2017 Writing Finalist

Carter Walker

Pennsylvania State University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

Winning Stories

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

Dennis Herrera, attorney for the city of San Francisco, maintained confidence his office will win its lawsuit against President Donald Trump.

“We’ve already been successful on the motion for preliminary injunction,” Herrera said. “I think we’re ultimately going to be successful on the merits, and that executive order will not go into effect.”

On Jan. 31, Herrera’s office files a federal lawsuit against the president for his executive order threatening to strip federal funding from “sanctuary cities.”

Herrera argued the order is a violation of the separations of power in the constitution and an overreach of the president’s authority.

The City Attorney’s Office initially estimated the city faced a loss of more than $1 billion in funding for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, public infrastructure and public transportation.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Herrera said the administration has significantly walked back what funding it says is at risk, limiting it now to Department of Justice and Homeland Security grants, which total approximately $10 million.

“Even if we were to lose on the merits, they’ve walked it back so far that the financial hit to San Francisco would be very, very small, but we’re not going to lose anyway,” Herrera said.

In response to Trump’s claims that sanctuary cities have more crime because their policies harbor criminals, Herrera said that assertion is not grounded in the facts.

“The president has a habit of exaggerating, and his alternative facts are not facts at all,” Herrera said.

Herrera quoted statistics from a University of California, San Diego, study by Tom Wong, an assistant professor of political science, that showed crime statistics to be lower in sanctuary jurisdictions.

The study found there are 35.5 fewer crimes committed per 10,000 people in sanctuary counties.

Herrera said the president has highlighted specific instances of violence in sanctuary cities as an attempt to represent the issue broadly, even when those assertions are not supported by the facts. The President has frequently referred to the 2015 San Francisco murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant as a way to bolster his position for a border wall and stricter immigration enforcement.

In Trump’s recently released budget plan, he included a provision that would make significant changes to 8 U.S.C. § 1373, a law that dictates how local governments can direct their employees to deal with inquiries from immigration agencies.

Trump’s proposed changes would affect what power local governments have in restricting their employees in the information they provide to immigration agencies. It would also grant the secretary of Homeland Security and attorney general power to condition grants to state or local governments on their compliance with federal immigration agencies.

“I’m still very confident in the strength of our case irrespective of whether that passes in the president’s budget,” Herrera said, adding that he doesn’t believe it will. “It doesn’t impact my constitutional challenge one way or the other.”

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When asked what first attracted him to San Francisco, Dennis Herrera said it was striped bass that brought him to the city by the bay.

“I was in law school in Washington, and I was thinking about where I wanted to interview for that summer,” Herrera said. “I was reading the Washington Post sports section, and on page two it had a description of striped bass fishing off Seal Rocks. I was like ‘you know, I’d love to do that.’”

Enticed by the fishing scene, Herrera flew to San Francisco in the fall of 1986 and began slipping his resume under the doors of law firms in search of an internship.

“I got a job out here for the summer of 1987, fully intending that I was only going to be out here for the summer,” Herrera, who has served as the city’s attorney for over 15 years, said. “That law firm then gave me a job offer for when I was done with law school, and I decided ‘yeah I’ll do that for two years, then I’m going back to New York.’ And here we are.”

Herrera, who stands about five-foot-eight-inches tall with an athletic build, was born in Long Island, New York, in 1962. He spent his formative years on the East Coast, receiving his undergraduate degree in political science and government in 1984 from Villanova University and his Juris Doctor from George Washington University in Washington D.C. in 1988.

After helping with the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, he was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Maritime Administration in 1993. He served there for almost three years before returning to San Francisco to take a partnership with a maritime law firm, where he remained until taking his current position in 2002.

Running for an elected office was suggested to him more than once, but Herrera said he did not want to run simply for the sake of holding an elected position.

“I knew that the one job I would be interested in was this one,” Herrera said. “Ultimately, that evolved, and there came a point where I decided to run for mayor.”

His 2011 mayoral bid was unsuccessful though, losing out to incumbent Ed Lee.

Herrera said he has tried to continue the legacy of his predecessor, Louise Renne, by pursuing affirmative litigation beyond what might be considered the duties of his office.

His many cases include a lawsuit against gun manufacturers that skirted California laws, a suit defending tenants from a predatory landlord and a fight to keep the city college’s accreditation from being revoked.

Arguably his most notable endeavor was the ten years he spent pursuing marriage equality for California’s same-sex couples, which brought his office national attention.

After then-mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, Herrera defended his client’s actions and eventually filed a lawsuit against the state of California for discriminatory marriage laws, which he won. When opponents of the decision countered with Proposition 8, his office served as co-counsel on the case as it eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was struck down.

“I remember meeting him and thinking ‘oh my god, you have such beautiful eyes,’” Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and co-council to Herrera on the marriage equality case, said. “What became clear [when we began working together] was that he really has a commitment to do justice and to do it fiercely, even when there are forces that are arrayed against you.”

Despite the respect Herrera and his office have earned, a recent lawsuit threatened to tarnish that reputation. Joanne Hoeper, a former deputy city attorney, alleged other office employees had received kickbacks for approving unnecessary sewer replacement contracts.

A jury awarded her $2 million in May for her wrongful termination suit, though Herrera said no kickbacks were revealed by any of the resulting investigations, including Hoeper’s own.

James Baldridge, a partner at Venable LLP in Washington D.C. and a 1987 graduate of George Washington Law School, remembers Herrera well.

He first met Herrera on the steps of the university’s book store, and it was his outfit that first caught his eye.

“There was this guy who had on preppy khaki pants and a kind of preppy shirt, but he always wore flip-flops. The guy wore flip-flops until there was snow on the ground,” Baldridge said. “I said, ‘who’s this clown with the flip-flops wearing the button down and the khakis? He looks like my kind of people.’”

Baldridge said they instantly connected and became friends. At Baldridge’s wedding party in 1985, he “got the biggest kick” out of how Herrera rode in the bed of his father’s truck.

“To this day, I can still remember him sitting in the back, this Long Island boy,” Baldridge said. “I don’t think he’d ever seen one.”

He said he is proud of his friend because unlike other most others, Herrera has remained dedicated to his beliefs as he has aged. Though Herrera is open to hearing and considering all arguments, he will adamantly and intelligently defend his views, Baldridge said.

Currently, Herrera is pursuing litigation against the Trump administration for the president’s executive order threatening to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities, a case Herrera said he is confident he will win.

As for the future, Herrera said he has not ruled out the possibility of another mayoral run in 2019, though that decision is still down the road.

Baldridge said the best word to describe Herrera is simply that he is “real.” He said when talking with Herrera, he never questions his intentions or suspects any subtext to his words.

“What you see is what you get, and it’s very real.”

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In the five months since President Donald Trump took office, the city of San Francisco has become a microcosm for the immigration reform debate going on around the country.

His desire to crack down on illegal immigration has led to protests, legal actions and general concern among the immigrant community in the city.

“In a Trump administration all immigration laws will be enforced,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Arizona in August of 2016. “[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and Border Patrol officers will be allowed to do their jobs the way their jobs are supposed to be done.”

Despite Trump’s hard line, there are those in the community who have chosen to taken a stand against Trump’s policies and fight for the immigrants in their community.

One such group is the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Education Network, a coalition of 13 local organizations providing legal assistance and educational resources to low income immigrant families in the bay area.

“I think it’s pretty evident by his policies and executive orders that immigrants are a target,” Marisela Esparza, a program manager for SFILEN, said.

She added that the administration has laid out specific priorities for what sections of the immigrant community they are targeting. The parameters for possible targets has now been expanded so broadly that even some green card holders are fearing their citizenship status, Esparza said.

According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, San Francisco ranks 11 out of 20 metropolitan areas with the most estimated unauthorized immigrants. There are an estimated 35,000 unauthorized immigrants living in the city, many of whom could face legal hurdles under Trump’s stricter stance on immigration, according to the study.

After the election, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee met with several community programs, including SFILEN, to discuss their concerns about the incoming administration.

Shortly before President Trump’s inauguration, Lee announced that he would be allocating an additional $1.5 million on top of the $3.8 million already set aside to support the legal needs of San Francisco’s immigrant community.
“San Francisco is a Sanctuary City and will not waiver in its commitment to protect the rights of all its residents,” Lee said in a statement on the allocation. “This year’s $1.5 million will be critical in expanding and bolstering the services our community-based organizations provide to support and protect our immigrant families.”

Esparza said that in addition to a concern for their residential status, immigrant community member have also resisted using public services that they are eligible for because they fear being caught by immigration enforcement. Some even worry about things as routine as taking their children to school, she said.

Dolores Street Community Services, Esparza’s primary organization and the lead agency in the SFILEN, recently implemented a program designed to assist undocumented immigrants in the event of an ICE raid. A 24-hour hotline operating in English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese was set up so that immigrants or their neighbors can access legal assistance immediately in the event of an ICE sweep.

The program, which began on March 2, connects community members to legal representatives who will verify if the reported activity is an ICE operation and if the agency is operating legally.

When the hotline receives a tip about ICE operations such as check points or neighborhood sweeps it sends SFILEN personnel to the area to advise immigrants of their legal rights, and to intervene in deportation proceedings if needed, according to their website.

“The civil liberties infringement at the heart of recent ICE raids and sweeps has broad implications for everyone,” Ana Herrera, managing attorney at Dolores Street Community Services, said in a press release. “Residents and families are not obligated to submit to searches and coerced ID checks while engaging in law-abiding activities, which means that these broad ICE enforcement actions often involve an element of deception or coercion.”

In the event that community members at detained, SFILEN attorneys on standby will meet the individuals at ICE processing centers and advocate on behalf of their clients to halt the deportation process and secure their release.

Esparza said that at the beginning of the administration, and as far back as the election, the immigrant community was very afraid and shut off, but now that mentality is beginning to change.

“It’s not like [the community] is no longer afraid, but they believe their rights and joining together,” Esparza said. “[That is] more important than their fears and they are not going to let their fears stop them from exerting their rights.”

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