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Meet the lawyers fighting the federal government to save their clients from deportation

The San Francisco Immigration Defense Unit is a team of eight lawyers with the public defender’s office who represent people threatened with deportation. 

When the unit first started last year, there were only two other units like it in the country.
They take on cases that feel like longshots. They represent immigrants, some who have criminal convictions. Some can’t afford lawyers, or can’t find attorneys willing to take the chance and represent them. Most detained immigrants don’t have attorneys at all.

Immigration reporter Ninna Gaensler-Debs and Justice reporter Holly J. McDede spent this past year following this unit to find out what happens when a team of lawyers try and bring representation to immigration court.

Meet the lawyers with the Immigration Defense Unit

Credit Ninna Gaensler-Debs / KALW
Francisco Ugarte, managing attorney of the office's Immigration Defense Unit.

Francisco Ugarte is the managing attorney of the office's Immigration Defense Unit. He was hired by the San Francisco Public Defender in 2014 as the office’s first full-time immigration attorney.

"Public defenders stand up for people and defend their humanity regardless of the crime they're charged with."

Credit Ninna Gaensler-Debs / KALW
Gabriella Rodezno

Gabriella Rodezno considers herself a baby attorney. Before she joined the San Francisco Immigration Defense Unit in the Spring shortly after passing her bar exam. While she’s new to the Immigration Defense Unit, she says she’s a public defender at heart who was born for this job.

"There is no case that I wouldn't defend. There is no charge I wouldn't defend. I think you can find the humanity in everyone, it's whether you have the time and patience to do so."

Credit Ninna Gaensler-Debs / KALW
Heliodoro Moreno

Heliodoro Moreno came to the Immigration Defense Unit in June after working as an immigration attorney with a private firm for seven years. He says after the 2016 election, he wanted to do more to fight for immigrants who otherwise could not afford to have lawyers.

"I don't want to destroy the system. People should have the right to remain here. And the law should be applied faithfully. But it's not. It's always like, how can we deport this person faster?"

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Ninna Gaensler-Debs is a reporter and editor for Crosscurrents. Since 2012, Ninna has worn a variety of hats at KALW - she was both a producer and event planner for Localore project Hear Here. Ninna also programmed and organized the Sights and Sounds live events - two in Bayview, and most recently, one in East Oakland.