to 30 parents. But by 9 a.m., more than 40 parents fill every available plastic chair, while others who stream in later stand against the wall or sit on the floor. Some settle in with small children on their laps. A few push strollers. They’ll need more packets.
Mindy Phillips is an Equal Justice Works Fellow leading an innovative project at the East Bay Community Law Center. Working out of school-based health centers operated by La Clinica de la Raza in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), she offers free legal counsel to students and their families, some of whom are undocumented—and all of whom will be affected in some way by the new administration’s hardline stances on immigration. Mindy’s not entirely surprised by the huge turnout.
“People are scared,” she says—and this was before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in adherence to the executive orders, began stepping up deportations. Of course, fear has always been an undercurrent in communities where people are undocumented: parents fear being unable to make ends meet with limited job opportunities in the legal economy; children fear a boogeyman in the form of ICE agents coming in the night to take their parents. But now, it’s a nightmare that Trump has promised to make a reality for millions of families.
The difference? Under the Obama administration, deportation generally occurred after local law enforcement reported criminal, non-immigration-related arrests to ICE or when people were detained at the border. Now, ICE is actively showing up at homes, workplaces, courthouses, and shelters seeking out undocumented people to deport. And because of that, the climate in these communities is noticeably different, Mindy says. Imagine trying to work, sleep, or live a normal life knowing ICE could show up at any moment.
“We’re seeing this fear manifest in more acute ways than ever before,” she explains. “People are terrified to travel. Teachers report that parents have been keeping their kids home from school. The smallest children are asking each other on the playground: ‘Are your parents going to be deported?’”
What’s more, these executive orders will have devastating ripple effects beyond immigrant communities. In Texas, for example, ICE agents detained a woman in the courthouse where she had just received a protective order as a victim of domestic abuse. The message to other victims worried about their status is loud and clear: It’s better to stay silent with an abuser than to come forward and risk deportation. When a victim is afraid to report a crime, entire communities risk being less safe. When a sick person is afraid to go to the doctor, entire communities risk getting sick.
We Don’t Know What’s Going to Happen
Mindy kicks off her presentation by explaining to the majority, if not entirely, Latino group that she’ll speak in Spanish, and the slides projected on a tall screen behind her will be in English: “Resisting the Trump Administration: Immigrants’ Rights.” She dives in, speaking in plain, accessible language—no legalese—about the current state of immigrants’ rights in this country. She is laser-focused on communicating the truth about what’s going on right now, parsing fact from fiction and rumor from reality.
She walks through the implications of recent events on people with different types of immigration status, from long-term permanent residency to U-Visas, President Obama’s temporary Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protection program, and the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program for minors who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. The complications of a very convoluted immigration law mean that neighbors, friends and family members are implicated in different ways. One slide lists known deportation enforcement priorities. Another slide focuses on the massive resistance efforts being displayed across the country.
“It’s important for undocumented immigrants to know that a majority of Americans did not vote for these policies,” Mindy says, a common message she repeats to her clients. “Resistance is powerful, and we need to keep at it.”
Mindy’s voice and tone are calming, yet she doesn’t shy away from the urgency of the situation at hand. Babies whimper in their strollers and toddlers waddle around the room, including at least one in a princess costume, oblivious to the situation at hand. Parents listen intently, visibly concerned. They silently shake their heads when Mindy talks about Trump’s controversial “Muslim Ban.” “No es justo,” she says, and they agree. It’s not right.
The group is most engaged, asking questions, during the section about immigration raids. She explains that you are not required to open the door for ICE agents until a warrant is presented, pressed against a window or slipped under the door. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to a lawyer. You must not lie. You must not run.
She’s honest throughout: “No sabemos lo que va a pasar.” We don’t know what will happen.
A Lifeline for Immigrants
The day following her workshop, Mindy has four back-to-back meetings with clients in the school-based health center at a secondary school. At any given time, in addition to her on-site clinics and workshops, she represents 50 clients who need her assistance to navigate the United States’ complex, confusing, and deeply broken immigration system. It’s a system that arbitrarily provides relief for some groups of people and not for others, a system that labels millions of people undocumented simply because there just isn’t an option for them. In the last 18 months alone, Mindy has received over 450 referrals for OUSD students and families needing her help.
Mindy drives across the city to meet with her clients at school, carrying files upon files of paperwork, each manila folder a unique case representing a human being whose life in this country hinges on the fine print of complicated rules and statutes—unintelligible to anyone but a very expert immigration attorney. The fact is, these laws affect tens of millions of people, but most regions have only a handful of free attorneys with expertise to navigate them.
Mindy is one of only a few lawyers who does this work at no cost in Oakland schools and the only one who provides these services on-site on a regular basis. The East Bay Community Law Center observed this need in 2010, when they began holding on-site legal clinics in Oakland schools. So they partnered with La Clinica de la Raza to begin providing free, bi-monthly immigration clinics at four of their school-based health centers in Oakland. This partnership provides wraparound medical and legal services for students and their families. It’s a good strategy, since these facilities are among the few spaces in which undocumented students and their families feel safe; many receive their primary care here, and they trust the clinicians, counselors, and others, like Mindy, who work there.
For these families, Mindy is more than just a lawyer or interpreter, she’s a guiding force. In Oakland, where an estimated 30% of the population is foreign-born, the recent executive orders could have devastating impacts. It’s quite common to find mixed status families, most commonly with one or both parents undocumented, and maybe one child with DACA, while another child has U.S. citizenship. Under the new administration’s policies, nearly all undocumented immigrants are a priority for deportation, so families are at a much greater risk of being torn apart.
Fighting for Families
One of Mindy’s clients is 18-year-old Diana, who came to the United States by herself from Guatemala when she was five years old. Mindy believes that Diana’s traumatic childhood experiences qualify her for SIJS, the special status granted to minors who were abused, neglected, or abandoned. But the aunt she’s been living with is reluctant to sign on; her own family has mixed status, and she worries about endangering her children by providing information to officials.
Though her future is unknown, remarkably, Diana is in the process of applying to college. As their meeting winds down, Mindy tries to keep the mood light, asking about graduation photos, and if Diana has senioritis. “Hang in there,” Mindy says. On a pink Post-It, she writes Diana a hall pass back to class.
Mindy is the only immigration lawyer in Oakland who works through school health centers. In these safe spaces, clients feel secure and protected.
Another meeting is with 18-year-old senior Jonathan, who has received DACA, and his mother, Maria, a long-term permanent resident. Currently, Jonathan’s DACA status should grant him the ability to live and work in the United States for at least another year, with a layer of protection from deportation.
However, the recent arrests of three DACA recipients—a 23-year-old man in Washington, a college student in San Antonio, and a 22-year-old woman in Mississippi who had just spoken publicly about immigration—give Jonathan reason to worry. While the president has flip-flopped on the issue, he has not made official policy regarding DACA. These arrests have sounded alarm bells for recipients and advocates who had hoped ICE would continue to observe the legal protections DACA grants. They believe government should honor the promise it made to the 750,000 young immigrants currently in the United States.
Jonathan was planning to go back to Mexico after graduation, to follow a legal process to apply for lawful permanent residence. But now Mindy believes that going back to Mexico isn’t a good idea, at least not until President Trump’s plans are clearer.
“I’m worried about sending people out of the country now in a way I wasn’t before,” Mindy explains, a fear underscored by the Muslim Ban. Jonathan may be safe today, she assures them, “but we don’t know what the President’s plans are yet and they’re constantly changing.”
As for Maria, she’s not ready to apply for citizenship because of her English skills—she worries she’ll fail the expensive exams, and Jonathan agrees it’s not a good idea. Maria wrings her hands and tells Mindy she’s been watching the news in horror. Mindy repeats her message about how the majority of American voters feel about the new administration: they didn’t vote for these policies and will continue to resist. And when it comes to young people like Jonathan with DACA, their voices have already proven to be powerful—and will continue to be powerful in the fight ahead.
Despite the administration’s provocative rhetoric and fear of the unknown, Mindy says she has never heard a client regret coming to the United States. No matter how afraid or helpless a person might feel in the face of the daunting immigration system and its seemingly omnipotent enforcers, it’s unquestionably a better option than the life-threatening violence, poverty, or persecution he or she is fleeing in their country of origin.
“I’m constantly reminded of the hopefulness of the human spirit,” Mindy says. Her clients have taught her about the emotional strength it takes to leave a place you love for what you’re hoping will be a brighter future for your family. People would not make the decision to leave if they didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary. And all they want is a shot at giving their children a better life.
Mindy hears the same refrain from her clients day in and day out: “I don’t care about my status, about my fate. I only care about my kids.”
Note: Some identifying information has been changed to protect those featured in this article.