Profiles in Justice: Immigration Counsel Caleb Arnold
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s (DAO) first-ever Immigration Counsel, Caleb Arnold, would at first glance seem to be an unlikely candidate to work in a prosecutor’s office. Arnold’s background includes work advocating for queer and workers’ rights, prison abolition, and helping to organize protests against the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, which resulted in their arrest and meeting then-civil rights attorney Larry Krasner. But it was their belief that the justice system, with all of its many flaws, needed to at least be more fair that compelled Arnold to become an attorney.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 2002, Arnold spent a year teaching in France before moving back to their hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., to spend time with their grandmother. Living there proved to be a seminal experience.
“It was the first kind of community that I lived in that had a vibrant and vocal immigrant community, where Mexican culture, language, and identity and interests are really talked about amongst the entire community,” they recall.
Arnold eventually decided to move back to Philadelphia and start law school just as they were about to have their first child. While pursuing their law degree in the evenings, Arnold worked as a legal assistant for Krasner. After graduating, they started work at the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender in Denver and had the opportunity to be part of an organization that lobbied for justice reforms at the state level while providing indigent defense for residents there. In 2010, Arnold and their spouse moved back to Philly to pursue immigration law work.
Arnold joined Green & Spiegel in 2014 and began managing the firm’s family immigration department, where they “evaluated all cases where the client had criminal contact, did deportation defense, both pre and post deportation/removal,” while also doing “niche work analyzing criminal contact and the immigration consequences stemming from that contact.”
After being elected District Attorney of Philadelphia in 2017, Krasner asked Arnold to join the DAO as immigration counsel. Krasner and Arnold have sought to model the work of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Immigrant Affairs Unit, which launched several years ago.
Disregarding immigration consequences for people accused of crimes means “you’re penalizing people’s kids, their partners, their communities, and causing just a ton of harm and trauma,” Arnold explained. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that people shouldn’t be accountable for the harm they caused. I think accountability is really core and important all of the time. We need more instead of less accountability, but it just needs to be less harmful and more compassionate instead of just punitive.”
Ignoring immigration consequences also results in a lack of access to justice for victims. Arnold points to one case in particular as an example: “When I first got to the DAO there was a person who was the victim of a serious assault but who also had an open DUI case. He was in deportation proceedings and we needed him as a witness.”
Arnold worked to ensure the individual was detained on higher bail — with the consent of his defense attorney — so that he could remain in Philadelphia and be a witness in his aggravated assault case. Arnold also works to ensure defendants charged with serious violent crimes are not deported so that they can remain in Philadelphia and victims can see their cases resolved in court.
“That victim doesn’t get any resolution [if a defendant is deported before trial]. All they know is their attacker is free in some other country to do whatever they want to do. Talk about exacerbating trauma.”
Ultimately, Arnold finds this work rewarding because it affords them the opportunity to ensure immigrants have equal access to the criminal justice system.
“I do a lot of victim support: helping with T- visas and U-visas, answering questions, supporting and doing outreach so that folks are able to participate, and then doing the work of evaluating criminal cases to make sure that our offers and sentencing recommendations take into consideration this often draconian and dramatic effect of deportation,” Arnold says. “We can have a dramatic impact on people’s lives and cases at the inception of the problem, instead of trying to fight back later. So it’s also extraordinarily efficient.”
When Arnold isn’t pursuing justice for undocumented and immigrant communities, they bake and practice tai chi for leisure and health.