On the morning that Alfonso Maldonado Silva was set to argue his first case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Ca., he was too nervous to even drink a glass of juice for breakfast.
So he decided to head to court early to review the case one last time. He said a short prayer asking for wisdom, then he showered, dressed in a neatly pressed gray suit, and on an overcast morning last April, headed out the door with his evidence binder in hand. He had been up since 5 a.m.
Maldonado, a third-year law student at Western State College of Law in Orange County, had left nothing to chance. This would be his first time arguing a case in court before any judge. So he had arrived the night before to stay in a Pasadena hotel to avoid the clogged commute from his Corona apartment during rush-hour.
The only thing on the 28-year-old’s mind was the law.
Much was riding on this case. Maldonado and his fellow law student, Cristel Martinez Medina, were representing an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant, Juan Carlos Beltran, whose ability to stay in the United States to fight his deportation order depended on today’s argument before the federal appeals court.
The decision would not likely set precedent, but for Maldonado, the ability to defend Beltran, a Palmdale father of three, was not only a task he took seriously, but one that he connected with personally.
In a twist that their law school professors said is extremely rare for law students arguing cases like this, Maldonado and Martinez are both beneficiaries of the President Barack Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Like their client Beltran, they lack legal status here in the United States.
DACA, which marks its five-year anniversary this month, allows immigrants who arrived as children to the United States and who meet certain requirements to request a temporary two-year reprieve from deportation as well as the authorization to work.
President Donald Trump, despite his campaign vow to eliminate DACA, reversed course this summer, and in mid-June the Department of Homeland Security announced that the agency would honor the terms of the original program. DACA, however, is still in jeopardy. In late June, almost a dozen attorneys general from Republican states threatened to sue the administration if the White House doesn’t phase out the program by September.
Trump has praised DACA recipients as “incredible kids,” but if he doesn’t rescind the program by the Sept. 5 ultimatum deadline set by the coalition of attorneys general, lead by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the issue will head to the courts. There, former Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said, DACA would likely not survive a legal challenge.
The cleanest option for the Trump administration would be to sunset the program, stop approving applications, and encourage Congress to find a legislative solution, a Democratic congressional staffer told CNN. But reaching bipartisan agreement on this polarizing issue will be challenging.
Maldonado and Martinez have both navigated the pitfalls of the immigration system. Martinez’s request for asylum went as far as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and was still pending when she applied for DACA in 2012. These experiences have made them more effective at advocating for those they’ve represented through the school’s immigration clinic, said Law Professor Jennifer Lee Koh, who is Western State’s immigration clinic director and also helped supervise the students on Beltran’s case.
“They weren’t doing this for the prestige. They weren’t doing it to put it on their résumé. They were doing it to become better advocates and acquire stronger skills, and also… to change the system,” said Koh.
Maldonado’s parents brought him to the United States from Mexico as a 5-year-old. He grew up undocumented first as a young boy in Santa Ana, then as a student and migrant field worker in Lamont, a farming community near Bakersfield, Ca. So he is intimately familiar with the uphill battle of petitioning the U.S. government for legal status—he and his family waged it for years.
Inside the courtroom that April morning, his parents and other family members (including relatives visiting from Mexico) squeezed onto wooden benches to watch the field worker-turned-aspiring attorney face a panel of three black-robed judges.
Just before his case was called, Maldonado’s mother slipped him a small crucifix and whispered “with God, all things are possible” to her son, who tucked the crucifix in his coat pocket and walked to the lectern.
After arranging his notes, Maldonado greeted the judges, who sorted through the case documents and glanced at the young man who had crossed a border, learned a new language, lived in an abandoned house to afford college, and picked grapes and watermelons on his summer breaks to get to law school so that one day he could stand in a courtroom to make his case.
But the judges knew none of this as they peered over their spectacles and listened. The case would hinge entirely on Maldonado’s and Martinez’s grasp of immigration law and their ability to convey how the immigration court system had failed one man.
“Good morning your honors,” Maldonado addressed the court. “May it please the court. My name is Alfonso Maldonado, a certified law student under direct supervision of Andrew Knapp, representing Mr. Juan Beltran.”
So it began.
Beltran’s case reveals systemic issues in immigration court system
It’s difficult to know exactly what issue the Ninth Circuit Court judges will zero in on when a case is before them, said Western State College of Law Adjunct Professor Andrew Knapp, who represented Beltran pro bono and supervised Maldonado and Martinez. Their case was part of the Western State College of Law Immigration Clinic’s first Ninth Circuit Project, which trains law students to argue before the appeals court.
In Beltran’s case, the students focused their argument around the immigration judge’s failure to properly advise Beltran about his potential eligibility for various forms of relief from deportation. Without the proper advisals, Beltran had made a decision on the spot during his immigration court hearing to waive his right to an appeal and opted for voluntary departure, which the judge told him would allow him to apply to return to the United States in the future.
At the time, however, Beltran could have applied to renew his Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which the federal government grants to immigrants from certain countries for circumstances such as civil war or natural disasters.
Beltran subsequently sought to contest the removal order before the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), but was turned down because of his appeal waiver. So Beltran sought a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court so that his case could be remanded to the BIA, which would give him the opportunity to challenge the government’s removal order and apply for other forms of immigration relief.
Beltran’s case illuminates a systemic problem within the immigration court system, said Koh. A majority of immigrants lack legal counsel in immigration court removal cases. But Koh pointed out that whether an immigrant has an attorney or not, (Beltran did), it’s the immigration judge’s responsibility to ensure due process.
“Immigration judges should be held to a standard in which they get the law right and they don’t pressure non-citizens into making choices that are not informed,” said Koh.
She added, however, that blaming these issues on bad judges is not fair either because the immigration system is overwhelmed with too many cases and not enough resources.
“We’ve set things up in a way that makes it difficult for judges to get the law right every time,” said Koh. “It doesn’t mean that the standards should be relaxed, it means that we do need to have this mechanism for an appeal and for judicial review.”
A journey across borders: “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to make it.”
It was Martinez’s first immigration court hearing that inspired her decision at age 9 to become an attorney. She says she realized at that age how elusive attaining legal status as a permanent U.S. resident would be.
“I thought ‘Oh, the judge is going to understand that I had to come here because my mom is here. She’s going to give us papers,’” said Martinez. “Of course it was nothing like that. The judge mentioned deportation and I knew what it was. I thought ‘Oh my God, there’s something wrong with this justice system. I need to fix it.’”
The criminal stigma attached to her undocumented status, in particular, bothered Martinez. So she told her mother that when she grew up she was going to be an attorney, and Medina took her seriously. She knew that her daughter’s ability to survive the journey from her native Honduras as a 9-year-old gave her the type of fortitude that can bring down barriers.
“I’ve never painted a rosy, Disneyland-like picture of life to my children. Never, ever. They’ve always known that to attain something you have to make sacrifices. I always told them that they could have whatever they wanted… as long as they made sacrifices,” said Medina in Spanish.
It’s a will to survive that runs in the family. Medina, a single mother, initially left Honduras to reunite with her own mother in the United States and to earn money to support her three children, whom she left in the care of relatives. Medina’s intent was to return to Honduras, but the separation hit Martinez hard. The 8-year-old’s grades plunged, she fell into a depression, and she lost weight from malnourishment. So Medina changed the plan.
At the time, Medina said her daughter was fragile because she had lost so much weight, so over a long-distance call she asked Martinez if she would be able to withstand the journey from Honduras and the border crossing into the United States. Her daughter was resolute.
“I told her ‘If you can afford to pay for it, don’t worry about me. I’m going to make it,” said Martinez.
Medina set about raising the money to pay a smuggler to bring Martinez, her brother, and two other relatives, including their step-grandmother. In all, it would cost $25,000—a seemingly impossible task.
Medina took every job that came her way: cleaning homes, selling Mary Kay products, and working as a security guard. For nine months, she even worked as an amateur boxer in downtown Los Angeles, earning $400 for five-minute boxing bouts organized as entertainment shows.
“It was very difficult. I got beat up a lot. It wasn’t professional boxing, it was just for entertainment, but the punches were real,” said Medina.
“If there was one thing I knew how to do well, it was to fight for something,” said Medina.
By the following summer, Medina had saved enough money, and Martinez and her relatives started out from Tegucigalpa, Honduras on what would turn out to be a three-month journey to cross three countries by foot, bus, and even a river-raft made of bamboo and used-tires.
The group was deported three times—once from Guatemala and twice from Mexico. But for Martinez, the toughest part of the trip came when they crossed into the United States and then hiked mostly in darkness for several days to reach a pick-up location near a Texas watermelon field.
The smuggler told the migrants that everything would be alright once they reached the watermelons. For the exhausted 9-year-old girl, the image of a field filled with thirst-quenching fruit represented hope for a new life. So she pushed onward.
“Knowing that I could die there, but knowing also that this country provides so many opportunities—that I could become something that probably I wouldn’t have been in my country—I think that gave me the strength to be like OK, I know it’s going to be hard, but I just have to fight for it,” said Martinez.
For Medina, her children’s three-month trek was filled with many sleepless nights and days in which where she couldn’t eat because she had a thousand questions and a thousand worries.
“It was very difficult, very hard. Very hard,” said Medina, her voice cracking. “I thought that I was never going to see them again, that they wouldn’t be able to cross the border. I thought: what was going to happen to my children?”
The group did reach the watermelon field, but they were later detained by U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement agents, who processed the family through a detention center, then released them. The children, their aunt and step-grandmother then boarded a bus for Los Angeles, and Martinez was reunited with her mother in the summer of 1999.
The new beginning also marked the start of another journey: the U.S. government opened proceedings to remove Martinez and her brother from the United States, a move that would have separated them once again from their mother.
“I knew I was crossing the border, I knew it was illegal, I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know the consequences after that would be ‘you’re never going to be able to work legally or do a lot of stuff like drive, like get a driver’s license,” said Martinez.
Despite these barriers, growing up in Los Angeles at that time and in the wake of the anti-immigrant fervor that swept California in the late 1990s, Martinez was not afraid of revealing her undocumented status to others. She was upfront with teachers about her lack of a social security number. She would reassure classmates, “we can do it,” reminding them that she too was undocumented, but was still striving to get good grades.
“I was 9; I crossed the border. To me it was empowering. It still is because it made me who I am,” said Martinez. “I remember thinking: It was so hard to get here, so I have to make the best of it.”
Her attitude might have been partially a defense mechanism, she said, but she also remembers clearly that she didn’t want to hide just because she was undocumented. She joined organizations that aided neighborhood street vendors, serving as an interpreter for adults who feared going to the police to file crime reports.
She researched local laws and police practices, realizing then that she could use her education to help others.
But as Martinez made her way through school, the political landscape began to change toward students such as herself known as DREAMers, named after Congress’ proposed 2001 legislation: The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) that would have granted a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship to undocumented young people brought to the United States as children.
While efforts to fix America’s immigration system stalled in the 2000s, alternatives such as Obama’s DACA initiative became a lifeline for many young immigrants. Over the past five years, almost 800,000 individuals have received DACA, according to the latest data. But with the program’s fate in question because of a potential court challenge, Martinez knows there are no guarantees.
How to save a life
For two law school students who had never argued before the Ninth Circuit Court, Martinez and Maldonado didn’t let on in class that they were out of their league. Last January, during a session in one of their law school’s conference rooms in Irvine, Professor Knapp commended their thoroughness in preparing a court brief for Beltran’s appeal.
Most of their preparation for the case involved researching legal decisions to make their argument. In all, Martinez estimated they had pored over more than 200 cases, and cited more than 80 in their first brief to the court.
Even as they worked through the exhaustion of late nights spent researching, long commutes home, and a rigorous law school workload, Martinez said that by being able to provide Beltran a shot at getting lawful permanent resident status, the case had given her a sense of empowerment.
“I know the impact that it’s going to have on his life and on other cases if it gets approved, and I know that we’re doing something right. I just don’t know what having status feels like. So I can imagine it’s going to make them happy and it’s going to change their lives. But we’ve never had that, so—,” said Martinez, trailing off.
The students had joked among themselves about the irony of two undocumented students legally defending an undocumented immigrant, imagining themselves winning the case but being detained afterward.
“The judges are going to be like: ‘OK, he’s free to go! but these two…,’” said Martinez, chuckling at the thought.
The students feel they were meant to defend Beltran.
“I’ve always said, you can talk about poverty, but if you haven’t been poor you really don’t understand what poverty is,” said Martinez, noting that the immigrants she’s worked with have opened up to her about their lives because she’s made the same journey.
The fruits of his labor: Alfonso Maldonado’s journey from farm worker to law school
Like Martinez, Maldonado was also inspired to become an attorney because of his family’s struggles to attain legal status.
Maldonado’s family moved to Lamont in California’s Central Valley after his father saved enough money to buy a truck and became a truck driver. And although his parents were also farm workers, they insisted that Maldonado, the eldest of their four children, focus on his studies.
But the family struggled financially. For years the Maldonados ate on the floor because they couldn’t afford a table. Their meals consisted primarily of Cup O’Noodles, recalls Maldonado. So when he turned 16, he headed into the fields on his summer breaks, picking and packing grapes, and sorting and bagging potatoes at a packing facility.
As he harvested everything from watermelons to cantaloupes, he got to know the other workers. Some were undocumented and afraid to file overtime claims or sexual harassment complaints because of their lack of legal status. This too inspired Maldonado to seek a law career, one where he could focus on immigration, labor, and employment law.
But Maldonado often wondered what the point of getting an education and a law degree would be if he couldn’t work. This was before DACA went into effect in 2012, and before California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in 2013 allowing undocumented immigrants to be licensed to practice law in California.
“So every action I took was like, I’m still going to go to college, but in my head I was like, why are you doing all of this? Where in the world are you going to get the money to pay for this,” said Maldonado.
With the help of scholarships, he attended community college, then transferred to the University of California, Riverside where he relied on the money he earned in the fields and the help of his parents to pay for tuition. But when his dad injured himself on the job, his family’s aid trickled dry.
Because of this, Maldonado couldn’t afford the $700 room rental where he slept on flattened cardboard boxes, so he moved into an abandoned house his classmates rented. The house’s sinks were clogged and filled with algae, only one bathroom worked, and the water supply was cut off for more than a month.
During a visit to Riverside, his mom, Lorena Silva de Maldonado, discovered the conditions in which he was living in, and she broke down.
“I said to my son: ‘How is it possible that you ended up living here?’ ‘I said ‘Why?’ He said ‘I didn’t want to trouble you because I knew you didn’t have much either,’” said Silva in Spanish, crying as she recalled the memory.
So Silva did what she knew best. She got to work making and selling food—everything from home-made tacos to pots of menudo stew—to help her son pay for rent and tuition. She knew her son was torn, always drawn back to Lamont’s fields because he wanted to help his family.
“When my husband had an accident and he couldn’t work and we didn’t have enough to eat, that’s when my son started picking watermelons,” said Silva. He pulled 12-hour shifts in the fields and packing plants.
“Against the winds and tides, he’s been very focused and that’s given him more strength to keep growing,” said Silva.
Silva saw her son hesitate only once on that journey, after he graduated in 2013 from UC Riverside and was struggling to get a loan for law school.
“He thought that we couldn’t afford to keep helping him and he didn’t want to bother us anymore,” said Silva. “…I said if he wants to go to law school, I will find a way—even I have to collect recycled cans—but he’s going to study.”
Judgement day arrives
The day that Maldonado and Martinez went before the Ninth Circuit Court in Pasadena, Medina also brought neighbors and friends from her MacArthur Park neighborhood, an area near downtown Los Angeles where many Central American immigrants have settled. These friends had donated food such as tortillas to accompany the Honduran dishes that Medina made and sold to raise money for her daughter’s law school bills.
“These are people who have supported us and helped us and they don’t expect anything in return, but it gives them joy to see her achieve this,” said Medina.
It was, in essence, a community investment, which Martinez paid back in turn by helping Beltran—a stranger, an immigrant who could have been any one of those neighbors. Seeing her daughter that day in court, was a triumph not just for Medina as a mother, but for everyone who stood behind her, she said.
“It was my daughter standing before three judges fighting on behalf of someone we didn’t know, but fighting with passion,” said Medina.
After the U.S. Department of Justice attorney finished her argument, Martinez followed with a short rebuttal that focused on Beltran’s potential eligibility for Temporary Protected Status. With that, the hearing wrapped up in less than 30 minutes.
“Thank you very much Ms. Martinez,” one of the judges, Carlos Bea, commented. “We thank counsel for a very nice presentation. Very good presentation. Congratulations.”
On May 8, the Ninth Circuit Court issued its decision in Beltran’s case. The judges agreed with the arguments made by Martinez and Maldonado based on previous case law that a waiver of the right to appeal is invalid if an immigration judge misadvises an individual about his eligibility for relief. With the case remanded to the Board of Immigration Appeals, Beltran can now explore all of his options for immigration relief, said Knapp.
And although the decision doesn’t set precedent, he said, the decision can be cited in future cases because it expands existing case law slightly by finding an appeal waiver invalid if an immigration judge fails to provide proper advisals regarding eligibility for relief.
“It might just be a little chink in the armor to try to enforce due process,” said Knapp.
Law school graduates living in limbo
Studies have shown the diverse benefits that DACA recipients have had on U.S. society, including contributions to the economy and the workforce. By giving these DREAMers a legitimate place in their communities, DACA has “significantly boosted” their incorporation into mainstream American society, one report found.
In May, Maldonado and Martinez graduated from Western State College of Law with honors and awards, and with a law degree grounded in the real-world knowledge that they absorbed over the last year working on Beltran’s case.
More than anything, the experience drove home the point that most Americans are unaware of how deeply flawed the immigration system is, they said.
“Here we are two undocumented students trying to navigate this legal system that even us—with… a lifetime of personal experience, and a whole year of guidance and doing nothing but eating, breathing and sleeping over this one case—and still being unable to completely and truly understand the complexity of immigration law,” said Maldonado. “How do we expect other people to do so when they’re before an immigration judge without representation?”
The reality is that the law is far from clear, said Maldonado, pointing to U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have grappled with these complexities.
“Even if it were black and white, even if it was very clear cut—this is how you do it legally and this is how you don’t—the lives of the immigrants are not black and white,” said Maldonado.
In July, Martinez and Maldonado took their bar exam, but won’t know if they passed until mid-November. So in the interim both are searching for law-related work.
Though he spent this summer buried in his books preparing for his bar exam, Maldonado heard the rumblings about Trump’s shifting stance on DACA and the danger the program faces.
He was heartened by the news last month that two U.S. Senators, Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), had introduced new Dream Act legislation that would grant permanent legal status to young immigrants, as well as the Bridge Act to protect current DACA recipients.
Because California law allows undocumented attorneys to practice law, Maldonado knows that even if DACA were challenged, he would still have the ability to defend immigrants and promote those rights.
“I don’t think that at this stage [my undocumented status] will prevent me from pursuing my goals. It didn’t before and it’s not going to now,” said Maldonado.
It’s a fighting spirit shaped in the watermelon fields of California for Maldonado and in Texas for Martinez, where the fruit was more than just a thirst quencher. It was a symbol of the life ahead.
It’s impossible to know where the stories of these DREAMers will end, but Martinez and Maldonado start from a basic premise that all people are created equal and have a right to due process.