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Thirty-eight years as a prosecutor afforded Mike Mullins a good long look at the nation’s immigration laws. And he didn’t like what he saw.

People in the United States illegally who were convicted of relatively minor offenses faced deportation, while other defendants were allowed to remain in the country.

At times, it seemed arbitrary and unfair, he said.

“My impression was and still is that immigration law lacks logic,” Mullins said.

So after retiring in 2011, the former two-term Sonoma County district attorney decided to do something about it. He began volunteering each week in a special program at Catholic Charities, offering legal advice to immigrants trying to attain documented status so they could stay with family and avoid being kicked out.

He also volunteers at Legal Aid of Sonoma County, using his experience to help low-income people apply for temporary restraining orders and fight evictions.

“It’s kind of an intellectual challenge and something where you can really help people,” Mullins said.

His work was recognized by the Sonoma County Bar Association, which named Mullins the “unsung hero” for 2014.

“Here is a guy who could spend summers in Alaska and winters in Bermuda yet he doesn’t do that,” said Peter Steiner, the association’s executive director. “He is giving his time for free. I think it’s fabulous.”

The famously tight-lipped prosecutor said an old restaurant robbery case from Rohnert Park inspired him to help immigrants navigate the system. He recalled that one of the defendants who played a minor role admitted being an accomplice. But her plea meant immediate deportation. And she had a 4-year-old daughter.

Mullins was so moved by her situation that he agreed to amend the charges and let her admit a lesser offense. The conviction allowed her to stay in the country with her child.

The case stuck with him over the years, he said.

“It’s something I remembered,” he said. “It pointed out the somewhat arbitrary nature of our current immigration laws.”

Until recently, Mullins, a longtime Kenwood resident, had not set foot in a Santa Rosa courtroom in more than a decade. He lost a bid for a third term as Sonoma County’s top prosecutor in 2002, and worked his last eight years as a Solano County deputy district attorney.

But in his new volunteer role, he’s made a return to the Hall of Justice. Out of habit, he identified himself as “Michael Mullins for the People,” but quickly corrected himself.

“I said, ‘oops,’ ” recalled Mullins, 72. “I have always enjoyed the courtroom. I still like being around it. But I don’t have to be there every day.”

Mullins started as a Sonoma County prosecutor in 1973 and was elected district attorney in 1995. He tried the late Kentucky Pendergrass, a former fair board director who shot and killed his estranged lover in 1981 and caused the death of her husband. Pendergrass died last year after spending 28 years behind bars.

Mullins also oversaw several high-profile trials, including the prosecution of Richard Allen Davis for the kidnap and murder of 12-year-old Petaluma resident Polly Klaas. Davis remains on San Quentin’s death row.

As district attorney, Mullins oversaw 200 employees and a $15 million budget.

In retirement, he traveled for about six months with his wife, Elizabeth, and enjoyed his grandchildren.

Then he started to look around for something to “exercise my brain.”

His Legal Aid duties include assisting with guardianship and eviction issues and doing research.

At Catholic Charities, he helps people who were brought into the U.S. illegally before they were 16 and are now under 31 years old with filing paperwork that could defer action on deportation. He estimates he’s helped more than 100 people since he started.

In one recent case, a woman from Mexico sought his help in preventing her teenage son from being deported. Mullins agreed, but he also helped the woman.

She didn’t know it, but she was entitled to a special visa because she had in the past been a victim of a crime and willingly assisted in the prosecution. Mullins informed her of the situation and put her on a path to citizenship.

“People who are undocumented get all kinds of erroneous information,” Mullins said. “They become prey.”

Mullins said he was heartened by President Barack Obama’s executive action to spare up to 5 million people living illegally in the United States from deportation. He urged politicians to set aside partisan differences to embrace it.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Mullins said. “It’s not about building walls at the border. It’s about keeping track of those who are here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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