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"The idea that you can go out at night for a quart of milk and end up in Mexico without being able to say goodbye to your kids is crazy."

Marty Rosenbluth: Fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants 

Attorney Marty Rosenbluth works for free representing undocumented immigrants.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Attorney Marty Rosenbluth works for free representing undocumented immigrants.

It's August. Marty Rosenbluth is trying to make leg room in his corner office, which is really a 5-square-foot burrow behind the filing cabinets in the El Centro Hispano office on West Main Street in Durham.

His black hair is matted and unkempt. His graying beard needs a razor. And his coffee-stained button-up is splotched with pit stains. Meanwhile, Rosenbluth, 53, rests his Jiminy Cricket legs on a 2-foot high stack of immigration law books under his cluttered desk.

"The idea that you can go out at night for a quart of milk and end up in Mexico without being able to say goodbye to your kids is crazy," he says.

He's talking about civil rights violations. Not the kind you read about in history books. That's old news. He's talking about an undocumented Burlington man booked two weeks prior by Alamance County deputies for driving without a license. Because of the arrest, the man had been flagged for deportation. One problem: The man wasn't driving. He was in the passenger seat when deputies pulled his vehicle over.

It's one of dozens of similar stories in rural Alamance County, where crusading seekers of injustice like Rosenbluth say there's plenty to find.

This is Rosenbluth's job, wading through the complicated legal morass of immigration law and finding sense. He's part-lawyer, part-social justice advocate—working pro bono for North Carolina's undocumented residents through his nonprofit, the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project.

Rosenbluth's cases are typically based in the Triangle, although Rosenbluth, who lives in Hillsborough, has a handful of clients in Alamance County.

We met with Rosenbluth five months ago; a lot has happened since then. In September, the U.S. Department of Justice officially accused Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson of racially profiling Latinos, booking immigrants for minor offenses in order to spur their deportation. An intractable Johnson denied all charges; the DOJ sued Johnson by the year's end. Meanwhile, the deportation case against Rosenbluth's Burlington client was dropped.

You could expect Rosenbluth—who was just one of many dogged critics targeting Johnson in Alamance—to take a victory lap. But today, Rosenbluth is on to the next fight, criticizing the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles' decision earlier this month to deny driver's licenses to young, undocumented immigrants who are eligible for deferred deportation as they pursue citizenship.

"He's providing a much-needed service," says Ben Ansbacher, whose Fairness Alamance group has used Rosenbluth as a legal resource while the grassroots group pursues policy change in Alamance.

"Horrible things are happening to immigrants," Ansbacher says. "And he's the main person that they can turn to. Nobody else is really doing much."

Hannah Gill, a UNC-Chapel Hill immigration researcher and frequent critic of Johnson's office, says Rosenbluth's work is crucial to the undocumented community.

"We have a real lack of representation for a lot of immigrants who find themselves in the detention process," Gill says.

Rosenbluth is an effective, if not flashy, immigration attorney. Until recently, he was "batting a thousand" in heading off deportations for his clients, he says.

In many cases, Rosenbluth argued that undocumented residents were being deported over minor traffic offenses such as driving without a license, contradicting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's explicit policy to target dangerous, repeat offenders.

Rosenbluth's argument has worked. Government prosecutors have dropped dozens of cases against his clients, particularly in the fallout from the DOJ's Alamance suit.

"We know what we're doing," Rosenbluth says. "And we're aggressive."

Ten years ago, this wasn't the job Rosenbluth would have imagined for himself. A New York native, Rosenbluth spent more than seven years in the West Bank, advocating for Palestinians who, because of laws restricting their employment, depended on informal street corner markets for work.

"That situation is very similar to what is going on in the Latino market in Carrboro," he says. "The continual fear of being discovered, the constant fear of being arrested—those parallels are really striking."

Rosenbluth studied law at UNC-Chapel Hill with the goal of continuing his work in international human rights, but his interests had changed by the time he earned his degree in 2008.

Undocumented immigrants were being jailed and deported for minor offenses, he says, and immigration court diverges from typical courts in one important manner: Detainees are not guaranteed legal representation. Without the cash for an attorney, many are forced to represent themselves.

Rosenbluth says the community needed lawyers who are willing to work for cheap. As a result, his Immigrant Rights Project was taxed by demand even in its earliest stages.

"We were trying to build an airplane while it was already flying," he says.

Not that it pays. The project never charges clients for its services, subsisting on donations and a retainer from the Mexican consulate. In the end, it's typically not enough to pay Rosenbluth.

"Luckily, my wife has a real job," he says.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Beyond the border."

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