S.F. Moves to Provide $2 Million for Lawyers for Immigrant Kids

By John Coté

You can read the original article on SF Gate.

Natali-and-Fatima
Fatima, 12, left, and her sister, Natali, 10, said they recently fled El Salvador, where they lived with their grandmother, to be reunited with their parents, who live in San Francisco. They face deportation proceedings and don’t have a lawyer. (John Cote / The Chronicle)

They described other children being gunned down in the street because they wouldn’t join a gang, a freezing room in a detention center where kids huddled under aluminum foil for warmth, or riding the train known as “The Beast” for a month as it snaked northward through Mexico to the border.

A 5-year-old made the journey with her mother, but others who were 12 and 13 came withcoyotes – people hired to smuggle them across the border.

With uncertain eyes, a nervous scratch of the head or a quick disarming smile, the children who recently fled their Central American homes all asked the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Wednesday for one thing: a lawyer.

“In my country every day, children are shot and killed who were not doing anything, just walking on the street,” said a 12-year old Guatemalan boy who spoke through an interpreter and gave his name only as Bryan. He was one of about 10 undocumented youth who stepped up to a lectern in San Francisco City Hall as the Board of Supervisor’s budget committee considered a proposal to use $2.4 million over two years from city reserves to fund immigration lawyers for youth facing fast-tracked deportation. The proceedings, known as the “rocket docket” come as President Obama’s administration tries to deal with a wave of unaccompanied children who have shown up on the United States’ southern border in recent months.

The Board of Supervisor’s three-member committee voted unanimously to support a little over $1 million a year, or $2.1 million total, to be drawn from the $58 million in the city’s general reserve.

The supplemental budget appropriation must still go to the full Board of Supervisors. Even if approved, Mayor Ed Lee would not be required to spend the money.

“It’s not done until it’s done,” said Supervisor David Campos, who authored the proposal, which has a close personal connection. Campos was brought into the country illegally from Guatemala at age 14.

“This is a modest amount given the extent of the need, but it’s an important step,” Campos said of the funding. “It cannot just end here. It cannot be just San Francisco allocating this money. We challenge the rest of the Bay Area … to step in and do the same.”

A report last week by the board’s Budget and Legislative Analyst projected there will be about 2,100 cases at San Francisco Immigration Court this year where juveniles or “family units” – at least one parent and one child – won’t have a lawyer.

The report estimated the cost of providing an attorney in all of those cases at about $6.2 million. Funding $1.2 million a year is expected to cover only those cases where the youth are currently living in San Francisco, about 20 percent of the total. Campos’ proposal now includes funding for slightly less than that.

The number of unaccompanied juveniles caught after crossing into the U.S. along the southwest border spiked to almost 63,000 during the first 10 months of fiscal 2013-14, according to the budget analysts’ report.

More than 25,000 deportation proceedings are pending in San Francisco, and, as of the end of June, at least 4,100 involved juveniles, according to an analysis of court data by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The Syracuse study found that about 2,200 of those children do not have legal representation, which heavily influences their future: Only 1 in 10 juveniles who appeared in immigration court in recent years without a lawyer was allowed to stay in the U.S., according to the university’s analysis.

By contrast, almost 50 percent of children with legal representation were allowed to remain in the country, the university found.

“It makes a huge difference to have an attorney,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.

However, unlike in criminal law, people involved in deportation cases don’t have a right to a court-appointed attorney.

San Francisco is giving $100,000 this year to the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which will use the funds to provide pro bono legal representation to city residents facing deportation, including children and families, under a proposal pushed by board President David Chiu. That’s a “critical piece of the solution,” but it’s not enough to meet “the needs presented by this current crisis,” wrote Oren Sellstrom, interim executive director of the lawyer’s committee, in a letter supporting Campos’ additional funding.

Mayor Ed Lee, who returned Tuesday night from a two-day trade mission to Mexico that also included a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador E. Anthony Wayne to discuss the surge in undocumented immigrant youths, acknowledges that legal services are needed for these children, said his spokeswoman, Christine Falvey. Exactly what form that assistance takes, including pro bono work, is still being considered, she said.

“I don’t know what the amount will be,” Falvey said, “but at the end of the day, he supports providing more legal services to these children and youth.”