Fighting ICE: Network of legal warriors combat surprise deportations

Bay Area collaboratives help combat roundups of residents picked up by broad court orders.|

Dialing for Justice

The Rapid Response number for Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties is (707) 800-4544.

The North Bay Organizing Project is online at

Vital Immigrant Defense Advocacy and Services:

The Sonoma County Secure Families Collaborative:

The California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement:

It may have been an old fashioned word-of-mouth tip that kept a Glen Ellen woman off the one-way plane to Tijuana last month. The 60-year old grandmother, who has lived in Sonoma for about 20 years, found herself at the ICE field office of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), at 630 Sansome St. in San Francisco – the sharp edge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s activities.

But as far as she knew, no one knew she was there. Not her husband, her children, or her grandchild, or her many friends. The abuela (Spanish for grandmother) was picked up at the Glen Ellen Post Office on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 6, and the postmaster said the staff didn’t notice. She went there to pay her bills, leaving her 4-year-old grandson in the care of others. Several men in khaki uniforms picked her up, loaded her in an SUV and drove her to San Francisco.

She arrived at the detention center before noon, and in talking to other people rounded up in the morning raid – several of whom had legal representation lined up – the abuela said that she didn’t have a lawyer. Word spread quietly but effectively, and in another room Katie Kavanagh, the emergency legal responder for the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ), heard that someone needed a lawyer.

Kavanagh was at the detention center to represent two other Sonoma County undocumented residents at risk of being deported, that same day, in the aggressive ICE campaign. One was another Sonoma resident, a family man who actually owns property in Sonoma and has lived here for 40 years. But though he was ordered removed in 2006, it took a single arrest two years ago to get him back on ICE’s radar. The other was a Healdsburg woman, likewise a long-time resident.

Both of them had been called into the the 24-hour hotline at the Rapid Response Network at (707) 800-4544, part of the North Bay Organizing Project’s ongoing efforts to combat the feared round-up of undocumented residents that accelerated in the Trump administration.

Extraordinary circumstances

Kavanagh unfortunately was not able to help the other two, and feared that this case, the woman from Glen Ellen, might be another failed effort. But when they met and talked (on a phone with a plate of glass between them, as in the movie scenes of a prison visitation) and Kavanagh heard the abuela’s story, she realized there was a strong argument to appeal her detention – “extraordinary circumstances,” a valid legal reason to stop the detention and immediate deportation of the 60-year-old woman.

Kavanagh, 38, has lived in San Francisco since 2005, though she returned to her home state of New York to get a degree in immigration law. “I'm dealing with people who are in really precarious legal situations,” she said. And often, precarious emotional situations as well. In the abuela’s case, she had missed a 2018 hearing for renewal of her green card because she had lost two close family members in an auto accident, and was in no emotional condition to go to immigration court.

Kavanagh wrote up the legal appeal by hand and then “ran the motion to a different courthouse in downtown San Francisco” – the San Francisco Immigration Court at 100 Montgomery St. – “to file the motion on her behalf.”

It was a necessary and, as it turned out, essential step. “Fortunately, with the argument I was making, the law says that once you file that sort of motion to reopen a deportation order, under ‘extraordinary circumstances,’ that deportation is automatically stayed.”

With the motion filed, Kavanagh raced the two long blocks back to the ICE field office on Sansome to present the stay-of-deportation order to ICE. The abuela was released, and her son drove to San Francisco to pick her up.

“It was really the ideal outcome we could have had in this situation,” said Kavanagh. “She was slated for deportation the day she was picked up at the post office.”

ICE crackdown

Her abduction (or capture, or seizure, or removal) was part of a nation-wide ICE crackdown in July and early August. That campaign, according to a series of ICE press releases dated Sept. 1, sent more than 2,000 Mexican nationals back to Mexico, taking them from their homes, work and family in enforcement-and-removal operation.

ICE said that their officers arrested “more than 2,000 at-large individuals living illegally in the U.S., or who are removable from the U.S. due to their criminal histories. About 85 percent of those arrested by ICE on immigration charges also had criminal convictions or pending criminal charges.”

Henry Lucero, the executive associate director of ICE in charge of apprehensions, detention and deportations, said the rest of those arrested include immigrants who were ordered deported by an immigration judge but did not leave, those previously deported who had reentered the U.S., and so-called collateral arrests.

The abuela and the other area residents who were caught up in this wave of arrests seem to fit the category of those for whom a removal order has been issued, but many did not know that as none of them had criminal convictions or pending criminal charges. While there is no reason to doubt the immigration authority’s overall figures, the local exceptions show that some that have been caught up in these widespread enforcement actions – particularly troublesome during a stay-at-home pandemic – were breadwinners and family heads being rounded up for immediate deportation.

Kavanagh added that, with the San Francisco region’s class action litigation around the dangers of COVID in detention, she thought the campaign intentionally targeted people “who they would not need to detain because they couldn’t detain them locally. I think they were going after people they could deport the same day.”

Coalitions and collaboratives

Kavanagh is interim legal director and lead rapid response attorney for the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, “a coalition of pro bono legal service providers that offers coordination, advocacy, and legal services to the detained immigrant community in Northern and Central California.”

They partner with the Sonoma County Secure Families Collaborative (SFC), created by the Board of Supervisors in 2018. It has a similar mission as CCIJ, focusing on assisting immigrant families in Sonoma County.

“We formed as a collaborative anticipating widespread sweeping ICE raids,” said Associate Director Chandler Jordana, 30, who has been with the Secure Families Collaborative since March of 2019. Though the sweeps ”didn’t take place as extensively as we thought,” he said that he expected “an uptick in such activity if Trump is re-elected.”

The collaborative has since expanded their activity to include not just defending long-time residents against deportation, but defending legitimate asylum seekers and those who have been adjudged to be deported. “We’re very committed to keeping Sonoma County families together,” said Jordana. “We strongly condemn these unjust actions.”

In the case of the abuela, Jordana said drily, “Rather clearly she was no threat to the community or a dangerous person in any sense of the word.”

“I think they were going after people they could deport the same day.” Katie Kavanagh

Kavanagh’s motion to reopen the deportation order came the day following the abuela’s return to Glen Ellen, and the North Bay Organizing Project assigned her a lawyer, Richard Coshnear. “We’ll be working on her defense against deportation,” he said. Then he added unbidden, “I’ve seen an enormous number of friends in the community who have written me positive things about her, and I’ll pass that on to the court.”

Coshnear was adamant that Kavanagh’s quick work made it possible for the deportation order to be re-opened. “Katie did the wonderful work of filing a motion to reopen the case, and by filing that motion ICE could not at to take her to Mexico.”

‘It makes a huge difference...’

The lawyer, who works with VIDAS Legal (for Vital Immigrant Defense Advocacy and Services), a partner in the county collaborative, explained how it was that the abuela, and the other two Sonoma residents and a Napa man, were picked up for removal. “It’s very common, it’s called an in absentia notice of removal – if someone is given notice for a hearing and doesn’t show up, the judge enters the deportation order.”

The entire structure of immigrate support services – in Sonoma County, in northern California, in this state and others – is an interlocking apparatus of skills and effort, duties and challenges to help keep families together. Often, it all starts with a phone call – to the Rapid Response Network at (707) 800-4544.

“It makes a huge difference for someone in that situation to be able to talk to an attorney,” said Susan Shaw, Executive Director of the North Bay Organizing Project which runs the hotline and other programs.

“We’ve had 3,128 calls since launch, which was November of 2018, and 331 calls in the first seven months of the year,” said Shaw. They cover Napa and Solano as well as Sonoma counties. And however important the response to legitimate calls is, it’s also important to vet the tips they get – which are often are based on rumors, misunderstandings, and second-hand information.

“Those rumors, that are actually fueled by,” she paused, “the President, they scare people, it’s terrible.” She said once a tip is shown to be valid, either of a pick up or the presence of ICE in the community, the information is shared on their Facebook page.

But for those who make a legitimate call to the Rapid Response Network, it can mean the difference between immediate deportation, and fighting ICE with the law.

Of the abuela’s current status, said her lawyer Coshnear, “She’ll be going to court later this year. It’s not her last court appearance, it’s just her next one.”

Email Christian at

Dialing for Justice

The Rapid Response number for Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties is (707) 800-4544.

The North Bay Organizing Project is online at

Vital Immigrant Defense Advocacy and Services:

The Sonoma County Secure Families Collaborative:

The California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement:

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