2017 Writing Finalist

Nicolás Rivero

Northwestern University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

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News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera questioned Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez on Tuesday for scrapping the county’s sanctuary jurisdiction policy to comply with President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

Giménez was the first mayor to drop his county’s sanctuary status, citing a fear of losing federal funds. Herrera, however, sued to get a federal judge to block the Trump administration from making good on its threats to massively cut funding to sanctuary cities.

“I think what we’ve demonstrated is that there was really no need to act as quickly as the mayor of [Miami-Dade County] did,” Herrera said.

In January, Giménez called the decision a “no-brainer,” since it would only cost the county around $52,000 a year to hold undocumented prisoners in jail until Immigration and Customs Enforcement could deport them.

“I want to make sure we don’t put in jeopardy the millions of funds we get from the federal government for a $52,000 issue,” Giménez told Fox News.

But U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled last month that “federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration-enforcement strategy of which the president disapproves.”

Giménez’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

William Stock, President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said this ruling nullifies the pressure on local jurisdictions to cooperate with the federal government.

“The size of the hammer looks much smaller to a mayor looking at it now than the original order made it seem,” Stock said.
Herrera questioned Giménez’s motives.

“If the motivation of the mayor was that he was really fearful he was going to lose that money I think he acted precipitously,” Herrera said. “If, on the other hand, he was using that as an excuse because he really didn’t want to be a sanctuary city jurisdiction, then he’ll have to answer for that to his constituents.”

Five days after the mayor’s decision, 300 protesters gathered outside city hall chanting “Giménez! Shame on you! You’re an immigrant, too!” When the county commission ratified Giménez’s decision in a 9-3 vote, protesters in the audience shouted “Shame!”

But Javier Lopez, President of the Cuban-American Bar Association, said turning prisoners over to ICE is not an economic question, but a law enforcement question.

“They’re criminals,” said Lopez. “It’s a double whammy. They’re here illegally and they committed a felony. My position is, you forfeit your argument that you should be let go because of the crime that you’ve committed.”

The ruling in Herrera’s case will almost certainly be appealed and challenged up to the Supreme Court. But Stock, the AILA president, said Trump’s order is likely to be unenforceable.

“Every jurisdiction is entitled to make their decision about what fits their local needs,” Herrera said. “Now in Miami, we’ll see how people feel and they can applaud their mayor or hold him accountable.”

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Dennis Herrera has been a brawler since he was 8 years old.

When he was a second grader growing up in working class Glen Cove, New York, his teacher described him in a report card as a kid who liked to “spend his minutes in rough and tumble play,” but also knew “how to manipulate in order to get himself in or out of things.”

Three decades later, when Herrera was inaugurated as the city attorney of San Francisco and began a hard-charging reign battling gun manufacturers, payday lending scammers, and even his own state government, his mom framed the report card and sent it to him to hang in his office.

It remains there to this day, a monument to a lifetime dedicated to fighting and political positioning.

Herrera was born in 1962, the son of a registered nurse from an Italian family and a Colombian psychiatrist who immigrated to the US in the late 1950s. A devout Catholic, he attended a Catholic high school and went to Villanova University for his bachelors in political science.

He was less faithful, at least at first, to his political party. When he signed up to vote at 18, he registered Republican, like his dad. But when the party tacked right after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Herrera switched to the Democrats, who he felt better represented his liberal values.

While studying law at George Washington University in 1986, Herrera says he decided to move to San Francisco “on a lark.” He saw an ad in the Washington Post for striped bass fishing off of Seal Rocks and thought, “You know, I’d love to do that. I’ve never been to California.”

He flew out during Thanksgiving break with a stack of 100 resumes and went around town slipping them under law firms’ doors, locked for the holidays. He landed a clerkship in San Francisco that summer and came back as an associate lawyer after graduating from law school in 1987.

Herrera never planned to stick around. His mother, a staunch New Yorker, couldn’t believe he was living there in the first place. She visited him that August, and while trudging up Russian Hill remarked, “I don’t know what you see in this damn place. This is Queens with hills and bay windows.”

Herrera did manage to leave the city, briefly. Coming to San Francisco, he says, solidified his progressive views and got him involved with Democratic politics. After working on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, Herrera landed a job in the U.S. Maritime Administration and moved to Washington, D.C. But he quickly grew tired of the capital’s stale political skirmishes.

“Even then it was polarized,” Herrera said. “You tend to become bureaucratized. If you want to make a difference, you do it in your local community.”

So after two and a half years, he returned to San Francisco as a partner at the maritime firm Kelly, Gill, Sherburne & Herrera. After stints on the San Francisco Transportation and Police commissions, Herrera took a job as a deputy city attorney under Louise Renne, who remembers him as a talented attorney with a quick wit and a good sense of humor. When Renne announced she wouldn’t seek reelection in 2001, Herrera ran and won the office in an upset.

As city attorney, Herrera was keen on continuing Renne’s crusading legacy. He intended to use the office not only to counsel elected officials and defend the city in lawsuits, but to file affirmative lawsuits of his own – to pick fights with people he felt were hurting San Franciscans.

“In San Francisco, we have a tradition of city attorneys stepping out on these issues,” Renne said. “Dennis has upheld the tradition and I’m very, very happy about that.”

Herrera took on gun manufacturers for selling disassembled high-capacity magazines, banned in California, under the guise of “gun repair kits.” He sued Monster for marketing its energy drinks to children. And he investigated the state of Nevada for loading mental patients onto busses and dumping them in cities across California.

“A lot of these bad actors, they’re big and they have big law firms working for them,” said Matt Dorsey, Herrera’s longtime communications director. “Dennis will go in and mix it up with those guys in a way that a lot of people wouldn’t.”

In 2004, Herrera picked the biggest fight of his career. He advised San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on his decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Then he sued California over Proposition 8, the state law asserting that the only legal marriages were between a man and a woman. The legal battle worked its way from California state courts into the U.S. Supreme Court and ended with the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country.

Today, in his fourth term, Herrera is considering a run for mayor in 2019. (He lost an election for that office in 2011, during his third term as city attorney.) But his office is still kicking up dust on a national scale, especially now that Herrera has found his perfect adversary: the president of the United States.

“He’s picking the right fights if you measure them by the calculus of San Francisco politics,” Dorsey said. “We love taking on Donald Trump. And Dennis knows that.”

In January, Herrera sued the Trump administration over its threat to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities. On April 26, U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled in his favor, and blocked the administration from making good on its threat nationwide. The Justice Department will likely appeal the case up to the Supreme Court, but its lawyers have already vastly narrowed the list of grants that the federal government could take from sanctuary cities.

With the brash confidence of an 8 year old preparing to sock the playground bully, Herrera raised his salt-and-pepper eyebrows and said: “We’re not going to lose anyway. That executive order will not go into effect at all and we’ll protect cities nationwide.”

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Robert Chua was named after Robert Kennedy – that’s how enamored his father was with the United States.

Chua’s dad was an anesthesiologist living in Daly City, married to a clinical laboratory scientist, with five children. He always kept an American flag flying outside of their home, and he dreamed of the day he’d be called on for jury duty. But there was one problem: Chua’s dad was a fugitive – a citizen of the Philippines who would eventually overstay his American tourist visa by nearly two decades.

Chua, his four siblings and his mother were also in the country illegally. They would remain undocumented for seven years. Then, when Chua turned 13, his mother married her first cousin, an American citizen, to “fix” her and her children’s immigration status.

“They still haven’t discussed every detail of the whole ordeal with me,” Chua said. “My parents told me, ‘That’s the one thing you can’t talk about. It’s a secret. You’ll take it with you to your grave.’”

But today, as Chua watches Immigration and Customs Enforcement crack down on undocumented immigrants near his home in San Francisco, he feels compelled to speak up. In the last few months, the 29-year-old political consultant has joined hundreds of other activists and professionals organizing to monitor and respond to ICE raids across the city. Chua and others are sounding the alarm over increasingly harsh immigration enforcement under the Trump administration.

“ICE’s presence and visibility has gone up massively,” Chua said. “They’ve been going into places where they typically wouldn’t go before, like community centers, places that are supposed to be sanctuaries.”

ICE public affairs officers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On January 26, ICE agents walked into the Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, which tailors its education and child care services to immigrants in the Mission District, and began asking who was in the building. The department later told the LA Times that the agents were looking for a sex offender who they suspected lived next door.

Three days later, Chua met with organizers from the Faith in Action network in the basement of St. Agnes Church and agreed to join a network of ICE observers. Whenever organizers hear about an ICE raid, they text observers who live in the area. Those who respond go to the scene, monitor the raid, and take note if agents break any rules, like demanding to enter a house with an improper warrant. Chua says over 300 residents have signed up.

“We don’t necessarily have the luxury of being quiet anymore,” Chua said. “Whatever organizations you’re part of, you have to do something. A lot of us ended up stepping up in the best way we could.”

The San Francisco Immigrant Legal & Education Network, an alliance of 13 immigrant advocacy organizations, formed its own response to sharper immigration enforcement: a hotline where residents can call in reports of ICE raids. Ana Herrera, an immigration attorney with the Dolores Street Community Center, said SFILEN created the hotline both in anticipation of harsher ICE enforcement and in response to rumors of ICE raids swirling around the immigrant community creating panic.

For example, she said, her office got reports that ICE agents were rounding people up at the corner of 24th and Mission streets. Actually, they were just transit officers checking to see if people had paid their fares.

“People stopped sending their kids to school because of that,” Herrera said. “It’s still hard for undocumented people to trust that they’re not going to be turned over to ICE for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We want people to move about freely and feel safe, especially in San Francisco.”

Herrera says that when people call in tips to the hotline, SFILEN will try to verify the raid and, if it’s real, send an attorney to intervene on the detainee’s behalf. She says the hotline has helped her office send lawyers to get three undocumented immigrants released on bond so far.

But beyond ICE raids, Herrera says the federal government has taken a harder line on immigration in the courtroom, too. She says she and the immigration lawyers she works with have seen a sharp drop in “prosecutorial discretion” – that is, Department of Homeland Security lawyers deciding not to pursue deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants with strong community ties and no criminal records.

“We have many more people to defend from deportation under this administration,” Herrera said. “If you’re here and you’re undocumented, you’re a target now.”

Robert Chua remembers the phone call he got from his mother in 2010, while studying for a cultural anthropology final in his senior year at UC Santa Cruz. “You need to come home now,” she said. “We need to talk about your dad.”

When Chua got home, his mother told him his father was in deportation proceedings. He had been caught lying on a legal form at work. After nearly 20 years of hiding, he was exhausted and ready to give up.

Chua’s ears wouldn’t stop ringing. But his dad tried to look on the bright side. His wife and five children were citizens now. “Six out of seven ain’t bad,” he said.

“Him being sort of the martyr and willing to accept that despite being the most American of all of us was really painful for our family,” Chua recalled.

But at the 11th hour, an immigration attorney found a loophole that saved the family. He argued that since Chua’s father was born in 1945, when the Philippines was an American protectorate, he technically was born on American soil. Incredibly, it held up in court.
Chua’s father became a citizen in 2012. He couldn’t stop looking at his blue American passport.

Still, the harsher immigration enforcement Chua sees in his city today remains a sore spot.

“It goes beyond that person that’s being affected by it,” Chua said. “There’s this heavy sort of weight on everyone that has an immigrant background because of these policies.”

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