Crossing the line

Pub date November 11, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan

Estella (a fake name she used to protect her identity) is a single mother of five who came to the United States from Latin America when her oldest daughter was a baby, hoping for a better future for her family.

But thanks to a shift in San Francisco’s sanctuary policy that Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered last year, Estella’s daughter — we’ll call her Maria, now 15 — was seized by federal immigration authorities this fall, ripped from her family and community, and shipped to a detention center in Miami.

Her crime: she got in a fight with her younger, U.S.-born sister.

The experience shattered Estella’s dreams and terrified her family, whom immigration experts describe as "mixed status" because Estella also has U.S.-born children.

It also convinced Estella to speak out publicly to try to convince Newsom that legislation that ensures due process for kids like her daughter is the right thing to do.

Last month, a veto-proof majority of the Board of Supervisors voted to support amendments to Newsom’s current policy in an effort to make sure juveniles get their day in court before being hastily and needlessly referred to federal immigration authorities.

But the next day, Newsom vetoed the legislation introduced by Sup. David Campos, claiming it violates federal law. And now Newsom is refusing to debate the issue with Campos or meet with the community whose kids are at risk of being deported because someone in local law enforcement suspects them of being here without paperwork and accuses them of committing a serious crime.

Under Newsom’s policy, which he ordered without public review in June 2008, city officials are required to refer juveniles whom they suspect of being undocumented felons to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they book them at Juvenile Hall.

Last month Newsom defended his policy, saying that the city’s sanctuary ordinance, as originally conceived and adopted, was designed to protect law-abiding city residents.

"It was never meant to serve as a shield for people accused of committing serious crimes in our city," Newsom wrote in his veto letter.

His comments followed close on the heels of a San Francisco Chronicle editorial claiming the majority of these juveniles detained are subsequently found guilty of serious crimes.

But this is not true: the Juvenile Probation Department’s 2008 statistics show that 68 percent of the young people arrested in San Francisco that year were found to be innocent.

And as Estella’s story shows, under Newsom’s policy juveniles who have not committed serious crimes are at risk of being reported and detained for possible deportation.

This means a teenager — a 15-year-old girl in this case — could get dropped off in a country she last saw when she was a baby, with no family to meet and take care of her. These kids are at risk of being preyed upon by criminal gangs or "coyotes," often-unscrupulous human traffickers known to abuse and abandon young people during the perilous border crossing.

Most kids in Maria’s situation would want to return to their U.S. home — to their parents, families, friends — the only community they know. But since the federal government has made border crossings increasingly perilous, getting back to the U.S. often requires several thousand dollars in smuggler fees — leaving teens open to harsh exploitation.

In other words, deportation — in Maria’s case, for the crime of a fight with her sister — could be a sentence to years of forced labor, life in a violent gang … or death.


It’s not clear how Maria got into the altercation at school with her sister; fights between siblings and friends in high school are hardly a rare or even terribly remarkable experience. But in this case, Estella told us, a school official reported her daughters’ fight to a social worker, who brought a police officer to Estella’s house for questioning.

As a result, Estella’s daughter was taken to Juvenile Hall. A year ago, she would have had access to a lawyer, who would have helped sort things out. If the fight had been serious or violent, she might have been placed on supervised probation.

But thanks to Newsom’s new policy, probation officers referred her to ICE and its agents swooped in, seized her, and shipped her to Miami.

Ultimately, a juvenile judge in San Francisco recommended Estella’s daughter be put on probation — but by that time, Maria was already in Florida, in a detention center run by a private company under contract to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Detainees have no right to a public defender or free legal services. It’s often hard for their families to find out exactly where they are, so detainees wait in detention for immigration officials to decide what to do next.

Maria was fortunate that ORR recommended temporary reunification. Immigrant advocates say that Estella’s daughter is now back in the Bay Area with her family, but is still under deportation proceedings.

They note that one way parents can get their kids back from ICE is by giving up information — including the names, fingerprints, and addresses of other family members — to federal immigration authorities. But parents are not always willing to do that, especially if it could lead to other family members, including children, being deported.

As of press time, a super-majority on the Board of Supervisors is planning to override Newsom’s veto of Campos’ legislation at its Nov. 10 meeting. But the mayor has said he intends to ignore the Campos legislation — a posture that is not only legally questionable, but leaves immigrant parents facing the ongoing nightmare that their teens could get deported to a country they never knew for a crime they didn’t commit.

Immigrant advocates cite the case of a 14-year-old boy who is under ICE removal proceedings after he brought a BB-gun to school, and a Mexican youth who was deported, even though the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the robbery charges against him.

Patti Lee, managing attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Juvenile Unit, described how the feds recently snatched a kid outside juvenile court, even though the District Attorney’s Office had dismissed his case.

"The kid was coming into court with his mother and the ICE agent had a photo of him, and grabbed him outside the building," Lee said. "His mom was hysterical and it was traumatic for our staff."

These are not isolated cases. ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice told us that 150 juveniles from San Francisco have been referred to ICE, and 114 have been taken into federal custody and transferred to detention facilities since Newsom ordered his policy change in 2008.

Immigration advocates say some of the kids have been sent to Yolo County, while others have been shipped to Oregon, Washington, Indiana, and Florida, making visits from family members, who may themselves be undocumented, extremely difficult.

Eric Quezada, an immigrant advocate and the executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, told us that while kids may try crossing the border to rejoin their families and friends, "lacking the serious dollars to come back, many are deported into extreme poverty or to be part of a gang."

Lee notes that federal immigration authorities have a duty to reunite children with their families. "But if the family is undocumented, its members are afraid to step forward, afraid to step into the Youth Guidance Center," Lee said. "So there are some children sent back to their alleged country of origin, without a family and resources. Because we can’t track them, that may be a death sentence."


As a volunteer with No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths), a humanitarian camp in Arizona, SF Pride member Molly Goldberg has seen firsthand what being deported and trying to cross the border means to immigrants in terms of loss of dignity and life.

Arizona has been an immigrant rights testing ground for years. Shortly after its creation as an agency, the Department of Homeland Security provided millions of dollars to build a wall blocking the easiest terrain, forcing border crossers into the most rugged and dangerous areas, Goldberg said.

"They are bottle-necking it so folks cross in the most difficult, deadly area," she said.

Since the wall went up, the numbers crossing have gone down — but numbers dying have gone up. Goldberg said 184 people have died so far this year. But the numbers of dead could be much higher. "Because of the vultures and other scavengers, bodies are gone pretty quickly," she said.

This year, Service Employee International Union Local 1021 organizer Robert Haaland accompanied Goldberg to the border. Haaland says what he saw convinced him of the need for Campos’ amendment.

"I kept thinking about the Campos legislation in terms of seeing the impact of people crossing the border after being deported," Haaland said. He described a makeshift memorial to a 14-year-old El Salvadoran girl named Josseline whom smugglers left behind after she got sick from eating a bad can of tuna, according to her younger brother. He managed to cross the border, but Josseline died after wandering alone and without water in the border’s dry and inhospitable no man’s land for a week.

Others get left behind and die because they are wearing the wrong shoes and end up with badly blistered feet or are too weak to continue the grueling trek. Haaland recalled seeing water bottles that volunteers had left on the coyote trails but had subsequently been slashed, presumably by nativist vigilantes.

"The Border Patrol is using the desert as a weapon and harassing people who go to the border to give humanitarian aid," Haaland said.

That’s where some of the kids Newsom has sent for deportation will wind up.


Although Newsom has made it clear he intends to keep referring kids to ICE, their whereabouts and fate under his policy remains somewhat of a mystery.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesperson for ORR, which is responsible for detained juveniles deemed "unaccompanied" (a category they could be placed in if they refuse to divulge the whereabouts of undocumented family members in the U.S.) said he can’t divulge their precise whereabouts because of juvenile confidentiality rules.

Wolfe told the Guardian that kids could be placed in juvenile halls or shelter-like facilities run by private contractors, depending on their crimes. He said ORR is required to report to Congress annually about the program, but the report for FY 2008-09 won’t be available for a few months.

In the meantime, Wolfe e-mailed the Guardian a copy of ORR’s 2007-08 report, which includes a map featuring colored circles to represent the numbers of apprehended kids based on Department of Homeland Security referrals.

The map shows that in 2007-08, less than 100 juveniles were apprehended in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington; 100-250 were apprehended in San Diego; 1,000-1,600 in Phoenix; and 1,600-2,600 at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Presumably, next year’s map will include a colored circle around San Francisco, representing an apprehension rate similar to San Diego. But it probably won’t reveal which facilities these kids were sent to or whether they were ultimately deported, even though these kids were apprehended on the basis of referrals made by local city officials.

Nor will it show what the local community knows full well: that many deported kids cross back over the border to rejoin their families. Only now, because they have been deported, they are forced to go underground and are at risk if being recruited by gangs.

The federal government’s Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program was transferred from ORR to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. "The program is designed to provide for the care and placement of unaccompanied alien minors apprehended in the U.S. by Homeland Security agents, border patrol officers, or other law enforcement agencies and are taken into care pending resolution of their claims for relief under U.S. immigration law or released to adult family members or responsible adult guardians," reads the U.S. Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. "Resolution of their claims may result in release, granting of an immigration status (such as special immigrant juvenile or asylum), voluntary departure, or removal."

According to a 2008 ORR report, "a great number of UAC have been subjected to severe trauma, including sexual abuse and sexual assault in their home countries or on their journey to the U.S.: gang violence, domestic violence, traumatic loss of a parent, and physical abuse and neglect. In addition, UAC experience the increased probability of ongoing trauma as a result of their uncertain legal status and return to difficult life circumstances."

The report also notes that "UAC have indicated that, among other reasons, they leave their home countries for the U.S. to rejoin family, escape abusive family relationships in their home country, or find work to support their families in their home country."

ORR has approximately 7,200 UAC a year in its facilities, which are operated by organizations such as the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. There are more than 41 ORR-funded care provider facilities in 10 different states.

Last year’s ORR report noted that average length of stay in federal detention facilities is 55 days before children are released to family members and other sponsors, move into the adult system, or are returned to their home countries.

"As these programs increase and ICE increasingly places people in them, there’s a financial incentive to keep detaining people." Francisco Ugarte, an immigration lawyer with San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network, told us.

But Abigail Trillin, staff attorney for Legal Services for Children, says ORR is doing a better job of handling juveniles than ICE did. "ORR has the right and obligation to try and place these kids in the least restrictive option," Trillin said. "But being reunified with your family does not in any way change the fact that you are under federal removal proceedings. So you still have a very significant risk of being deported alone to your country of origin."

Having a documented parent helps a juvenile make the case for staying in the U.S. permanently, as does having grounds for asylum. Having siblings who are U.S. citizens or having been here since you were a small child does not significantly help someone’s case.

But ending up in lockup can makes things worse. "If a child is in an ORR secure detention facility, they are less likely to fight their deportation case — a fight that could take up to two years — than if they were reunified with their family," Trillin said. "We have not yet seen a juvenile move from a secure facility to a foster home, but we have in the case of kids who are in ORR shelters for more than three months and have a legal case for staying."

Still, she said it’s possible a child could be flown to an airport in their country of origin without much subsequent support in most Latin American countries. "If they are Mexican, they are flown to the airport in Tijuana, and if there are no relatives, they are turned over to a child welfare agency in Mexico," Trillin said. "I don’t believe that level of cooperation exists elsewhere, though there might be some temporary shelters for them to wait in while their relatives are coming."

All countries of origin will have some involvement, Trillin noted, to the extent that they are contacted because all these kids need travel documentation. But that support is minimal. As she said, "Our country feels that it’s done its duty once the consulates are contacted."


In his Oct. 28 veto letter, Newsom claimed that the supervisors had changed the sanctuary ordinance by "restricting the ability of local law enforcement officers to report juveniles who are in custody after being booked for the alleged commission of a felony and are suspected of vioutf8g the civil provisions of our sanctuary ordinance."

But in a Nov. 2 response to Newsom’s veto, Campos countered that his amendment won’t shield anyone guilty of such crimes and he invited Newsom to publicly debate the issue. "The board and the people of San Francisco deserve to understand more fully why you intend to ignore this policy and the time-honored democratic processes followed in enacting it," Campos wrote. "At stake is the protection of innocent immigrant children that have been unjustly separated from their families."

He also accused Newsom of spreading misinformation about what federal law requires. "City officials have no affirmative legal duty under federal law to expend limited local resources and funding on immigration enforcement," Campos wrote, citing a July 1, 2008 public memo from the City Attorney’s Office and legal experts from Yale Law School, Stanford Law School, and UC Davis Law School who "have all agreed that there is no federal duty to inquire or report."

Noting that the City Attorney’s Office has made it clear that his proposed amendment is "a legally tenable measure," Campos concluded that "the point at which a referral of a minor is made to ICE is ultimately not a legal decision but a policy decision.

"Our criminal justice system rests on the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty; that is why providing youth an opportunity to contest a charge in court is a matter of basic due process," Campos continued. "The current policy is creating a climate of fear in immigrant communities, which means that immigrants who have been victims or witnesses to crimes are afraid to come forward."

The City Attorney’s Office has declined to comment on whether the mayor has the authority to ignore properly approved legislation. "We are not going to comment on legislation that’s still in the legislative process," City Attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey told us.

But Campos believes the mayor lacks any such authority. "Can the mayor ignore legislation because he believes it’s illegal? Does he have the authority to have the final say? I don’t think so," said Campos, who is an attorney.

Trillin sees Newsom’s refusal to debate the issue with Campos as further confirmation that the Mayor’s Office doesn’t have a substantive argument that its sanctuary policy is a good one. "They can’t defend their position. They can’t win on substance," said Trillin, whose organization frequently provides legal guidance and support for immigrant youth.

She noted that the controversy that prompted Newsom’s policy change started with family reunification efforts. City officials were trying to reunite undocumented teenagers who were caught selling crack in downtown San Francisco with their families in Honduras when ICE officials intercepted them at George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport in December 2007 and May 2008.

These interceptions led U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello, who opposed San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance when it was introduced in the 1980s, to claim that flying youth back to their families without first referring them to ICE was tantamount to harboring criminals.

After the apprehended city officials claimed they were acting in accordance with San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance, Russoniello convened a federal grand jury to investigate the city’s juvenile probation department. That investigation still hangs over JPD, even as Sen. Barbara Boxer mulls recommending candidates to replace Russoniello.

Meanwhile, right-wing activists have been blaming the city’s sanctuary policy for the tragic 2008 shootings of three members of the Bologna family, after they discovered that 23-year-old Edwin Ramos, the alleged killer and an MS-13 gang member, was apprehended by San Francisco’s juvenile justice system as a teen, but was never referred to the feds.

Facing this firestorm, Newsom caved to public pressure and followed the advice of Kevin Ryan, his Republican criminal justice director and the only prosecutor fired for cause during the 2006 U.S. attorneys firing scandal, by ordering that the city treat juvenile immigrants as adults, referring them to ICE at the moment of arrest on felony charges.


The same day supervisors approved Campos’ amendment, outgoing LAPD Chief William Bratton urged his department to keep its focus on fighting crime, not illegal immigration, plunging headfirst into the controversy over the federal 287(g) program.

Created in 1996 and expanded in the wake of 9/11 purportedly to counter terrorism and violent crime, the 287(g) program allows the federal government to enter into agreements giving local police the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. This has led many immigrants to mistrust and refuse to cooperate with local cops.

"My officers can’t prevent or solve crimes if victims or witnesses are unwilling to talk to us because of the fear of being deported," Bratton wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece.

"I think what Chief Bratton is saying is different from what we are hearing in San Francisco" Campos said. "Mayor Gavin Newsom seems to be implying that San Francisco’s juvenile probation officers have no choice. But really, there is no law requiring them to refer kids to ICE. So it seems that what the mayor is doing is creating a de facto 287(g) program that gives local officers the power of federal agents."

That’s why Campos said it’s important for Newsom to participate in a public discussion of his intentions. "We need to ask the mayor if what he is saying is that JPD is an arm of ICE. If that’s the case, we need to know."

President Obama promised during the campaign that immigration reform would be part of his legislative agenda, but the White House hasn’t acted much on the issue. Yet immigration attorney Francisco Ugarte is hopeful that the tide is turning locally, as witnessed by the outpouring of support for Campos’ legislation. "Thirty-three percent of San Francisco residents are foreign-born," Ugarte observed. "That’s a really high number, a significant part of the constituency."

Russoniello told the Guardian that immigrants are not entitled to the same level of due process as citizens, implying that the U.S. has a two-tier criminal justice system. "There are citizens, and then there are people," Russoniello said.

Ugarte finds such arguments laughable. "The federal government has to make the argument that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to undocumenteds," Ugarte said. "These are hare-brained ideas that stem from hate and fear. The wonderful part of our country is that we have respect in the laws for all."

Ugarte believes that blaming the tragic Bologna murders on the city’s immigrant youth policy is like arguing that putting people on parole leads to crime. "Yes, there are going to be bad apples," Ugarte said. "But that doesn’t mean we can solve our problems by sending people to another country. L.A. thought it could get rid of gangs by deporting people to El Salvador. But guess what? They only grew the problem."

Patti Lee of the Public Defender’s Office doesn’t believe that the sanctuary policy will change unless the Board exerts financial pressure on Juvenile Probation. "I do not believe the policy will change because JPD is under orders from the mayor," Lee explained. "But JPD is supposed to comply with the legislation. So the Board of Supervisors, through its Public Safety Committee, could question JPD’s chief about his current process and why he isn’t complying with it. The board does have control over JPD’s budget, so it can put the squeeze on them."

"When police arrest and detain an undocumented child and bring them into detention charged with a felony, the minute they come in front gate, JPD has been directed to contact ICE," Lee said. "So we are not even aware until a day or two later, when we receive a police report or when we get a house list the next day, if someone is ICEed or not."

If the kids are unaccompanied and there are no family members in town, they typically go to juvenile lock-up for 30 days and then are released to ICE and get deported," Lee said.

"They are being ICEed even if they are adjudicated," Lee added, noting how her department got one youth’s charges reduced to misdemeanors but JPD reported the youth to ICE anyway, based on the current policy that any undocumented person booked on a felony should be reported at the moment of booking. "So they were ICEed without due process," Lee said. "And these are children."