Molly Mendoza

It's an understatement to say the Donald Trump administration has made life even more challenging for immigrants.

Since Trump took office, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have stayed busy rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation. Even so-called "dreamers" who have lived in the country nearly their entire lives aren't safe—like 25-year-old Francisco Rodriguez Dominguez, who came to the Portland area when he was five, and 21-year-old Emmanuel Ayala Frutos who's lived here since he was six.

ICE arrested 84 people in Oregon and Washington in a three-day span late last month, including two dozen with no criminal history. Alia Ghandi, a 29-year-old Iranian woman with a valid visa to visit her sister, was detained by customs officials at Portland International Airport last week, even after President Trump's Muslim travel ban was struck down in the courts.

So how is Portland responding, and what else can we do? The Mercury spoke with ACLU of Oregon Legal Director Mat dos Santos about what they do and what you can do to help in the greatest civil rights fight in quite some time.


MERCURY: How do you end up helping people who are detained?

MAT DOS SANTOS: It depends a little bit on what happens. [For people being detained at Portland International Airport], we deployed, along with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, attorneys to the airport to greet families, to monitor the situation so that when people are detained the families have a place to go to initiate contact with a lawyer. The families see these attorneys there eager with signs, they reach out to them and say "we haven't heard from our loved one," and then we start a process. We try to gather as much information as possible about that person: where they're coming from, what visa they're traveling on, what information their family has gotten, if any, about why customs is holding them, and then we start working our various channels. Calling customs to just try to get information, seeking to assist them through appearance of counsel, or in the case we saw last week—the woman detained from Iran—actually elevating the issue to the media, calling the congressional delegation, and in some instances calling state leaders who have pledged to help and asking them to make phone calls as well. 


Are lawyers at PDX all the time?

When the travel ban went into place, there were lawyers at the airport for all of the flights that could have been arriving from the banned countries. We scaled that back because the need just wasn't there anymore, until we saw the need crop back up last week with someone being detained from Iran. We're currently reassessing what that looks like. We have lawyers and folks from the refugee resettlement organizations greeting refugees coming in every time, but that's because we know about them in advance. If someone calls us and says they have a family member coming in from Iran or Somalia—some place where it might be problematic—and they ask us to show up, we'll either show up or give them our phone numbers so they can contact us. We sometimes field calls from people on our immigration hotline and explain to them what they can expect and how to plan for detention: having certain numbers available, who you're going to contact—your consulate, the ACLU, an immigration attorney that you've already worked with.

When it seems appropriate we'll tell the public what's going on. Right now, the public has been really effective at responding quickly, organizing protests at the airport, at the detention center, or other places that help us elevate the issues so that TV crews come and people like you start calling to ask me what's going on.

Other than trying to interject ourselves as counsel, a lot of what we're doing is organizing and mobilizing people, trying to inform the public about what's happening so they can get involved and express their concerns to their elected officials and agency folks who have been hired and are getting orders from Washington DC. 


It's sort of disheartening that an immigrant might not be treated as well by federal agents if there isn't the public outcry.

I, too, am saddened by the fact that people get treated depending on how much of a spotlight gets shown on their case. But it's the reality we live in. The thing that keeps me up at night is that I know for every person who calls the ACLU and we're able to elevate their story, there's probably six, eight, 10 more who had no idea to call and are still sitting in detention or who went by expedited deportation and we never even got to them. That's the part that's really heartbreaking. Just look, for example, at the action that happened in the Pacific Northwest last weekend, how many of those people made it into the news. It was 80-some people and maybe three of them made it into the news. 


How come so few of them make the news? Is it because they need to come to you first?

It is because they come to us. But if we find out about it, if I find out about it—if someone tweeted about it or posted it on Facebook or I happen to see it online, I will, if it seems like something we can help with, try and get in contact with the family. But sometimes I don't have a number or way to reach out, so I'm sending Facebook messages to so-and-so saying 'do you know this person? Can you please contact me?' That's how we found out about Emmanuel Ayala Frutos. This reporter, who works for Univision and MundoMax and runs a show called Cita Con Nelly, did a video sit-down with Emmanuel and his family, and several people sent me Facebook messages with the video. I reached out to her, Nelly, and asked to be put in contact with the family. It was 12 hours later I was able to get contact information. 

One of the things the ACLU of Oregon is committed to doing is to continue to work really, really hard to get out into the communities that we serve so they know to call us and, when we can, to partner with community organizations like the Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition, Causa, and others, is to really be on the ground. We're a staff of eight right now and there's only so many places we can be at any given time. I think that people think that the ACLU of Oregon has this gigantic staff because sometimes it can seem like we're everywhere at once, but it's really because we can call on volunteers and ask people to show up and they just say yes. It's not because we're some huge powerhouse full of people ready to go.


What does the ACLU's legal advocacy look like?

When the original [Muslim travel] ban was in place, we had lawyers there attempting to assist people who were detained for hours at a time. We tried to get them access to counsel, get lawyers in there, calling all the way up to the top of customs and saying 'I want to represent this person, I'm ready to file a G-28'—a notice for appearance of counsel in immigration issues—and then we'd get denials from customs at the DHS headquarters, saying 'no, you can't make an appearance, there's no right to counsel in these situations.' That went into the formulation and thinking behind the lawsuit we filed for Unite Oregon v. Trump, because before the ban was struck down, we really wanted to advocate for [the] right to counsel because people without that—unless they happen to see an attorney at the airport—people and their families literally have no idea what to do. We think it's critically important when the US government is making a determination, an adjudication, on your rights that you have a lawyer represent if you want one.

The other piece of it was actually... fighting the ban in a court battle, which played out all over the country more so than even here. It can also look like us taking on the representation ourselves, either through cooperating attorneys working with the ACLU, or through me or Kelly Simon, the staff attorneys at the ACLU, appearing on behalf of someone, or co-counseling with people. That stuff gets harder and harder to do because of resource constraints. There are literally two full time lawyers at the ACLU of Oregon. There are only so many cases we can take on ourselves directly, especially while we're doing all this advocacy work. We rely on volunteer attorneys to help us do that work.

These kinds of cases will play out in immigration proceedings, like the case of Alia Ghandi in the asylum context, or [like] Francisco Rodriguez Dominguez and Emmanuel Ayala Frutos are playing out in deportation proceeding context. We can play supporting roles, depending on whether we have the capacity and whether it feels like the right case for us. A lot of times we choose to play supporting roles, literally behind the scenes saying 'what can we do to help you, how can we do legal research that will benefit this case.'


What can non-lawyer citizens do to help immigrants or refugees who are detained?

One, responding to calls to action from the ACLU or other immigrant rights organizations is critical right now. Because legally, there is something called prosecutorial discretion, which allows immigration officials to determine which cases to prosecute all the way through deportation and which cases to abandon. One of the things to consider is community support and ties to the community, so-called legal equities. Having an outpouring of community support can be incredibly helpful to somebody's case if they're fighting a deportation charge. Actually responding and taking that script and making that phone call is helpful.

An example:


So it works when people go to rallies and call ICE about someone who's detained?

Oh yeah. What happened with Francisco was impressive. Him being arrested and released in a matter of about 24 hours—I could not have imagined that outcome 24 hours earlier. In fact, if you told me that would happen, I would say you're getting your hopes up. That was wildly successful. While he is still undergoing deportation proceedings, I think this will play a huge factor in it, that he has such huge community support. The other thing is I think people should really pay close attention to what's coming out of Washington DC, and when they see these kinds of policies coming out of the White House or Congress they should speak out about them. I know that people can feel issue fatigue or political fatigue, but in order for us to actually survive the next four years, we're going to have to stand up and use our voices regularly, and it can't just be coming from the legal director of the ACLU of Oregon, but from everyone—teachers, our neighbors, who just have these concerns as constituents.

The other thing people can do is continue to be supportive of these organizations. The ACLU may have some spotlight right now, but the Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition, Causa, Latino Network, Voz Hispana, Muslim Educational Trust, Unite Oregon—I can go on, and on, and on about the organizations doing on-the-ground work right now to support immigrants and refugees. They need help and don't have as much access to the media or have the spotlight that we do. We need to support and elevate the voices of the organizations out there doing this work, too.