We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

In a small immigration cell somewhere in San Francisco — with nothing but a window, door, toilet and three other women also bound for the border — Josefina Velasquez sank deep into despair.

Her cellmates offered no solace. They echoed what immigration officials told Velasquez just before putting her in the cell.

"We're all headed to Arizona," they said. After that, there would be a final trip across the Mexican border. "There's nothing you can do about it."

Velasquez, 36, whose belief in God was rooted in tradition rather than spiritual faith, thought of her son, her daughter and her husband back in Sonoma County and fell to her knees.

"God, if you really exist, please let me stay, let me stay here with my family," she pleaded. "He got me out of that room."

Velasquez was released on bail. Two years later, she is facing deportation. And like hundreds of thousands of other undocumented immigrants facing removal from the United States, she'll likely need another miracle.

That's because President Barack Obama's promise to rein in the deportation of people without serious criminal records largely has been a failure, according to immigration attorneys and advocates.

In June 2011, the Obama administration announced new ground rules for applying "prosecutorial discretion," or PD for short. The policy would focus immigration enforcement on serious criminals and high-priority immigration violations while allowing vast numbers of families facing deportation to stay in the country.

That November, immigration officials went about the arduous task of reviewing some 300,000 pending deportation cases, applying the new guidelines. Obama critics called the move a pre-election ploy to woo back Latino voters who had become disillusioned with record numbers of deportations under Obama.

In its first year, only 2 percent of the deportation cases reviewed under the policy were halted and closed, according to the New York Times. Since then, the PD approval rate has risen across the country, but not by much.

Between September 2012 and July 2013, only 7 percent of the 325,044 deportation cases reviewed by the federal government for leniency have been stopped through PD, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a nonprofit research group based at Syracuse University.

The rate of approval varies widely from one immigration court to the next.

On the high end, for example, PD approvals in immigration courts and processing centers in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico range from 37 percent to 42 percent. In Seattle and San Diego, the removal cases closed through PD both are 24 percent.

But at immigration detention centers in Houston, the approval rate is less than 1 percent. Compared to immigration courts, immigration detention centers in general have much lower rates of exercising prosecutorial discretion, a policy that can be applied by a wide variety of immigration officials at any stage of the enforcement process.

In San Francisco's immigration court — the second-busiest in California after Los Angeles — 6.7 percent of the 19,047 removal cases reviewed have been closed through prosecutorial discretion, or 1,277 cases. Los Angeles has a rate of 12.3 percent.

Federal officials counter that the TRAC data, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, understates the actual use of prosecutorial discretion.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the data does not account for all the instances where agents decline to initiate deportation proceedings in the early stages of an encounter with an undocumented immigrant.

Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency's officers, agents and attorneys "exercise prosecutorial discretion, as early in the process as possible, on a daily basis throughout the system."

But immigration attorneys say that in many cases they've encountered, the standard for PD approval has been set too high. They say that people with minor offenses, such as driving without a license, using a false ID or misdemeanor assault, continue to be deported.

"I have been disappointed, frankly, with how high the bar is," said Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney and member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County.

"Every once in a great while, some deserving soul gets a reprieve, but many have their requests dismissed without even a reason given," he said.

Coshnear cited a case where one of his clients, a man from Calistoga with 2-year-old triplets born in the U.S., one of whom has developmental issues — was denied without a reason given. Coshnear said he returned to the immigration judge and pleaded the case.

"Fortunately, we found a more sympathetic ear this time, and the request was finally granted," he said.

But in general, he said, "even a 7-year-old DUI, with no violations of law since then, seems to cause a denial."

Josefina Velasquez's request for prosecutorial discretion already has been denied once.

Two years ago, Velasquez said she was arrested at a Costco after she mistakenly handed a fake California ID to a cashier who was renewing her membership. The clerk had suggested that Velasquez switch her standard membership card to an American Express credit card offered by Costco.

Velasquez said she obtained the phony ID to get an apartment for her and her family. She said she made sure she never used it for financial purposes. For banking, she said she always used her Mexican matricula card or Mexican electoral card.

But on that day, she wasn't paying attention and the fake ID got stuck to her other identification cards, Velasquez said. By the time she realized what she had handed the cashier, it was too late.

The police arrived within five minutes.

After 15 days in jail, Velasquez was handed over to immigration officials and sent to be processed in San Francisco, an experience that still haunts her.

She eventually was released on bail. The removal order still hangs over her head. Between bail and attorneys fees, the savings she and her husband accumulated since 2000 is gone.

What's more, in the spring her husband was arrested on a DUI, his second. Ignoring his attorney's advice, he returned to Mexico voluntarily and tried to re-enter the U.S. He was caught and now is being held in an immigration detention center.

The family's attorney, Christopher Kerosky, said his success rate in getting prosecutorial discretion for his clients is about the same as the low national rate. He said he doesn't even bother applying for it in cases where an undocumented immigrant has been arrested or convicted of a serious crime.

Federal officials said the TRAC statistics do not reflect the fact that a significant share of denials are associated with immigrants who have been convicted of a crime. In fact, ICE says that the share of undocumented immigrants facing deportation who were convicted of a crime has grown significantly over the past few years.

In fiscal year 2008, only 31 percent of the 114,415 deportations involved individuals convicted of a crime. By 2010, that share had grown to 50 percent, and last year it was 55 percent, or 225,390 people.

But immigration attorneys and advocates point out that 45 percent of deportations involved undocumented immigrants with no criminal record.

Steve Scribner, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney, said all three cases that he has taken in the past year were approved for prosecutorial discretion. But these cases were "squeaky clean," where his client was a long-term resident, had family in the area and had absolutely "no bad record with immigration or the police."

Scribner and Kerosky both estimated that, excluding those who are arrested or convicted of a serious crime or who are a threat to the safety of others, the share of cases that are deserving of prosecutorial discretion is probably about one in three — a rate that's achieved only in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In 2009, Sam Evangelista was arrested for driving without a license while giving a friend a lift home after work. It was his second such offense.

The police officer, who approached Evangelista while he was parked outside his friend's house, ran his name and saw that he was on probation for previously driving without a license. The arrest led to an ICE hold and ultimately a deportation order.

Evangelista, who was illegally brought to the U.S. when he was 2 years old, said he's never had any other run-ins with the law.

"I don't even know how to speak Spanish that well," he said. "I don't even know anything about Mexico, I don't even know who the president (of Mexico) is ... I want to

stay because I have close friends, my family here. I love it here."

Evangelista's request for prosecutorial discretion was denied in 2011, but his attorney has appealed the decision. His final hearing is scheduled for next spring.

Evangelista also has applied for a different immigration program launched by Obama last year called "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," or DACA. He's still waiting for the government's decision.

That policy, which was also viewed politically as an election-year nod to U.S. Latinos, is aimed at giving undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children a break from deportation.

Velasquez's oldest child will be eligible for DACA next year. It's one of the few threads of hope she's holding onto now, and one of the reasons why she's fighting to stay.

"Is it worth it?" she said. "For my kids, it is."

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

Show Comment