Purposeful Q+A: Immigration Attorney Jorge Castañeda

Jorge Castañeda is a Denver-based immigration lawyer who recently found himself volunteering at citizenship drives, presenting at schools, talking to social workers at a local hospital, and teaching people about immigrant rights, particularly those who are undocumented. The 2016 election sparked his passion for sharing his expertise with the community:

I think for a long time, I did my job in a way that I did not see a greater purpose to it. You do the work, you do it well, but I didn’t see the potential impact of it all.

“The first thing that happened is I moved to Denver. Having practiced in Phoenix for a long time, I think Denver is a much more socially conscious city, in a lot of ways. That shifted my perspective a little bit.

“The second thing I did was participating in a fellowship called the Latino Leadership Institute, a yearlong fellowship at the University of Denver. It opened my eyes to ways that I could help the community and the power that I have as a bilingual immigrant attorney.

“Finally, I think the catalyst in a lot of ways was this last election. The idea that somebody is running for president and calls people of my nationality ‘rapist’ and ‘thieves;’ and the whole concept of immigrants being these beady-eyed people in the shadows who are just looking to steal and rape from poor, innocent Americans. That really opened my eyes even more. It solidified that I have a role to play. My skills need to be used for the greater good of immigrants.
Jorge Castaneda

Jorge was born near the border with Mexico and grew up in Nogales, Arizona. He spent about equal time in both countries during the first 18 years of his life.

One of the things that gives me the most joy is when someone is not an English speaker and I speak to them and they say, ‘Thank you. You talk to me like I talk, and you explain things well.’ They tell me I spoke to them in their language, and they feel comfortable with that. That’s the inspiration, to help people.
Jorge Castaneda

Because of his work, Jorge has access to the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, a place most of us haven’t seen. I asked him to describe it.

An immigration detention center is essentially a prison. There’s no other way to describe it. I think within the hierarchy of jails and prisons, they’re probably on the ‘better end,’ but it’s still a jail. It’s still a prison.

“It’s crazy and to me, to think that people spend so much time in those facilities without criminal charges. If your client is in custody, for example, here in the Colorado area, then you go to Aurora, and the courts are inside the prisons. Everything’s in the prison. It’s not anywhere you want to be permanently, that’s for sure.

Immigration is a complex issue, and certain nuances are difficult even for someone with Jorge’s knowledge of the law. Sometimes, the outcomes of immigration cases just feel unjust.

There are some cases where you think a person maybe doesn’t deserve to be a permanent resident for whatever reason: criminal convictions, this or that. But, because they have a wife or a child, they get some kind of benefit. Then you have other cases where someone has never been in trouble, and they haven’t done anything wrong. But there’s not much you can do because they don’t have the right relationship or the right situation.

“Immigration’s tough in that way. In criminal law, sometimes you can raise your fist and be the white knight and say, ‘I’m going to defend you. I’m going to work within the law, and we’re going to get you off. We’re going to go to a jury, and we’re going to present our evidence, and then we’re going to win.’ It doesn’t work that way in immigration. Immigration is very black and white, and you either qualify or you don’t.

“I try to treat everybody well. Clients can be incredibly difficult and have unrealistic expectations, but I would tell anybody who’s going to do work like this that you have to remember that they’re people that you’re helping. Sometimes we can lose track of that because, on the flip side, when you do this type of work, you also have to detach yourself to a certain extent. You’re dealing with lives, with people, with prison sentences in the case of criminal law, deportations, families being split up, families’ lives getting turned upside down.