FEATURE: Lady Justice

By on November 8, 2016

How one woman is waging the battle for Jackson’s voiceless.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Elisabeth Trefonas is skilled at making eloquent pleas on behalf of her clients, but on June 6, Trefonas’ voice trembled as she held back tears in front of a packed room in Jackson town chambers. She was there for the public comment portion of a council meeting that garnered 100 residents and advocates, organized by the housing advocacy group Shelter JH to decry Jackson’s housing crisis.

“I’m sorry to get choked up,” she told the town council. “But this is so important. We need your help. We are begging for your help.”

She, and many other community members, were asking for emergency solutions to evictions, rent hikes, and lack of affordable rental housing. Trefonas had recently lost a valued employee, who, she told the council, had no choice but to move away because she couldn’t afford to stay after her rent was hiked. She also spoke of several clients who asked her if they could return to jail simply because it would provide them a roof over their heads.

Trefonas also shared a story of a client who was being evicted from his 20-year rental home along with his mentally handicapped daughter. “She could not have flourished back in Mexico,” Trefonas told the council. “It can only be here. And now they might have to leave. My client showed up in my office and asked, ‘Where are we going to go? And how is she going to survive it?’”

In 2006, as one of only three immigration attorneys in the state, Trefonas quickly became the go-to attorney for Teton County’s Latino immigrants. Currently her caseload of private, pro bono, and public defender cases hovers around 200. A fierce advocate, Trefonas tackles draconian laws with grace while she wonders, “Wouldn’t providing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship benefit us all?”

A life of advocacy

When she is not standing up in court or town hall on behalf of Jackson’s Latino population, Trefonas is often on the road. In addition to being one of the only bilingual lawyers in town, she is also the supervising assistant public defender in Teton and Sublette counties. She founded her private law firm, Trefonas Law, 10 years ago when she was just 28 years old.

If her life sounds hectic, you wouldn’t know it from her calm demeanor. Trefonas is personable and patient; she speaks in quiet tones to her clients and their families. She exudes compassion, but she is no pushover. She’s quick to command a room with her rhetoric and intelligence. Her no-nonsense style engenders immediate trust.

“My job is to make the state and law enforcement follow the rules,” she said. “If my client is innocent, I hope to convince the prosecutor of that and have them dismiss the case. If they cannot be dismissed, then my role is to ensure they only achieve a conviction by doing their job and showing proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But even when a client is guilty, Trefonas fights hard for justice. “If my client is guilty, my job is to ensure no one crushes them or violates their rights. It’s my role to ensure they are treated fairly and appropriately by the system.”

This passion for fairness started early in life for Trefonas. Though no longer religious herself, she says she was raised in a religious household where teachings about charity and caring for others made a big impression on her.

She remembers being in second grade and watching one girl bully another.

“The popular girl was yelling and pushing the other girl and calling her ugly,” Trefonas said. “I went over and pushed the popular girl as hard as I could and I pulled her braids. I told her she was being the ugly one.”

Trefonas was sent to the principal’s office for her offence. When her mother arrived and heard the story, she reprimanded Trefonas for harming someone physically but she praised her for sticking up for the other girl.

“I guess it is something that is core to my personality,” Trefonas said. “I like cheering for the underdog.”

One such underdog is a young man who appeared in court on a rainy day in October. The client was dressed in a regulation yellow jumpsuit, and as the bailiff walked him to his seat, the heavy metal chains binding his wrists and ankles rattled as he walked. In the gallery his aunt cringed and wept. Other supporters leaned forward in their seats.

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The man, 20, was charged with statutory rape and Trefonas wanted to get his case dismissed. Teton County prosecutor Becket Hinckley had agreed to ask the judge for a dismissal. It is a complex case in which parents changed their minds after previously approving of a relationship between him and their 15-year-old daughter, and had the young man arrested.

As often happens when an undocumented immigrant has a brush with the law, however big or small, it leads to a double whammy when the Teton County sheriff calls Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The entity enforces federal immigration laws as part of U.S. Homeland Security. Such was the situation with Trefonas’ client. Not only was he facing a statutory rape charge, ICE had been notified of his arrest and would likely want to talk to him about his immigration status (his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals paperwork was out of date).

At his arraignment, Trefonas consulted with her client in a hushed whisper, explaining that the judge approved their request for dismissal. The young man still looked dazed and fearful, but at least he now had a clear path forward. Having an attorney who could speak authoritatively about the process ahead and say it in his native language would hopefully be a salve to some of his worries.

Law trumps science

Trefonas did not start her professional career as a lawyer. She says it was “a fluke” that she got into law. She originally pursued a graduate degree in microbiology.

“Working on my Ph.D. was less than thrilling,” she recalled. “I learned that although conceptually I enjoy science, in practice it is very tedious.”

While working at a lab in San Diego, Trefonas decided to check out the law school next to her apartment.

“They had a part-time program that I was able to do on my lunch breaks,” she said. “I originally thought I would be a patent lawyer. But then life brought me to Jackson. I had worked with an attorney in San Diego who was doing immigration law. When I saw what was happening here, I thought immigrants needed help.”

Trefonas had studied Spanish in high school, and living in San Diego with frequent trips to Tijuana meant fluency came easy for the Scottish/Irish/German descendant. After passing the California Bar, she was able to start working as an attorney immediately. (Immigration law is one of the few federal areas of law that allows an attorney to be licensed in every state.)

What Trefonas found in Jackson was a microcosm of America’s push-pull attitude toward Mexican immigrants. She also found a niche that needed filling.

Now, as the state’s sole entirely bilingual law office, Trefonas Law has a bird’s eye view of the legal tangles immigrants face. Trefonas employs another attorney, Rosie Read, and a paralegal, who all speak Spanish fluently.

One thing that gets under their collective skin is the false notion that Jackson Hole is a sanctuary city. Simply put, a sanctuary city is one in which the sheriff doesn’t automatically call ICE anytime an undocumented person comes in contact with the police. According to Read, local sheriffs can use their discretion as to when to involve ICE. In Teton County, the sheriff’s office has an agreement with ICE to turn over any suspected noncitizen.

“In my opinion, Jackson is truly schizophrenic in its attitude toward immigrants,” Trefonas said. “On the one hand we have business owners that need and want to keep good, reliable workers. On the other hand we have the sheriff who calls immigration and customs enforcement when a suspected immigrant is arrested, which in most cases triggers a removal or deportation case.”

Trefonas points out that most of the people who wind up with a criminal offense and are investigated by ICE started with a minor traffic violation. The most common violation is driving without a license, since Wyoming does not issue driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals.

“I don’t think that’s what most of us mean when we talk about criminal,” Trefonas said.

What Jackson is correctly known for is being a welcoming place for immigrants, at least welcoming by some. Between One 22, the Teton County Library, dual immersion school programs, Latino-themed dance and physical fitness classes, and employers in need of dedicated workers, Jackson offers warmth and community to many.

But all that good feeling doesn’t chase away fears of deportation. With no clear path to citizenship, many first generation immigrants have no choice but to continue their lives without the security citizenship would confer. Short of a political campaign putting pressure on the sheriff’s office to change its policies, not much can be done. However, there has been a positive development that started in 2012 when the Obama administration ordered ICE to begin exercising discretion on how, or if, they prosecuted.

The 2012 executive order essentially instructed ICE to not initiate removal proceedings against individuals who were not criminals.

“Because the vast majority of undocumented people in this community were being arrested for traffic infractions,” Read explained, “that meant numbers fell off a cliff in 2012. Now you only see removal proceedings against people with DUIs, domestic violence charges, sexual assault charges and the like.”

Read noted that the United States is home to 12 million undocumented persons. The federal government has enough money to pay for 400,000 removals. Prior to 2012, that meant very clogged immigration courts. Obama ensured that only the necessary removals were being enforced.

“If a person is not an enforcement priority, Obama said leave them alone,” Read explained. “Locally we are still seeing that.”

But Latinos who have lived here since the 1990s and early 2000s still look over their shoulders, Trefonas says.

“A first generation Latino in Jackson is most often concerned with proper working authorization and a proper driver’s license, which cannot be obtained in Wyoming without legal documentation of legal residence,” Trefonas said.

Second or third generation Latinos may not have the fear of removal for themselves, Trefonas explained, but they worry about their parents and grandparents.

“There is also the struggle of being a U.S. citizen in a community where they feel that they and their family are very much intentionally separated and not included in Jackson, despite being born and raised in Jackson,” Trefonas said.

In the past few years, as deportation fears subsided somewhat, a different fear has dominated the households of many Latino immigrants: housing insecurity. Though statistics are spotty, it’s clear that Jackson’s working class has been hit hard by the housing crisis. Latinos make up an estimated 30 percent of Jackson’s population, most falling within the working class as servers, maids, kitchen staff, construction workers, and other manual labor. As Latinos have become more politically engaged because of the housing crisis, so too have their advocates like Trefonas and Read.

The family that Trefonas spoke up for at town hall managed to find a way to stay, but not without paying a steep price. “They found a little house in downtown Jackson,” Trefonas said. “It’s old and small, and they are paying $2,000 a month in rent.”

The father of this family had faced numerous hurdles in his quest to build a life in Jackson. He was part of the first wave of Mexican immigrants who came to Jackson in the 1990s for the plentiful jobs. He was among a group of Latinos infamously rounded up and transported in a cattle trailer for removal processing. But he came back, got another job, and faced ICE again when he was caught driving without a license. Eventually, Trefonas successfully petitioned for U.S. citizenship for the man based on “extremely unusual hardship to a relative,” because of his daughter’s compromised mental condition. His case took four years.

The case for Trefonas

Trefonas’ hard work and expertise has not gone unnoticed. Peers in the legal profession give her high praise. “Elisabeth is the real deal,” said Stephen Weichman, county attorney. “Beneath her disarming but reserved exterior there is a burning genius. If she ever sleeps she probably dreams in Spanish about the translation between nucleotide sequences and amino acid sequences. Her style as a litigator makes her uniquely suited for success in a venue that demands from its participants a great deal of comfort with ambiguity. She never pokes her opponents in the eye, but if she can’t neutralize them with her kindness, she might tie them in a knot with her legal pleadings.

“She is a real force of nature. We are pretty thankful that she applies her considerable talent to helping the underdogs.”

On the day of the young man’s appearance in court when Trefonas got the case dismissed, her colleague and would-be opponent that day, Teton County prosecutor Becket Hinckley, spoke to The Planet following the proceedings.

“Elisabeth is truly one of the most professional people I’ve ever dealt with,” he volunteered. “She is the kindest, most competent public defender I’ve ever seen.”

Trefonas says her office does “an enormous amount” of pro bono work. “I have a terrible business model,” she said. “We will not send a good case away if it is a victim visa, or violence against women act, or lawful permanent resident card. We also do far too many payment plans. I think I will be receiving $5 payments until the day I die.

Trefonas is tremendously humble about her talent and her motivation. When asked why she does the work she does, she replied, laughingly, “It’s not for the money or fame.” But her tone quickly becomes serious. “Someone needs to do it,” she said. “And I’m the one who knows it. I’m not so foolish to think that given a few changes we couldn’t be on opposite sides of that inmate’s division in the jailhouse. As my mother says, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ And if I’m in jail, I would sure like someone to show up and explain things to me in my language.”

High ideals, modest expectations

When she goes to work each day, it’s with a measured idea about what constitutes a victory. As in the instance of the young man’s statutory rape case, Trefonas succeeded in dismissing the case, for now. But the man will still face ICE proceedings, and Trefonas will defend him there. After that he will return to Jackson to face the statutory rape charges again, but at least not from jail.

Read says such relative wins are common for their practice. “You learn to redefine what a win means in this line of work,” she said. “It doesn’t always mean getting your client a green card. It often means getting a better plea deal, or convincing the judge to let someone leave the country voluntarily and not via ICE. You’re up against an unconquerable machine, and moments like that make it worth the fight.”

Trefonas says her clients, for the most part, inspire her. “They are the hardest working and best clients I could imagine,” she said. “Latinos are equally part of the fabric of our community.”

Which is not to say that all her clients are baskets of sunshine. She is a public defender after all, and she defends all races and creeds. She remembered a mentally ill client who nearly stabbed her with a pen as he became agitated during a trial.

“We have great bailiffs here,” she said. “They lunged at the client that was about to lunge at me with his pen. Another mentally ill client kept sniffing my hair when I wasn’t looking, and the bailiff told him to knock it off.”

As for the bulk of her work—the immigration related cases—as long as undocumented residents of the U.S. have no easy path to citizenship, Trefonas’ wins will continue to be relative. She is not alone in wanting the U.S. to develop sensible immigration solutions. A 2015 Gallop poll estimated that 65 percent of Americans believe that unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to obtain legal status and a pathway to citizenship.

Locally, mayoral candidate Pete Muldoon says he absolutely supports a path to citizenship. “If a billionaire banker who was born here but spends all his time jetting from country to country while getting government handouts and using offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes gets to remain a citizen, I don’t see why someone who has lived here for years and worked the toughest jobs there are while paying taxes and getting little in return for them shouldn’t be allowed to become one,” Muldoon said.

Mayor Sara Flitner was unavailable to specifically comment on this issue as of press deadline, but said she supports a path to citizenship.

Among county politicos, commissioner Mark Newcomb said he supports paths to citizenship, but not a carte blanche to everyone who comes to the U.S. to work. “If they’ve been here paying social security and have become part of the community, it sure seems like there is something that can be done there, and we need a little political will,” Newcomb said.

Commissioner candidate Trey Davis said he believes undocumented immigrants should have a way of gaining legal status and a path to citizenship in the U.S., “which should include criminal background checks in the U.S. and one’s native country,” he said.  “I also believe that our U.S. borders need to be better protected for the safety of the American people, particularly in the world we live in today.”

On a national level, the presidential candidates couldn’t be more different when it comes to immigration. Trump would build a wall, where Clinton wants to build routes to citizenship for immigrants.

“If we claim we are for family, then we have to pull together and resolve the outstanding issues around our broken immigration system,” Clinton said in 2015. “We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship.”

Granting wide-scale citizenship to immigrants would certainly be an economic boon to America. Last year Newsweek magazine reported that “putting unauthorized immigrants on a pathway to citizenship … would add a cumulative $1.2 trillion to the GDP over a decade, increase the earnings of all Americans by $625 billion, and create an average of 145,000 new jobs each year.”

This stands in stark contrast to the tremendous financial strain that comes with enforcing current immigration policies. ICE estimated in 2013 that each removal or deportation case costs more than $8,600, according to Politico magazine.

Locally, Trefonas noted several barriers Latino immigrants face. One, unsurprisingly, is the lack of affordable housing. “In-town housing would keep some unlicensed workers off the road,” she pointed out.

Granting driver’s licenses would also go a long way to help alleviate the burden of immigration court backlog. “There are a lot of states that allow driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants,” Trefonas said. “Why wouldn’t you want the people in your town identified?”

She said she’d like to see businesses be more vocal in the effort to keep immigrants here in Jackson. “Write to your senators,” she said. “Let them know immigration issues matter. I’ve asked [Seanators Mike] Enzi and [John} Barrasso why they voted against immigration reform, and they told me immigration is not a concern in Wyoming.”

Locally, Trefonas said there is a recognized need for updating census information on the Latino population. “There is an excellent group of academics and community leaders, including Rosie Read, that are working to assess and determine current needs,” she said. “It has been a while since an accurate census or poll was taken of our area.”

In the meantime, Trefonas and Read continue their diligent work. As she left the courthouse that October afternoon, she waved to her bailiff friend and called out, “Thanks for keeping us safe!” Then she headed back to the office for a few more hours of work before driving home to Hoback where she lives with her husband who caretakes a ranch there. Dinner would be waiting for her, and a much needed comic break with Trevor Noah’s Comedy Central. In bed by 10 most nights, Trefonas says she tries not to come into town to work on the weekends, although getting four to six hours done on a Sunday makes the rest of the week much easier, she said.

“Plus there’s something to be said for being in the office on a Sunday all alone in my pajamas with the music turned really loud.” PJH


About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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