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Sandy Restrepo Fights for the Undocumented

And the Burien-based attorney is ready to lead an immigration revolution.

By Matthew Halverson January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Seattle Met

Sandy Restrepo photographed at Colectiva Legal del Pueblo in Burien, on December 14, 2016.

Image: Mike Kane

In the four and a half years since Sandy Restrepo passed the bar and opened Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, she estimates that she and her tiny staff of immigration attorneys have served more than a thousand clients facing deportation. All of those people—almost exclusively Latino—come to Restrepo’s office in a Burien strip mall because she speaks their language, literally and figuratively: As the U.S.-born daughter of undocumented parents, she understands the uncertainty and isolation her clients feel every time there’s an unexpected knock at the door. But rather than wallow in self-pity for the next four years under President Trump, she’s invigorated. Because revolutions never start in a time of peace. —Matthew Halverson

My parents always gave me the sanitized version of how they got here when I was smaller, and I was like, “Come on. Let me know what’s going on.” My mom came over on a tourist visa from Tijuana and just stayed. And my dad flew from Bogota, Colombia, to Mexico City and then just hitchhiked his way up to the border and crossed in the trunk of a car. I actually learned that when he was talking to family friends about it. I was like, “Whoa, whoa. Back up. You came here how?”

I grew up in Southern California in the early ’90s, around the time when Prop 187 passed, which denied access to medical attention and schools for undocumented folks and their children. Just like now there were a lot of student walkouts, there was a lot of upheaval. Even then I got the sense that people didn’t like us because of what language we spoke or where we came from.

I went to law school thinking I’d ultimately work in policy, because that’s where you can make larger change. I didn’t want to participate in a legal system that, at least originally, didn’t view black people or noncitizens as whole people. I came around once I was able to go to the courts and see that I could actually help people, but my goal was to do things differently. If I was going to be an attorney, I was going to be accountable to my community—not partners at a law firm.

If we only work within the confines of what is legal, we’re really limited. So I made the decision to work within the system knowing that you have to push the parameters of what is legal.

A lot of times judges or security won’t even realize I’m a lawyer. They think I’m showing up to court because I’m in removal proceedings. But in that way I feel like I’m connected to the work. This is personal for me, maybe more so than for other lawyers. My parents were undocumented. I have family members who are stuck on the other side and can’t come back.

I was at a conference in Oakland—this is while I was still a law student—and a friend called me and said that her boyfriend had been picked up in Fife and taken to the detention center in Tacoma after he missed a stop sign. He was undocumented, but he’d been in the country for 10 years and had no criminal convictions. By the time his court case came up in Seattle, I had already passed the bar, so I represented him and we were able to get his case closed. But in terms of judicial efficiency, it was such a waste. He was detained and had court cases when he shouldn’t have been picked up in the first place.

One of the biggest fears in the immigrant community is, What’s going to happen if I get a knock on the door? From very early on we decided it was up to us to share that information through know-your-rights workshops. Not only that, but we wanted to train community members on how to do the workshops as well.

I have about 115 open cases right now. We’ve been in operation for four years and we’ve never put an ad in the newspaper or on the radio. Our phones ring off the hook, and it’s because of word of mouth. When you’re trying to work with folks in the community it’s not like the lawyers are on top. They’re on tap. You’re working as folks need you.

A lot of us in the immigrant rights community were worried about either candidate being elected president. I was looking more closely at what Hillary’s immigration plan and platform was because she’d said she was going to continue deporting children and keep family detention centers open. I wasn’t really trying to listen to the other stuff. Trump was like a bully in elementary school.

All of us in the office, we were talking throughout the election night: “Is this really going to happen? What are we going to do?” So as a way to cope but also to be responsive to the community, we put together a workshop in a matter of days. We didn’t have a lot of answers, but we wanted to at least provide a little bit of information on what the different scenarios are. We don’t want to create panic for folks. We don’t want them to start packing their bags.

There’s a lot of good that’s going to come out of this. This is a wakeup call to the immigrant community that nothing is going to be given to them. We talk a lot in our workshops about the fact that power isn’t given or conceded. It’s taken.

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