Meet the campus immigration attorney who secured Luis Mora’s release

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On Sunday, Jan. 7, Prerna Lal huddled in their office at the East Bay Community Law Center on Adeline Street. Even inside it felt nearly too cold to type, but Lal had work to do. It had been more than a week since an undocumented UC Berkeley student, junior Luis Mora, had been detained at a border checkpoint in San Diego, and he was still in custody.

Lal had received an email from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, Friday night saying it would not release Mora, deferring his release conditions to immigration court instead. Lal would have to attend a bond hearing and might work up to 15 hours that day alone on this one case.

As an immigration attorney for UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program, or USP, for more than two years, Lal provides legal services for hundreds of undocumented students at UC Berkeley and their families.

It can be financially strenuous for students to hire lawyers to help with their legal status, so it is invaluable for the campus to provide these services free of charge, said USP Academic Counselor Liliana Iglesias.

USP’s legal services department has one attorney (Lal), one paralegal and a few work-study students. And this isn’t Lal’s only job: They also provide training for UC Berkeley School of Law students at the East Bay Community Law Center, a clinic associated with the law school.

UC Berkeley was the first UC campus to provide specific support for undocumented students. In 2015, a centralized UC Immigrant Legal Services Center was created at UC Davis to serve nine UC campuses.  

The Berkeley campus decided to keep its legal services local, separate from the central UC legal services office, to best serve undocumented students at a close range, according to USP Director Meng So.

Because UC Berkeley’s program is separate from the rest of the UC, it’s funded differently. UC’s immigrant legal services receive significant funds from the UC Office of the President. While USP receives some funding from the campus and from UCOP, most of the funding for the legal services arm comes from private donors.

Lal is sharply critical of the campus’s commitment to supporting undocumented students, saying its financial support for USP legal services is nonexistent.

“My salary is not paid for by Berkeley — I want to make this very clear. It’s paid for by private donors,” Lal said, adding that the $50,000 in student fees the campus approved for their position is hardly any money to pay for a clinical professor’s salary or benefits. Lal’s total yearly salary is about $66,000.

UC Berkeley does, however, provide funding to USP as a whole: For the 2015-16 year, 30 percent came from UC Berkeley, 17 percent from the UC Office of the President and 53 percent from private donors.

When members of Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education, or RISE at Berkeley, a campus immigrant rights organization, first reached out to Lal about Mora’s case Dec. 30, Lal dropped everything, pushed their other cases to the back burner and began to piece together Mora’s story: his background, where he was being held and why.

Finally, Lal got in touch with Jaleen Udarbe, Mora’s girlfriend, who had been with him when he was initially detained by California Border Patrol. The two had taken a wrong turn and ended up at an immigration checkpoint on a drive back from a party in San Diego.

But by that time, it was Sunday and New Year’s Eve. No one was working; no one was answering their phone calls. It seemed essentially impossible to figure out where Mora was being held. “I’m really just triaging,” Lal said. “It’s hard to triage.”

It wasn’t until the office of U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., got involved that ICE provided Lal with sufficient information about where Mora was being kept and his charges.

“I’ve never, in my life, never been in a bond hearing for a visa overstay, it’s very unprecedented,” Lal said, adding that people who overstay their visa are sometimes put in court proceedings but are not usually detained.

Border Patrol is not supposed to hold someone for more than a few hours in temporary facilities, which tend to be overcrowded and do not provide real beds, Lal said. When Mora was transferred to ICE custody days later, he at least had a bed, Lal said.

Mora told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the conditions were “horrifying” at the temporary holding facility. Mora alleged that he was called “fuckface” and “exotic”; he and about 60 other detainees were forced to share two toilets and one working shower. The cell was frigid, and the detainees had to use emergency blankets to stay warm, according to Mora.

Members of RISE mobilized quickly on social media on Mora’s behalf, setting up a YouCaring fundraiser for his bond. Lal says social media has become a much more effective tool for student activists in recent years. With more awareness of immigration policy, lawmakers are quicker to respond, Lal said.

On a day-to-day basis, Lal files naturalization cases and writes appeals. Mora’s situation was remarkably severe and extremely unusual compared with those of other students. Mora was the first UC Berkeley student to have been detained by immigration enforcement that So knows of.

So, along with others familiar with the undocumented community, fears cases like Mora’s will become more common, “given the xenophobic nature of this political environment.”

Just earlier this year, a UC San Diego student and recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was arrested by Border Patrol officers after taking a wrong turn at the U.S.-Mexico border. Things have changed significantly since the Trump administration took over, Lal said.

U.S. immigration officials are planning a massive immigration sweep in the Bay Area and are preparing to arrest more than 1,500 undocumented people as a reaction to California’s sanctuary state status.

The threat of deportation looms larger for the undocumented student community, and it is reflected tangibly in the cases that end up on Lal’s desk.

Last year, the number of cases Lal handled spiked to 300 because of all the uncertainty around the Trump administration’s repeal of DACA. Now, at the beginning of 2018, Lal’s caseload is down to about 100 open active cases, since many DACA applications and renewals have been taken care of. DACA cases are less labor-intensive — just an application, while Mora’s detainment required Lal to fly down to see him and to do so again to argue at his bond hearing.

Even if cases like Mora’s are rare, Lal is still heavily booked: If a new student tried to meet with Lal now, they would likely have to wait until at least mid-February. For these first-time meetings, Lal meets with students in a room they have to borrow at the Educational Opportunity Program office on campus.

Lal finds that their usual workspace at the law clinic on Adeline Street is less accessible to students burdened with seeking help on their or their family’s legal status.

Like Lal, UC legal services faced a similar rise in cases as Trump’s immigration policies gained more traction. The Los Angeles Times reported that cases totaled more than 800 for the 2016-17 academic year, compared with 362 from the previous year.

So said Mora’s story is one of many and that the psychological trauma of this political moment is having a “monster impact” in terms of the safety of undocumented students. Mora’s case was an opportunity for the campus community to take a deep look in the mirror to see how it could step up, So said.

“Students are really engaged and active in civil disobedience,” So said. And they are “asking the university to have more clarity to stand up in solidarity.”

Now, after 2 1/2 weeks in a cell, Mora is free. Lal successfully secured Mora’s release on bond after his hearing Wednesday.

Lal used to be undocumented, just like the students they work with, and that’s why Lal sticks with this line of work, even though it can be grueling at times.

“The U.S. government also tried to deport me, like Luis, and I fought back and I won my own case, and that inspired me to continue to do this work,” Lal said.

At this point, the heavy lifting on Mora’s case is over. While someone is detained, the sequence of events can move quickly, people can get deportation orders after two months and it’s difficult to line up paperwork with limited access to someone in detention, Lal said. But now, Lal is optimistic and has plans to work on Mora’s long-term legal status case.

“He will graduate with a political science degree in one hand and a green card in another,” Lal said.

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @suhaunah.