San Francisco’s efforts to provide legal services for unaccompanied youth who crossed the U.S. border from Central America is heating up as a point of contention between Sup. David Campos and Board President David Chiu, opponents in the race for California Assembly District 17.
The issue stems from the rise of the “rocket docket,” a Department of Justice directive for immigration courts to speed up processing for unaccompanied youth apprehended at the U.S. border. Under the expedited system, created in response to an overwhelming number of kids fleeing north to escape violence, courts are cramming through as many as 50 cases daily.
“This new docket is dramatically accelerating the pace for the cases of newly arrived, traumatized children and families from Central America,” Robin Goldfaden of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Bay Area wrote in an email to the Bay Guardian. “For many, a wrong decision can mean being sent back to unspeakable harm – brutal beatings, rapes, even death. … But nonprofit legal services providers, already stretched beyond capacity, simply do not have the number of attorneys and other staff required to meet the ever-rising level of need.”
At the Sept. 2 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Campos proposed a budgetary supplemental to allocate $1.2 million for legal representation for unaccompanied youth being processed in immigration court in the Bay Area.
“Under international law, many of these kids would actually qualify as refugees,” Campos noted when he introduced the proposal. “And many of them have cases that would allow them to be protected by immigration law in the US,” but those protections would only apply if they had lawyers advocating for them.
Yet Chiu responded to Campos’ proposal by touting his own efforts culminating in a $100,000 grant award for a different legal aid program for undocumented immigrants, the Right to Civil Counsel. Under that effort, the San Francisco-based Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights was awarded a city grant to fund pro bono legal representation and associated trainings and workshops, which Chiu described as being “particularly for undocumented children from Central America.”
Speaking at the meeting, Chiu commented that the board should “work together” to help unaccompanied children threatened with deportation, “rather than working on competing efforts,” which sounded like a dig on Campos’ proposal. That seemed to imply that the problem had been addressed, throwing into question whether there would be enough support to pass the supplemental.
Reached by phone, however, Chiu said he was open to discussing additional funding. “We should have a public discussion about it,” he said. “I’m open to it.” He noted that his office had been working on bolstering immigrant access to civil counsel for months, and that the $100,000 in funding provided as part of the budget process could train up to 400 private-sector lawyers to provide pro bono representation for unaccompanied youth. “All of us are committed to adressing the humanitarian crisi in the way that San Francisco knows how,” Chiu said.
But Campos, who initiated partnerships with legal aid nonprofits and various city departments to put a proposal together, said his funding request was based on research conducted by the Budget & Legislative Analyst to determine what was needed to adequately represent the surge of unaccompanied youth in immigration court.
In nine out of 10 cases nationally, according to a Syracuse University study, youth without legal representation wind up deported, while closer to 50 percent who have lawyers are afforded protection under immigration law. In many cases youth qualify to stay under a category known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, created to help kids who suffered abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
The Budget & Legislative Analyst projected that 2,130 juveniles a year would lack legal representation in the San Francisco court. In contrast, the $100,000 grant referenced by Chiu, which was awarded last week to the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, was only intended to provide enough pro bono legal representation to cover 75 individuals, including adults as well as children, according to service providers.
Immigration attorneys interviewed by the Bay Guardian said the grant to Lawyers’ Committee wouldn’t stretch far enough to cover the pressing need.
“I don’t think the $100,000 is going to be enough,” noted Misha Seay, a staff attorney at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies who was awarded a fellowship to work on juvenile representation in immigration court before the youth immigration crisis started. “I think it’s a positive thing and a great thing, but we’re going to need a lot more.”
Seay said she had been volunteering in the immigration courts regularly and witnessing firsthand how youth were being thrown into a system that they had little ability to navigate. “We see children of all ages,” she said. “The youngest child I met with was a four-year-old, and then all the way up to 17.”
Goldfaden, of the Lawyers’ Committee, noted that there was a need for more nonprofit attorneys devoted the cause, not just pro bono legal representation. “The grant from the city and the commitment of the pro bono bar comes at a crucial time,” she wrote in emailed comments. “But without the budget supplement that has been proposed to increase the capacity of the corps of nonprofit providers on the frontlines of this crisis, lives will be lost.”