VALERIE FOWLER Emptying Their Pockets El Paso Attorney Defies Punitive Immigration Judge BY MARY HULL CABALLERO FRANCISCO NUNEZ came to the United States from Mexico seven years ago, looking for work in order to help his parents support his five younger siblings. Lacking any formal education, he landed various jobs in Nevada, most recently busing tables at Circus Circus in Reno, which allowed him to send three hundred dollars to his family every month. Nuriez, twenty-seven, was among the multitudes who live here illegally, doing the dirty, back-breaking jobs few Americans want, paying taxes and sending money home to their desperately poor relatives. Presumably, he is back in Jalisco now, having served a fourmonth jail term for lying to U.S. Customs agents about his citizenship, for which he was deported in July. Aspects of his case, however, are still under consideration at the U.S. Courthouse in El Paso, where the Federal Public Defenders Office and U.S. Magistrate Janet Ruesch are engaged in a terse dispute over a judge’s orders that force poor Mexican nationals to pay steep legal fees in misdemeanor immigration cases. The defendants are usually first offenders, charged with making false statements to border officials or using counterfeit documents to get jobs in the U.S. Almost always, their immigration was motivated by economic survival. They plead guilty, serve up to six months in jail and are deported. But if their cases get assigned to Ruesch, most of any money they have in their pockets when they are arrested will be taken from them to pay legal feeseven if they are represented by public defenders, whose job it is to represent the poor for free. Defendants who draw a public defender are penalized disproportionately, the public defenders contend, because Ruesch apparently has no formula for determining their fees, while the Criminal Justice Act limits how much private attorneys can charge in Freelance writer Mary Hull Caballero lives in El Paso. digent defendants. Nuriez had four hundred and forty-one dollars in his pocket when he was arrested, an amount Judge Ruesch determined too high for Nunez to be declared indigent, which is a prerequisite for free legal repre sentation. After she had appointed Assistant Federal Public Defender Amy Beaton to take Nufiez’ case, the judge ordered him to pay two hundred dollars in attorneys’ fees into the registry of the court . “If it was an American citizen and all they had was four hundred dollars, there is no way in hell the court would take it,” Beaton said. “It’s an equal protection issue. She is employing a different standard for aliens, which means Mexicans.” Ruesch, through an employee, declined to discuss the reasons she charges legal fees to poor defendants. But Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Roepke defended her right to charge the fees and said the Public Defender’s Office has accused Ruesch unfairly of bias against Mexican nationals. “I am absolutely not in agreement with them,” Roepke said. “The court does not pick the nationality of defendants who appear. If the public defender said that, I do not see where that is genuine. The law says a defendant can be ordered to pay a portion of the fee. [Nuriez’s four hundred forty-one dollars] won’t buy a Coupe de Ville or make a down payment on a house in Amer ica,” but, Roepke argued, he shouldn’t get free representation. Beaton, at twenty-five a rookie lawyer licensed for less than a year, is taking on a magistrate with sixteen years on the bench who currently is under consideration for re-appointment to her third eightyear term. Beaton divides her time appearing before Ruesch and El Paso’s only other federal magistrate, Richard Mesa. Ninety-two percent of all the misdemeanor immigration cases filed in El Paso are assigned to the public defender’s office; the bulk of these fall to Beaton, because they are simple matters easily adjudicated by inexperienced lawyers. The Nufiez case was just one in a sea of similar casesuntil Beaton decided to challenge Ruesch over the fee she charged Nunez for Beaton’s services. Last March in court, after Nuriez had pleaded guilty and received a four-month jail sentence from Beaton told the judge that the two-hundred-dollar fee was too high for the work she had put into the case, and asked Ruesch to reimburse her client one hundred and twenty dollars. Ruesch refused. Beaton then filed a motion asking Ruesch to reconsider her decision, saying that after checking her time sheet, Beaton realized she had only worked on Nufiez’ case for a half-hour in court and a half-hour outside of court. Beaton pressed Ruesch to apply the standard provided in the Criminal Justice Act, which pays court-appointed private attorneys sixty dollars an hour for trial work and forty dollars an hour for preparation. By Beaton’s calculation, if the court felt compelled to charge Nufiez anything, it only should have been fifty dollars. Ruesch rejected Beaton’s argument, and in an eight-page order March 16, ruled that 10 *OCTOBER 13, 1995
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