Immigration attorney and former DACA recipient Alfonso Maldonado ’13 risked deportation to help separated migrant families.
By Hayley Fox
It’s about 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in October and immigration attorney Alfonso Maldonado ’13, coiffed and suited, grabs his mason jar full of breakfast oats and embarks on a commute he knows all too well.
Heading north from the Riverside outpost of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, or IMMDEF, Maldonado makes the more-than-50-mile drive to the bleak, Adelanto U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in the midst of the Mojave Desert.
It’s here he meets with clients; most, newly arrived immigrants to the United States seeking asylum. At any given time, Adelanto can house up to 2,000 detainees, held anywhere from a few months to a year while their cases maneuver the legal system and a determination is made as to whether they’ll be legally allowed to remain in the U.S. or deported to their home countries.
“My very first trip to Adelanto I was terrified,” said Maldonado, 30. “I was terrified of going to a place where immigrants were detained.”
That’s because Maldonado is not only an immigrant — he crossed from Mexico into the U.S. with his family when he was a kid — but his legal status in the U.S. was in flux until late 2018. Maldonado, a former Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipient, was legally able to work in the U.S. and temporarily protected from deportation only through his participation in the program. He received a green card in October.
While the DACA classification once provided a sense of stability, policy changes under the Trump administration have threatened the security of immigrants like Maldonado.
Although Maldonado said his pressed suit and “attorney” title functioned somewhat as a protective cloak on his initial visits to Adelanto, he questioned whether once he made it into the heart of the facility — past the security guards and prison-like gates — if he’d ever be allowed to leave.
“Before going there I texted friends and family, telling them, ‘If you don’t hear from me by the end of today, you need to call my … professor at law school, and you need to tell her to come here, because they probably detained me,’” he said.
Now, about a year into his practice, Maldonado represents roughly 20 clients at any one time; many are fathers separated from their families and held at Adelanto. Maldonado also works with entire families detained in government facilities or living temporarily with family members as he argues their cases for asylum.
A form of protection reserved for refugees who are already in the U.S., asylum is a status that many are eligible to apply for, but only a small percentage actually get, Maldonado explained.
Many of his clients are desperate to escape homelands where they’ve witnessed murders, had their physical safety threatened, or been persecuted for their race, religion, or political opinion.
“Their only option is to flee and leave everything behind, everything they know,” he said.
Securing asylum is becoming increasingly difficult as some of the long-established qualifications for refugee status were chipped away by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
For example, victims of domestic violence whose governments refuse to protect them are now more likely to face denials of asylum and be deported.
While there’s a steep learning curve for any new attorney, Maldonado entered the field of immigration law at a peak of chaos and flux.
“The biggest hurdle right now is that everything is changing constantly,” said Mickey Donovan, an attorney with IMMDEF who oversees the firm’s Riverside office. “None of the changes are good for our clients.”
Donovan has worked with IMMDEF since it was founded in 2015, and she said although working in immigration law can be discouraging, Maldonado always manages to keep a positive outlook.
“I’m Mexican by birth, but …this is where I grew up. This is all I know.” — Alfonso Maldonado ’13
In addition to the complexities of the constantly changing legal landscape, new attorneys like Maldonado have to quickly learn the eccentricities of different judges, such as their personalities and what aspects of the law they’re sticklers about, as well as navigate the many courts and bureaucratic systems from Riverside to downtown Los Angeles.
“Also, it’s an emotionally draining time to be an immigration attorney,” she said, especially for lawyers like Maldonado who have their own immigration stories.
IMMDEF has many DACA recipients on its staff, and supervisors are aware of the additional stress this status can create, Donovan said. These individuals are advised to take care of themselves and “celebrate the small wins.” For Maldonado, his first win couldn’t come quickly enough; it took him a few months of toiling through cases before he secured his first asylum grant for a client.
Maldonado crossed the border with his family into the U.S. when he was just 5 years old. He grew up in the small town of Lamont, about 10 miles outside of Bakersfield, surrounded by both immediate and extended family. Located in the Central Valley’s agricultural stretch, his mom packed clementines and baby carrots for shipment. His dad, a truck driver, hauled produce for companies like Costco, and now transports cars.
“He was always on the road,” Maldonado said.
During breaks from school, Maldonado, his mom, and his sister would pile into the semitruck and accompany his dad wherever he was headed; from Oregon to Texas, Colorado, and beyond. His parents would sit together up front while he and his sister would hang out in the back in a mini bunk bed. When he wasn’t traversing the Western U.S. with his family, Maldonado spent weekends at family barbecues or heading down to Bakersfield to hit the mall. He considers the United States his home.
“I don’t know Mexico. I don’t know how life there is,” he said. “I’m Mexican by birth, but … this is where I grew up. This is all I know.”
It wasn’t until Maldonado was a 17-year-old at Arvin High School and planning to apply for his driver’s license that he discovered he “didn’t have papers.”
“That’s how we say it,” he explained.
At the time, Maldonado’s friends were taking their driver’s tests, and he asked his mom to help him schedule an appointment. She quickly told him he’d be unable to get a license because he didn’t have a Social Security number. Maldonado thought that not having this nine-digit identification number was the only impediment he was up against; so he asked his mom how to get one.
“‘You can’t; you can’t; you can’t,’” he recalled her telling him repeatedly.
Without a Social Security number, Maldonado would also be unable to apply for college financial aid, and he soon realized the real reason he didn’t have one — he was undocumented.
“It wasn’t only not having a Social Security number, it was being considered to be here illegally,” he said. “I couldn’t conceive (of) myself as being a criminal or having done something against the law.”
Maldonado kept his status a secret “for a very long time,” and was reticent to tell friends the reason he didn’t have a driver’s license because he was worried they’d no longer like him. He also had to be extremely cautious when on the road because a simple traffic stop could snowball into having the car impounded — or even him being deported.
Looking back, Maldonado said he now realizes that of the many Mexican students on campus, he was one of the only ones who never returned to Mexico over the holidays to visit family.
“I didn’t think much of it to be honest,” he said. “But now, thinking back, that was the only distinguishing factor,” between him and his peers, Maldonado said.
Upon graduating high school and starting college, he began slowly adopting the identity of an “undocumented student.” At UC Riverside, he started to join community and campus groups and share his personal story for the first time. At first, this process felt horrible, and he cried, Maldonado said. But soon, it became liberating. He was encouraged by the throngs of people who stepped up to help him.
“School for me was a safe place,” he said. “It was a place where I didn’t really have to fear being deported.”
Maldonado chose to attend UCR because it checked a lot of boxes for him; it was a UC school that was close to home, had a Chicano student program, and its population consisted of students with whom he could identify. It also proved to be a major source of support, thanks to UCR’s robust network of resources and advocacy for its undocumented students, their families, and the larger Riverside community.
Roughly 800 undocumented students attended UCR in 2018. Campus organizations that exist to help them include Providing Opportunities, Dreams and Education in Riverside, or PODER, which assisted Maldonado in his DACA application; and Undocumented Student Programs, or USP, a multifaceted operation that helps students secure legal help, apply for financial assistance, land internships, and more. To expand UCR’s system of legal support for undocumented students and their families, the school hired its first full-time immigration attorney in June 2018.
Ana Coria, USP program coordinator, oversees the organization’s diverse efforts, including outreach at local high schools and community colleges, mental health services, and workshops on career development. Coria said the USP team has seen a surge in the number of students seeking help, often from those who are “mixed status,” meaning they are U.S. citizens, but their parents are undocumented. These students often ask about legal services for their parents or for help filling out financial aid requests if they have to include their parents’ personal information.“Every time they look at the news there’s something going on with immigration,” Coria said. Students ask: “What’s going on? How worried should I be?”
Coria and Maldonado attended UCR at the same time, and both were members of PODER, the student-run operation founded in 2008 that served as a type of precursor to USP. The two were also in a political science class together and the same study group, Coria said, adding Maldonado was always extremely friendly, easygoing, and hardworking.
More than anything, he struck her as humble, she said. He rarely shared the fact that he had to balance his academic load with returning home to work in the fields with his family picking Cuties mandarins.
“No one ever thinks a UC student has to go work in the fields to pay for tuition,” she said.
During Maldonado’s final year at UCR, he learned of the DACA program. Despite the excitement surrounding it, he didn’t rush out to enroll. He, like many others, was afraid to come out of the shadows; after all, he’d have to tell the federal government who he was, where he went to school, where he lived, his family’s name, and more — all for the possibility of securing a work permit. It took him about four months to build up his courage, but with help from USP and UCR campus organizations like PODER, he eventually submitted his application. The day he got his work authorization card he was “over-the-moon happy,” Maldonado said.
“I immediately … made an appointment with the Social Security office and the DMV to get my driver’s license,” Maldonado said with a laugh.
He was so ecstatic about receiving a California driver’s license that he was itching to show it off in a way he never imagined possible.
“I wanted to be stopped by police!” Maldonado said, acknowledging the strange highs and lows of his journey. “It has been an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “It definitely has.”
Maldonado selectively shared his DACA status with clients. While it created a “fairly unique” personal connection with those he represents,
he also feared it could tarnish their perceptions of his ability to represent them, and raise concerns that if Maldonado got deported, the client would be left without an attorney.
Outside of attorney-client relationships, Maldonado has become increasingly outspoken about his status and said his parents are, more than anything, proud to see him helping their community. His mom finds every opportunity possible to mention her son’s work as an immigration attorney, and often calls him with the cases of friends of family members in need of representation. His parents recently secured permanent residency in the U.S.
“No one ever thinks a UC student has to go work in the fields to pay for tuition.” — Ana Coria, Program coordinator, Undocumented Student Programs
“They’re no longer under threat of deportation,” Maldonado said.
He has also made a lasting impact on immigrant families outside his own. Samantha Mak is the sister and caretaker for her younger brother, Keo. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents, Samantha and her family moved to the U.S. when she was just 4 years old and her brother was 2. By the time Keo was in his 20s, he had developed a drug problem, according to Samantha, and had schizophrenia. He also got into trouble with the law, having been charged with felony arson and a few misdemeanors for petty theft.
“Mentally ill and drug use is not a good combination,” Samantha said. “Any issue could put you at risk of losing your green card.”
In 2017, her brother was picked up by ICE and detained at Adelanto. He faced having his permanent residency revoked, which meant he’d have no rights in the U.S. and be sent back to Cambodia, a country he has never set foot in.
“I felt like it was going to be a death sentence for him if he got deported,” Samantha said.
With the help of Maldonado and IMMDEF, Keo was protected from deportation and had his green card reinstated.
Receiving a green card is now a feeling Maldonado has experienced firsthand. Because he had family members petition for his lawful permanent resident status before April 2001, Maldonado qualified to receive the designation without having to go through the consular process, though it left him with mixed emotions.
“I could not help but think of all the hatred my undocumented-self had experienced, and now, all of a sudden, I would somehow not be part of that group anymore,” he said. “I question whether the ‘illegality’ that was typically associated with my presence here had now immediately vanished. And if so, what changed? Because for me, nothing significant did.”
Although Maldonado passed the bar and became an immigration attorney at a time of dramatic upheaval in the law, he’s learned to transform the asylum denials into motivation to push forward. He’s also optimistic about the future of DACA and hopes it will evolve into a more permanent solution for the immigrant population targeted by the program. In large part, he said, this will require the current administration recognizing what an asset these people are to the country.
“It’s a very difficult time to practice immigration law, but it’s also the time where we need more people the most,” Maldonado said. “We need people to join the fight.”
DACA: A brief history
President Obama announces the rollout of DACA, which was created through an Executive Branch memorandum.
U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services begins accepting applications for DACA.
Obama announces his intention to expand eligibility for the DACA program. Republicans resist, and a lawsuit is filed by dozens of states.
At a campaign event in Arizona, President Trump states he will “immediately terminate” DACA if elected.
Trump announces he will begin phasing out the program, with a planned end date of March 2018. As of this date, nearly 800,000 immigrants had been protected from deportation through DACA.
A federal judge in California blocks Trump from rescinding the program and orders his administration to accept DACA renewal applications.
A second federal judge, this time in New York, temporarily stops Trump from ending DACA.
A third federal judge overrules Trump, ordering him to not only accept renewal applications, but reopen the DACA program to new applicants.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the previous ruling that Trump can’t end DACA, meaning the injunction allowing DACA to continue remains intact. Trump states publicly that he will take the fight to the Supreme Court.
DACA vs. The Dream Act
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, is an effort led by Democrats to give lawful permanent resident status to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. In large part, it focuses on immigrants who were younger than 18 years old when they came to the U.S. and haven’t committed any state or federal crimes. The bill has yet to be passed by Congress after more than 16 years of failed attempts and revisions.
As a result, in 2012 President Barack Obama created DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers a level of limited protection to some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Through DACA, people who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday, were under the age of 31 when DACA passed, and are currently in school or graduated from high school, are eligible to receive a work permit and temporary protection from deportation. While this allows recipients to obtain a driver’s license and social security card, it doesn’t provide a long-term pathway to permanent residence or citizenship.