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Amid deportation fears, immigrants retain lawyers, just in case

In this Feb. 7, 2017, photo released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, foreign nationals are arrested during a targeted enforcement operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens in Los Angeles. Federal immigration agents arrested 115 people during a three-day operation in the San Diego area amid heightened tensions between the Trump administration and the state of California over immigration enforcement. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP, File)
Published Mar. 25, 2018

For more than a year, Apisara has watched news reports of immigrants handcuffed and escorted away from their homes or jobs.

They're all here illegally, just like her.

Originally from Thailand, she spends her days at her home in Manatee County or at her serving job at a restaurant. The 23-year-old works seven days a week. Sometimes during her shifts, she wonders if immigration authorities will raid the restaurant and detain her while she's serving customers. She doesn't have a criminal record, but overstayed a work visa about five years ago.

"I don't know when they're going to come," said Apisara, whose last name the Times agreed not to publish. "I feel like I have to hide myself and be more careful."

But a program recently launched by a Tampa immigration law firm is giving her some peace of mind.

If Apisara is ever arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a lawyer will be notified immediately. She won't languish in a detention center for days, maybe weeks, waiting to get access to a phone and family who can call a lawyer for her.

She recently enrolled in the Immigrant Protection Plan.

Its slogan: "Protecting America's immigrants."

• • •

The plan is offered by the firm Maney Gordon Zeller of Tampa.

"The heart of this is to reduce the stress and horror on the family and the detainee," said firm partner Richard Maney, who created the initiative last year.

For Maney, the need for such a program illustrates the fear many Tampa Bay immigrants and their families are grappling with in light of increased ICE enforcement after President Donald Trump instructed the agency to detain any undocumented immigrants, even those without criminal histories.

"The fear factor is way up and I understand that because they see what's going on in their community," Maney said. "Just having to live with fear and the uncertainty is a horrible thing."

St. Petersburg lawyer Arturo Rios is also watching this growing trend. His firm created a similar program, but ended it in the last two years of the Obama administration.

"It really wasn't an issue," he said. "Enforcement was not as bad."

But with Trump in office, Rios reinstated the program this year.

Both initiatives offer clients immediate representation. Typically, families of detainees have a hard time finding a lawyer right away, especially if their loved one is arrested at night.

"It's a matter of preparing people for the worst-case scenario," Rios said. "Those first couple of hours are critical, because ICE makes a lot of decisions on those first couple of hours."

Nationwide, immigrant arrests jumped from 110,104 in 2016 to 143,470 in 2017, according to federal statistics. Arrests in ICE's Miami jurisdiction, which includes Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, went up 76 percent, the largest increase in arrests between 2016 and Trump's first year in office.

Many immigrants are detained at their homes or places of work. Others who are required to report to ICE periodically because they have pending cases can be arrested during those visits.

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel," Maney said. "They're deporting the most diligent and honest people because they show up for their report like they're supposed to. They follow the rules."

• • •

Here's how the Immigrant Protection Plan works:

Once an immigrant is arrested, their loved one can contact the program's 24-hour hotline to contact a lawyer who will be assigned to the case.

"You're at home and they take away your husband," Maney said. "You don't know who to turn to. Who to call. What's the next step? Our job is to fill in those steps."

Several documents, including the lawyer's notice of appearance and a motion for a bond hearing, will have already been completed and are ready to be filed. This process alone usually takes several days or weeks if the records are completed after the arrest.

Clients also receive a laminated card with guidance on how to interact with ICE agents. Among the directions: don't run, don't open your house door unless they have a warrant, don't sign any papers without first talking to a lawyer.

The program also identifies possible forms of relief.

Clients fill out questionnaires every 60 days that the firm uses to evaluate whether a new solution, either a policy change or personal circumstance, has emerged in their case. The program costs $499 to enroll and then $59 a month.

So far, about 20 people have enrolled in Maney's program. Among them is a mother undergoing cancer treatment. If she is arrested by ICE, Maney said, it could be "almost a life and death issue."

For Apisara, the concerns about deportation haven't faded. But keeping the Maney Gordon Zeller card with her brings her a level of comfort that she won't be alone if she's ever detained.

"At least," she said, "I'll get help from them."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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