Jackson Hole’s only two practicing immigration attorneys can’t accept any new cases.
For the first time since opening its doors in 2006, Trefonas Law, PC notified the community Feb. 20 that it can’t handle more cases, except for emergencies. Attorney Elisabeth Trefonas attributes the surge in demand for immigration legal help to a mounting fear and anxiety in the local immigrant population.
“A fear that the applications are going to be changed, a fear that doors are going to be closed,” Trefonas said. “People are getting married this week. There’s a sense of urgency on it. It started with the election, but it has not slowed down.”
Trefonas generally handles deportation defense cases and colleague Rosie Read specializes in benefits like visas and citizenship. So far they have accepted three emergency cases and started a waiting list that already has four people.
As Trefonas Law has become increasingly overburdened with cases, other local organizations and nonprofits are stepping up to provide Jackson’s immigrant population with more resources in a difficult and highly specialized area of the law.
Trefonas Law used to be able to juggle the number of immigration cases brought to it, because cases often drag on for years. But when the firm started getting hired after every consult the caseload became too much.
“If there’s a case, we’re hired,” Trefonas said.
Instead of waiting months to return with requested documents, clients would come back the next day, feeling a new sense of urgency. They grow anxious when Trefonas tells them she’ll get to their case after being in an unrelated trial this week.
“There’s this panic,” Trefonas said, “and if it can be done, clients want it done now.”
The October announcement that the federal government was revoking the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program led to even more demand for immigration legal help. DACA offers young people who entered the U.S. illegally as minors protection from deportation and eligibility for work permits.
An uptick in visits from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Jackson has also contributed to the influx of cases.
“Every time they show up that phone starts ringing,” Trefonas said.
Lack of attorneys
Teton County has plenty of lawyers, but not just any attorney can handle immigration cases, and pretty much only Trefonas and Read do. The field is specialized and constantly evolving. Just as only specialized lawyers can help with tax cases, most attorneys aren’t familiar enough with immigration law to take deportation defense cases.
“It’s such a convoluted system,” Trefonas said. “It’s not a logical system, and it doesn’t make much sense.”
Immigration cases are considered administrative, rather than criminal, which means there’s no Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Rather, defendants in immigration cases have a 14th Amendment right to due process and a fair hearing. When people are detained they’re given a list of attorneys who could accept a pro bono case, Trefonas said.
“You don’t have a right to an immigration attorney,” Trefonas said.
So only clients who can even afford to hire an attorney can mount a proper defense.
“If you have resources you can buy time,” she said. “If you don’t have resources you can’t pay bonds and you can’t pay lawyers. There’s very little pro bono help for a deportation case.”
Trefonas’ hourly rate is hundreds of dollars less than other attorneys to help accommodate immigration clients.
“When a dishwasher makes $17 an hour I’m well aware they’re busting their butt to come sit and talk to me for an hour,” Trefonas said.
While Trefonas Law fees are lower than those of other attorneys in Jackson Hole, the firm still has to charge for its services.
“This is not corporate law. We’re not in this for the money,” Trefonas said. “If we could be a not-for-profit, we would be.”
Trefonas Law is open to expanding and hiring a third attorney, but finding someone who meets all the qualifications is more challenging than it seems. Trefonas said a lack of affordable housing is a major obstacle.
“The first question is, ‘Do you have a housing plan?’” she said.
The second qualification that can make adding immigration attorneys difficult is a requirement that they speak Spanish. While some attorneys have applied to work at Trefonas Law and members of the community have volunteered to file papers or assist in other ways, that’s not what’s needed.
“We always get people calling, emailing us saying, ‘How can I help?’” Trefonas said. “The help requires you to have immigration experience and be bilingual in this office.”
Several nonprofit groups such as Teton County Access to Justice, Jackson Hole United and Immigrant Hope are working together to help the community cope with the increasing demand for immigration legal help.
“It makes the most sense to collaborate,” Trefonas said. “The end goal is to help a person who needs paperwork have a stable secure home.”
Immigrant Hope offers aid
While only Trefonas Law can litigate deportation defense cases, the firm refers some immigration benefits cases to Immigrant Hope, a local branch of a national religious nonprofit that offers low-cost legal advice in immigration law.
Lori McCune has worked with Immigrant Hope as an accredited representative since August 2016, and is authorized to help with paperwork for benefits like green cards, temporary protected status and citizenship.
“I really believe in loving your neighbor,” McCune said. “I recognized that this was a major area of need. I recognized that there are a lot of people who are unable to come up with fees for lawyer’s offices.”
She brought Jeff Brown, a Wilson pastor, on board as well. The two operate out of donated office space at First Baptist Church in Jackson.
“People who are here without a benefit of residency or citizenship have a tremendous fear of the future,” Brown said. “It’s ‘What’s going to happen between my kids and I if we get separated?’ They cannot necessarily fix that for themselves. They need a friend to help them. Elisabeth and Rosie have been good friends, but there’s a subsection of that population that cannot afford or cannot easily afford a lawyer. That’s the group we would like to help.”
McCune and her husband moved to Driggs, Idaho, in 1995 after 15 years in South America as Christian missionaries. They lived in the Peruvian rainforest and then Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It became clear that they were among few people who spoke English and Spanish in their new Wyoming-Idaho community.
McCune remembers well when Immigration and Naturalization Service came to town in 1996, rounding up 144 “foreign suspects” and deporting more than 100 undocumented immigrants, according to the archives of the Jackson Hole News. The federal agency carted people away in horse trailers. The raid shut down local businesses, whose workers were detained or staying home out of fear. McCune came to Jackson to the Teton County Jail to help out with people who were being detained.
“At that point a lot of Hispanics knew me, and they told their bosses, “Please call her and see if there’s something we can do,’” she said.
McCune started making hundreds of phone calls, working to help people secure H-2B visas, which were new at the time, allowing immigrants to work nonagricultural seasonal jobs.
After 9/11, H-2B visas became harder to come by, and McCune couldn’t promise people papers. She went on hiatus until 2012, when she learned about a Department of Justice program that allows people to become an “accredited representative” certified in doing immigration paperwork without being an attorney.
Through Immigrant Hope she took a 40-hour law course in Los Angeles. In 3 1/2 years she was certified with the Department of Justice. Immigrant Hope’s Jackson branch saw 90 cases involving 200 people in 2017, she said.
Still, McCune cannot go before an immigration judge and refers those cases to Trefonas Law. She said she collaborates with Trefonas Law often, emailing it questions about cases. She said Trefonas is “very effective and very willing to offer their expertise on our questions.” Brown said the nonprofit hopes to soon add forums for immigrants and American citizen employers.
McCune has noticed an upward trend in cases as well. She said the October announcement of the revocation of DACA spurred an increase in need for services. She also said temporary protected status is increasingly at risk as the Trump administration terminates the program for certain countries. Temporary protective status allows people fleeing armed conflict or natural disaster in countries from Haiti to Syria to work and live in the United States for a limited time.
Access to Justice ready to help
Another nonprofit willing to help is Teton County Access to Justice. The organization hires attorneys to help low-income clients with all types of legal issues, but it has limited resources to help with immigration cases. Executive Director Barbara Prescott and two other attorneys have taken a comprehensive course in immigration law because they recognize the need for those services in Teton County.
“It’s like referring someone to a tax attorney,” Prescott said. “They need to know the law.”
But Access to Justice has limitations as a nonprofit. Attorneys are required to limit the hours they work on a case, and some immigration cases can drag on for years. The organization is searching for a grant so they can hire an immigration attorney.
“Why another immigration attorney hasn’t moved in here, I don’t know,” Prescott said.
Access to Justice hosts free classes on specific laws where the public can get help, but the organization is trying to add an immigration law forms clinic to its rotation.
“I could do it. Two other contracting attorneys could help with this,” Prescott said. “Ideally we will still have someone well versed in immigration law to be available. Rosie [Read] would take our calls. But Rosie is working more hours than anyone should ever work.”
The organization, which is located in the lower floor of 185 S. Willow St., also welcomes walk-ins, who can use a law library and self-help centers. Prescott is adding a specific immigration law center to the center’s arsenal of resources.
“We were asked by USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] to become a corner of citizenship,” Prescott said. “We are trying to tackle the issue on many fronts.”
Teton County Library already has a citizenship corner with information about becoming a U.S. citizen, and it has hosted citizenship consults and forums, Assistant Director Isabel Zumel said. The library also hosts the Mexican Consulate from Salt Lake City several times a year, such as to help with DACA renewal paperwork.
More efforts in the works
The Rev. Mary Erickson has also observed the increasing need for immigration-specific legal aid. Jackson Hole United is a nonprofit she founded in 2012 as a grassroots organization united behind the values “civility, compassion and love.” Erickson said the group sees the need to provide more immigration legal services in the area.
“We’ve seen such an increase in the activity with visits from ICE, and deportations are on the rise, and there’s a lot of stress and anxiety within the community,” Erickson said. “Part of it is to create a place where you can go and get answers without the costs associated with that, and also making sure people have access to really good legal counsel.” Erickson praised Trefonas Law but said it alone “can’t do it all.”
Mike Welch is heading JH United’s effort to establish a nonprofit legal services entity focused on immigration assistance. He said it’s still in the early stages of “exploring feasibility and fundraising potential.”
“While several groups locally and regionally are working admirably and tirelessly to support Jackson’s immigrant population, there are still many community members who lack dedicated and accessible legal assistance to ensure that they know their rights and are treated fairly and humanely by the legal system,” Welch said.
The clinic, in general, would accept payments on a sliding scale based on a client’s ability to pay.
“As you can guess, many of those in need of this type of assistance are some of the most vulnerable in the community, so there would need to be other sources of income to sustain the services offered,” Welch said.
Trefonas and Read work with immigrants from all over the world, as depicted by a map in their office’s lobby depicting where clients come from: from Mexico to Moldova. Despite the challenges of working in immigration law, Trefonas is encouraged by the collaboration between groups working on immigration issues in Teton County, and the efforts to expand resources. She tears up when asked why she works for immigration clients.
“I think it’s obvious,” Trefonas said. “These clients work hard, they work really hard. They’re super resilient, they’re super grateful for what they have in life and they make me feel like a snob and put me in my place on a regular basis.
“Why wouldn’t you want these as your clients?”