San Francisco’s undocumented children

Pub date July 15, 2008
WriterJeff Adachi
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION The recent news stories criticizing the city’s juvenile probation department for sending undocumented children home instead of handing them over to the federal immigration authorities has ignited a firestorm of negative attacks.

However, the stories missed a key fact: the city’s practice of transporting youth home was enacted with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service 12 years ago.

San Francisco’s 1989 voter-approved sanctuary law specifically forbids city officials from providing information to federal immigration authorities to aid in deporting noncitizens. While the law does not protect adult felons, it’s silent on the issue of what the city should do with undocumented children after their juvenile cases are concluded.

In 1996 the city’s Juvenile Probation Department drafted a set of policies declaring that undocumented children were entitled to due process of the courts. The policies stipulated that juveniles who wanted to return to their families would be given an airline ticket home after completing their sentences. Children whose families could not be located would be released to halfway homes or foster care, consistent with the way other minors were treated.

In 1993 the INS was sued in the class action suit Flores vs. Reno for unlawfully housing undocumented minors in juvenile correction facilities without access to their families or legal representation. The case settled in 1997 with the INS agreeing that detained children should be placed in the "least restrictive environment," and that every effort would be made to reunite minors with their families.

Prior to the Flores settlement, juvenile probation officials and an attorney for the SF Public Defender’s Office met with representatives from the regional INS office to review San Francisco’s policies.

In 2002 the INS was subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security and became Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While ICE was given the task of prosecuting undocumented children, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, was given the responsibility of protecting these children. Unsurprisingly, in the post-Sept. 11 era, ICE took a more aggressive stance against immigrant youth, particularly those involved in the juvenile justice system.

Meanwhile Congress began debating what to do with unaccompanied children who are taken into ICE custody. In 2002, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act, stating that "unaccompanied alien minors are among the most vulnerable of the immigrant population." Feinstein noted that "many of these children have entered the country under traumatic circumstances … they are young and alone, subject to abuse and exploitation."

San Francisco’s solution of sending kids home to their families, while imperfect, served at least one purpose: of the seven children represented by my office who were sent home in the last 18 months, none have been rearrested in the United States. San Francisco’s reunification policy was legally justified, fair to youth and their families, and cost-effective.

Jeff Adachi

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco’s public defender.