San Francisco Moves to Pay for Kids’ Immigration Lawyers

San Francisco lawmakers are moving toward providing $2.1 million for lawyers to represent undocumented immigrant children facing deportation after crossing the U.S. border to escape violence in Central America.

The number of cases pending in San Francisco Immigration Court has tripled in the past three years, creating a shortage of attorneys to represent children and others there.

“These kids are escaping violence and persecution, and they’re coming to this country because they want to be safe,” said David Campos, the San Francisco lawmaker who offered the funding proposal. “We as a country have an obligation to at least give these kids due process.” Campos himself arrived in the U.S. at age 14 as an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala.

San Francisco, California’s fourth-largest city, is among municipalities nationwide receiving 66,127 unaccompanied minors apprehended since October as they arrived from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. The surge has overwhelmed immigration courts even as President Barack Obama directs them to act more expeditiously on deportation proceedings.

A handful of cities and states, including California, are joining San Francisco in offering assistance. Chicago, St. Louis and Bell, California, have taken steps to house immigrant children who have no relatives in this country. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has deployed the state’s National Guard to deter criminal activity along the border with Mexico.

Legal Services

California Governor Jerry Brown has offered legislation steering $3 million to nonprofit groups that provide legal services, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in July proposed two locations to shelter them. Republican governors in Alabama, Kansas and North Carolina sent a letter to Obama saying the failure to return the children will encourage more to cross the border.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the legal aid Sept. 16 and will take a second required vote on Sept. 23. While Mayor Ed Lee can approve or veto the measure, the board has the support needed to override a veto. The mayor supports the effort and doesn’t plan to oppose it, said his spokeswoman, Christine Falvey.

Marvin De Leon-Sanic, 17, was among 17 minors who arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied by an adult and who were scheduled to appear in San Francisco Immigration Court on Sept. 16. The boy crossed into Arizona in July, leaving his parents and his home country of Guatemala to escape gangs in his neighborhood, he said in an interview before going before a judge, who advised him to find a lawyer.

‘Killed People’

“They killed people there where I lived,” De Leon-Sanic, who is staying with a brother in Hayward, California, said in Spanish in an interview at the court. “I don’t want that to happen to me.”

Other children facing possible deportation included a 16-year-old girl who fled Guatemala because of rape threats from gang members and a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who said she is pregnant from rape. All were represented by pro-bono lawyers for the day and were advised to find their own attorneys.

Paola Ramos, 28, was among a group of undocumented immigrants who attended the meeting where San Francisco supervisors approved the legal funding.

Ramos, a house cleaner who said she can’t afford an attorney for her October immigration hearing, said she fled Honduras with her 5-year-old daughter Axa after gang members sought monthly bribes from her shrimp business and threatened her life if she didn’t pay. The two were kidnapped twice as they traveled for a month by freight trains, crossing the U.S. border in July, Ramos said.

‘Big Risk’

“I knew it was a big risk to make the journey, but the threats were so real that I knew I had to risk my life to get my daughter here,” she said in an interview at San Francisco City Hall.

Immigration attorneys say the situation has been made worse by a June directive from Obama to accelerate action on the cases, spurring a so-called Rocket Docket that began in July in which juvenile cases are heard en masse and court dates are scheduled earlier.

In a June 30 letter to Congress, Obama said he would steer more immigration judges, attorneys and asylum officers to enable “the prompt removal of individuals who do not qualify for asylum or other forms of relief from removal.”

Tripled Caseload

The number of juvenile cases filed in San Francisco Immigration Court almost tripled to 865 in the first nine months of fiscal 2014 from three years earlier, according to a Sept. 2 analysis by the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office. Cases with legal representation have declined as the caseload surged in the last two years, according to the report.

“That’s why this has been such a crisis for us,” said Ana Herrera, an immigration attorney at Dolores Street Community Services in San Francisco. “There’s just no capacity for the few pro-bono attorneys that exist in the city to attend court with these kids.”

The odds of averting deportation are much better for those with a lawyer, said a July 15 report released by Syracuse University in New York.

Courts allowed children to remain in the U.S. in 47 percent of cases in which a lawyer represented them. Nine out of 10 children were ordered deported when they appeared alone without representation, the report said.

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