Legal aid funding for undocumented youth clears board committee

By Rebecca Bowe

You can read the original article on San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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Sup. David Campos with Tony, an 11-year-old from El Salvador who just received asylum. GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

Brian, who is 12, came to the United States from Guatemala with his younger brother, Edwin, who is seven. They arrived in a car driven by a coyote, an adult who ferried them across in an arrangement made with their family. But the brothers were quickly detained by Border Patrol agents.

When they were taken into custody, Brian explained through a translator, they heard sirens and went running into a field. The coyote ran in the other direction, leaving them alone. Brian said that when border agents shouted “stop!” he couldn’t understand what they were saying. But when Edwin tripped and fell, they both came to a halt, and were soon apprehended. They spent the next month in a Texas facility, where other Central American youth were also being held.

Brian and Edwin spoke to the Bay Guardian just before a Sept. 10 committee hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, concerning a proposal to provide emergency legal aid for undocumented youth. Just before the interview, the brothers stood on the grand marble staircase in San Francisco City Hall, surveying the stately surroundings with wide eyes. But when asked what life was like in Guatemala, where they had stayed with their grandmother, Brian’s face got very serious.

“It was bad,” he said. “We couldn’t live in peace. There were too many gang members. They often killed children and young teenage boys.”

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Brian and Edwin. GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

The brothers are relatively lucky – they have legal counsel provided by Dolores Stret Community Services, and their parents are here with them in San Francisco – yet they are both in deportation proceedings, and could still end up being sent back to Guatemala.

During the hearing at today’s Budget & Finance Committee meeting, more youth shared stories of their own harrowing journeys to the United States and asked the supervisors to approve funding to provide legal counsel for undocumented kids facing deportation proceedings in San Francisco immigration court.

A girl named Natalie, who is 10, described being held in a detention facility she called the “freezer” because of the uncomfortable temperature. “It was unbearably cold. It was freezing,” she said during testimony. “We had to cover ourselves with aluminum foil.”

Others described horrific violence in their home countries in Central America, and spoke about their journeys to the United States on a dangerous freight train that’s earned the nickname The Beast.

Lawyers and advocates weighed in, too. One speaker read a prepared statement from Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, who wrote that due to violence and instability in Central America, “The cases we deal with are often in effect death penalty cases.”

As the Guardian previously reported, the supplemental funding request was proposed by Sup. David Campos, who noted during the hearing that he felt a personal connection with the kids because he himself was once an undocumented youth arriving to the United States from Central America.

Yet when Campos introduced the budget supplemental proposal at last week’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Board President David Chiu – Campos’ opponent in the race to represent District 17 in the California Assembly – noted that he had secured funding during the budget process for the expansion of a legal aid program to ensure immigrant youth would have access to pro bono legal counsel.

“Unless we actually fund nonprofits to provide that support, pro bono counsel cannot help in the way that we need them to,” Campos said during the Sept. 10 hearing.

Chiu suggested at last week’s full board meeting that a grant awarded to the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, for $100,000, was intended to aid unaccompanied youth and could leverage pro bono legal representation valued at some $8 million. But Oren Sellstrom, legal director at the Lawyer’s Committee, said during the Sept. 10 hearing, “The grant we received is not focused either on unaccompanied youth or on the rocket docket,” referring to expedited immigration court proceedings. Sellstrom said he thought the additional funding proposed by Campos was needed.

In the end, the members of the Budget & Finance Committee – Sups. John Avalos, Eric Mar, and Mark Farrell – voted unanimously to recommend approval of $1.063 million per year for two years, slightly less than the $1.2 million per year Campos had originally sought.

After the hearing, Campos told the Bay Guardian he was “cautiously optimistic” that the full board, which votes on the supplemental on Tue/16, would approve the funding. His office is working with the Mayor’s Office on Housing and Community Development to expedite the process of securing contracts if it wins full approval.

Farrell, the more conservative member of the committee, said he’d had concerns walking into the hearing but was struck by youth’s accounts of their experiences. He said he had previously represented undocumented immigrants as an attorney and was sympathetic to their cases. “I had some concerns about the fact that during our own budget process, every year, we cannot fund enough services,” he told the Bay Guardian.

But at the end of the day, Farrell said, “This is a situation we cannot turn our back on in San Francisco.”