In Defense of the Ultimate Underdog

— 'Let's say that you're an American man, living in France, and you meet and marry a French woman. You decide to spend your honeymoon in America, and while you're here your wife discovers she loves America and wants to live here. You think, Why should we go to an attorney when all that's involved is filling out paperwork? How hard can that be? So, you go down and get all the necessary INS forms and you fill them out and submit them, only to find out you have committed fraud. Your wife entered the U.S. on a tourist visa and now she wants to immigrate. The INS calls this 'contradictory intent'; in other words, the presumption is that your wife entered this country ostensibly as a tourist, but what she really wanted to do was immigrate. And so now your wife has committed fraud and is subject to deportation, and it is up to you to prove why your wife's deportation would cause the two of you 'extreme hardship.' You also have to prove that your wife initially intended to come to America as a tourist.

"You're an American. You speak English. You have a general idea of your rights. And yet you're probably extremely confused by all this, how you and your French wife have gotten into this situation. Imagine what it would be like for someone who didn't speak English. Who had no idea of his rights. Who didn't know who to turn to for help. To clear all this up, to at least keep your wife from being deported, you have to submit a stack of papers about this high."

Attorney Ali Golchin, executive director of Sofia Immigration Services, holds thumb and index fingers about two inches apart. Tall, dapper, good-looking, his smile is rueful.

"So, when people think immigration law is only a matter of 'paperwork,' they really don't understand how complex immigration law is. What they think of as 'paperwork' is actually a minefield. The example I gave may sound extreme, but I deal with cases just like it all the time. I had one recent case in which a Romanian man, a refugee, was married to a Mexican woman. She'd entered the country legally on a tourist visa and ran into the same difficulties, and the INS was going to deport her. Here we had a Romanian man who'd been granted refugee status by the U.S. government, and I had to show why it would be a hardship for him to go and live in Mexico with his wife if she were deported. This sort of thing happens all the time, and every time it does, people are shocked. They say, 'My God, I come from a good family. I'm a decent person. I've never committed a crime in my life, and now I'm accused of committing fraud!' "

Golchin taps a slick, 500-plus-page edition of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, the Republican-designed labyrinth of legalese that details the hundreds of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots of becoming an American citizen.

"This thing is full of traps, and if you don't know where they are, something as simple as filling out a form can get you in a lot of trouble."

The trouble with getting into a lot of trouble with the INS is that you technically haven't committed a crime. Immigration is not a matter of criminal but civil law, and when you run afoul of civil law, you have no right to a court-appointed attorney. If you are a wealthy prospective immigrant in trouble, you hire an immigration attorney whose fees often run about $150 per hour. But if you, like many immigrants, can't spend $150 per hour for an attorney, you either represent yourself (generally not a good idea), languish in detention, allow yourself to be deported, or you turn to someone like Ali Golchin.

"Our services are means-tested. We work on a sliding scale. We offer our services for very, very little, and, in many cases, people pay nothing at all."

Of the four nonprofit agencies in the county offering legal assistance to indigent immigrants, Sofia carries the largest caseload, every month assisting about 200 clients who come from more than 80 countries. While the majority of these matters involve making sure tricky forms are filled out and submitted properly, two to three times a week Golchin argues cases at Immigration Court, a short walk from his West C Street office. Last month he argued 13 cases.

"I'm tired," he says, rubbing his forehead, his brown eyes weary. "I'm taking most of February off. I'm going to spend time with my family. I'm going to read. I'll go for walks in the park. I may do some research. I'm going to try to not think too much about immigration."

An Iranian immigrant, 39-year-old Golchin is something of an anomaly. He came to San Diego in 1976 and lived with his brother. Like many Iranian immigrants, he went on to study a hard science, biochemistry. He didn't, he says, really enjoy it, and while he was at San Jose State University he joined the debating team.

"I found out that I really liked a good argument and that I was good at it. I decided to go to law school."

While it wasn't unusual for Golchin to go to professional school -- most Iranian immigrants do -- what was unusual was how Golchin decided to use his professional education. Most Iranians don't make a career in nonprofit social service.

"What happened is that when I was 19, I was nearly deported. My student visa had expired and so, technically, I was here illegally. The INS caught up with me and was going to deport me. I had no money for an attorney. I didn't know what I was going to do. I couldn't go back to revolutionary Iran. I decided to represent myself. I had 40 days before my deportation hearing, and so I spent that entire time at the downtown law library. I was there every morning, waiting outside with my cup of coffee, waiting for the doors to open. I spent all day in the library, learning everything I could about immigration law. When my hearing finally came, I stood before Judge John Williams and represented myself and I won.

"Several years later, when I was out of law school, working at the Centro de Asuntos Migratorios, another nonprofit legal-aid society for immigrants, I went before Judge Williams on my first case. Judge Williams said, 'Is this your first time in court?' And I said, 'No, Your Honor, actually it's my second. If you'll remember I represented myself before you a few years back.'

"It was my experience as an immigrant that really guided me toward using my degree for helping immigrants. I wouldn't say it's a religious conviction. It would be more accurate to call it a spiritual conviction to help the poor."

Golchin comes from what he calls a "semi-religious" Muslim family. Sofia is what he jokingly describes as a "Muslim-Catholic joint venture." Sister Trudy Considine, a San Diego native and a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, founded Sofia with Golchin in 1995. Sister Considine had taught for 20 years in Catholic schools from El Cajon to Seattle. She returned to San Diego in the mid-1980s because she wanted to learn Spanish. By 1990 she was doing legal work on behalf of immigrants. Officially, Sofia is a project of the Society of the Sacred Heart and receives most its funding from Catholic charities. Sofia's mission statement claims the organization "strives to be a prophetic voice on behalf of immigrants, migrants, and abused women and children."

"What keeps me going," says Golchin, sitting in his spartan office, "is keeping families together, whether that means preventing a deportation, or arranging reunification, or making it possible for parents to work so they can provide for their children. Or even helping some woman who's been brought to this country by her husband, only to be beaten and abandoned. There she is with her children. No way to provide for them. She doesn't speak the language. She doesn't know what to do or where to turn. We help many women like that.

"I'm also motivated out of a sense that the immigrant is the ultimate underdog. This country has a hard time appreciating immigrants and all the ways they contribute to our society. Immigrants generally don't have anyone to stick up for them, to educate them about their rights. In their own communities they often have people who cheat them. People -- they call themselves 'notaries' -- who claim they know all about immigration law and make fabulous claims and promises. Often they don't know anything about the law. They take hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars from people, truly desperate people, and they either do nothing, or they end up making a person's case much, much worse.

"At Christmas time, I get stacks and stacks of Christmas cards from former clients. All year long I get invitations to baptisms, bar mitzvahs, quinceñeras, you name it. All from families I've helped keep together. My calendar is full."

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