UC Berkeley’s legal immigration services need more lawyers

CAMPUS ISSUES: UC Berkeley’s only immigration attorney was put on leave. Now, the Undocumented Students Program lacks a permanent full-time attorney to handle student cases

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Kelly Baird/Staff

The person responsible for securing the release of campus student Luis Mora from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, custody has just been placed on administrative leave, and no one seems to know why.

The bizarre move raises a few questions: Why would the East Bay Community Law Center, or EBCLC — from which UC Berkeley contracts — suddenly place the only full-time immigration attorney at UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program, or USP, on leave with no warning? Why haven’t Prerna Lal’s clients been notified of the reason? Will Lal return?

Prior to being put on leave, Lal was handling a large workload; at the beginning of this year, they were working on about 100 active cases for the student program. Besides Lal, USP only has one paralegal contracted through the law center, according to Fabrizio Mejia, assistant vice chancellor of student equity and success.

Mejia said that now, EBCLC will distribute Lal’s cases between several attorneys and bring in additional paralegal support “to make sure nothing is falling between the cracks in the transition.” He added that these attorneys will be released of their other duties so they can focus on handling Lal’s active cases.

“The terms of our contract (with EBCLC) are being fulfilled,” Mejia said.

Mejia said the same paralegal who has been working with Lal on their cases will continue on Lal’s cases, which will help maintain continuity and relationships with students and their families. Even so, losing the primary attorney still means some background knowledge about cases will have to be relearned. Reassigning and shuffling these cases around from office to office in a patchwork manner will not fill the hole left by an immigration lawyer’s sudden departure.

For example, Mora’s case isn’t over just because he was released from ICE custody — now he’s working on a long-term plan to ensure his safety and stability in the United States. But he may not be working with the attorney with whom he’s built a trusting relationship.

And this gets at a larger issue: understaffing. After President Donald Trump’s repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the number of Lal’s cases spiked to 300. Mejia himself acknowledged that more students are using the campus’s legal services.

“We’re not concerned at the moment that we’re understaffed, but I think we are getting close to that,” Mejia said.

What? If the campus is concerned that they will soon be understaffed, doesn’t that mean that they are already concerned about staffing issues?

The campus is already allocating $800,000 to an initiative that will cover DACA students’ financial needs. But with Lal’s departure, it’s more important than ever to ensure that the campus is committed to hiring permanent legal staffers.

Both USP and EBCLC need to work together to hire and contract more permanent, full-time immigration lawyers for the UC Berkeley community. With the campus’s only permanent immigration lawyer on leave, they need to work fast to continue to provide necessary services to some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Mejia said the campus is currently considering adding additional full-time legal staff members. So what are they waiting for?

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.