On Sixth Avenue, across the street from the block-long Family Court building, stands a row of converted single-family Victorian homes, their yards parking lots, their windows barred. Today those residencies are family-mediation agencies and immigration law offices. In the lawyers’ waiting rooms, one finds a new class of clients: illegal immigrants, most from Mexico, who’ve been in San Diego for years and whose chances of gaining citizenship are getting as slim as winning the lottery. They’re seeking attorneys’ aid, frightened by the anti-immigration movement in American politics, and especially the d word: deportation.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Mexicans who were in the country illegally traveled back and forth at Christmas: take a bus to the border, walk into Tijuana, fly home for the holidays and fly back, then sneak into America through a hole in the fence or a long hole in the ground. In recent years, for a host of reasons — stronger border surveillance, double the number of Border Patrol agents, widened barriers and sealed tunnels, tougher restrictions on Mexican visas, overloaded U.S. clinics where pregnant women receive prenatal care, and a political will in Washington to revise immigration law — crossing from Mexico has become more perilous than ever, particularly along the 45-mile border between the San Ysidro and Tecate crossings.
A border that is less porous has meant a boon for immigration lawyers. Their clients, many of whom have hidden out in America for years, are now seeking a lawful path toward residency and/or citizenship, though the way, in such an inflamed political climate, is strewn with legal roadblocks and ablaze with constant anxiety.
One such client I meet in a Sixth Avenue law office is a fortyish Mexican woman, here illegally for eight years. She — and her lawyer — agree that she may speak anonymously. Lupe, as I’ll call her, came to America from Mexico with six of her seven children. The seventh, now seven years old, is the only one born here, and thus a U.S. citizen.
Lupe is accompanied by her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, who is an American citizen. The young woman’s Mexican-born fiancé, one of Lupe’s seven children, was deported last June. The two hope that by working with an immigration attorney, they can bring him back and get him and Lupe on the road to residency status.
Lupe is distraught about her son’s expulsion. She has no idea when she’ll see him again. Worse, she says, is her fear that if she went to visit him in Tijuana, where he lives, she could not get back across the border — not today’s clamped-down border. Such a journey might mean abandoning her six children in the United States. It’s a classic bind, between the rock of one child and the hard place of the other six.
Still, with a trusting smile, Lupe says she wishes “there were a better opportunity in the U.S. for everyone here illegally to become, at least, temporary residents.”
In 2003, after borrowing a brother-in-law’s passport, she crossed with her family by car. (Her husband has had a green card for 20 years.) They did so not to give birth to more children here but to seek “greater opportunities” for her Mexican-born kids. The crossing was not difficult, but she was nervous. Now, she says, it’s much harder. Customs officials are more vigilant, and the way back is “a lot riskier than before,” especially if you need a coyote: “It costs 7000, 8000 dollars.”
She says she didn’t cross legally because, in years past, such an undertaking was impossible. To emigrate from Mexico, one needed a passport, a business, and a steady income, none of which Lupe or her husband had. The Mexican government would issue a passport only if it believed you were coming to America to earn money and would, in effect, send some portion of it home.
Lupe takes care of the kids while her husband works construction. So far, his residency has not helped her alter her status. In fact, only recently has she come out of the shadows and sought legal aid. Neither she nor her family members have been asked about their status. (Her son, who was deported, was detained after a car crash and, without an ID, admitted he was not a citizen. Immigration and Customs officials deported him immediately.) If Lupe drives — she has no license — she is very careful. She lives in fear that any police car driving slowly by her home is there either to spy on her or arrest her.
The soon-to-be daughter-in-law often takes Lupe’s seven-year-old daughter with her to visit her brother in Tijuana. She says the seven-year-old, who understands her mother can’t go to TJ without papers, tells her when she leaves, “I will tell him ‘hi’ for you, since you can’t go, okay, Mom?”
In parting, Lupe says that, despite the new law in Arizona, which has made her fearful of driving in California, she still hopes to become a resident and citizen “because the government here is much better than it is in Mexico.”
Lupe’s attorney is Jacob Sapochnick, who told her up front that any resolution of her case might take “two to three years.” On a recent dress-down Friday, Sapochnick, a gracious and talkative man, spoke with me about Lupe and other clients. Silencing his buzzing iPhone, he says his presence online and a frantic immigration environment has added a dramatic pop to his business.
An Israeli, Sapochnick came to America on a student visa in 1997 to attend law school. He first worked for a firm, translating documents for Israeli clients. Eventually, sponsored by his employer, he got a permanent resident or green card (a color identity the document no longer carries). Today, he holds dual citizenship and has, for the past seven years, specialized in helping immigrants, legal and illegal, become permanent residents and citizens.
Beginning alone, with a one-room office, he has now “taken over the second floor” of a house at 1552 Sixth Avenue. He’s one of three lawyers and five paralegals; the practice includes web pages and videos explaining immigration law. Sapochnick, who speaks in rapid-fire sentences, almost as if he can conjure the arc of my questions, says that he reaches potential clients all over the country because immigration law is federal and involves filing the requisite paperwork with the U.S. government, as well as with embassies in the emigrant’s homeland.