San Francisco Moves to Pay for Kids’ Immigration Lawyers

San Francisco lawmakers are moving
toward providing $2.1 million for lawyers to represent
undocumented immigrant children facing deportation after
crossing the U.S. border to escape violence in Central America.

The number of cases pending in San Francisco Immigration
Court has tripled in the past three years, creating a shortage
of attorneys to represent children and others there.

“These kids are escaping violence and persecution, and
they’re coming to this country because they want to be safe,”
said David Campos, the San Francisco lawmaker who offered the
funding proposal. “We as a country have an obligation to at
least give these kids due process.” Campos himself arrived in
the U.S. at age 14 as an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala.

San Francisco, California’s fourth-largest city, is among
municipalities nationwide receiving 66,127 unaccompanied minors
apprehended since October as they arrived from Guatemala,
Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. The surge has overwhelmed
immigration courts even as President Barack Obama directs them
to act more expeditiously on deportation proceedings.

A handful of cities and states, including California, are
joining San Francisco in offering assistance. Chicago, St. Louis
and Bell, California, have taken steps to house immigrant
children who have no relatives in this country. In Texas,
Governor Rick Perry has deployed the state’s National Guard to
deter criminal activity along the border with Mexico.

Legal Services

California Governor Jerry Brown has offered legislation
steering $3 million to nonprofit groups that provide legal
services, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in July
proposed two locations to shelter them. Republican governors in
Alabama, Kansas and North Carolina sent a letter to Obama saying
the failure to return the children will encourage more to cross
the border.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved
the legal aid Sept. 16 and will take a second required vote on
Sept. 23. While Mayor Ed Lee can approve or veto the measure,
the board has the support needed to override a veto. The mayor
supports the effort and doesn’t plan to oppose it, said his
spokeswoman, Christine Falvey.

Marvin De Leon-Sanic, 17, was among 17 minors who arrived
in the U.S. unaccompanied by an adult and who were scheduled to
appear in San Francisco Immigration Court on Sept. 16. The boy
crossed into Arizona in July, leaving his parents and his home
country of Guatemala to escape gangs in his neighborhood, he
said in an interview before going before a judge, who advised
him to find a lawyer.

‘Killed People’

“They killed people there where I lived,” De Leon-Sanic,
who is staying with a brother in Hayward, California, said in
Spanish in an interview at the court. “I don’t want that to
happen to me.”

Other children facing possible deportation included a 16-year-old girl who fled Guatemala because of rape threats from
gang members and a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who said
she is pregnant from rape. All were represented by pro-bono
lawyers for the day and were advised to find their own

Paola Ramos, 28, was among a group of undocumented
immigrants who attended the meeting where San Francisco
supervisors approved the legal funding.

Ramos, a house cleaner who said she can’t afford an
attorney for her October immigration hearing, said she fled
Honduras with her 5-year-old daughter Axa after gang members
sought monthly bribes from her shrimp business and threatened
her life if she didn’t pay. The two were kidnapped twice as they
traveled for a month by freight trains, crossing the U.S. border
in July, Ramos said.

‘Big Risk’

“I knew it was a big risk to make the journey, but the
threats were so real that I knew I had to risk my life to get my
daughter here,” she said in an interview at San Francisco City

Immigration attorneys say the situation has been made worse
by a June directive from Obama to accelerate action on the
cases, spurring a so-called Rocket Docket that began in July in
which juvenile cases are heard en masse and court dates are
scheduled earlier.

In a June 30 letter to Congress, Obama said he would steer
more immigration judges, attorneys and asylum officers to enable
“the prompt removal of individuals who do not qualify for
asylum or other forms of relief from removal.”

Tripled Caseload

The number of juvenile cases filed in San Francisco
Immigration Court almost tripled to 865 in the first nine months
of fiscal 2014 from three years earlier, according to a Sept. 2
analysis by the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office.
Cases with legal representation have declined as the caseload
surged in the last two years, according to the report.

“That’s why this has been such a crisis for us,” said Ana
Herrera, an immigration attorney at Dolores Street Community
Services in San Francisco. “There’s just no capacity for the
few pro-bono attorneys that exist in the city to attend court
with these kids.”

The odds of averting deportation are much better for those
with a lawyer, said a July 15 report released by Syracuse
in New York.

Courts allowed children to remain in the U.S. in 47 percent
of cases in which a lawyer represented them. Nine out of 10
children were ordered deported when they appeared alone without
representation, the report said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Stephen Merelman at
Jeffrey Taylor, Pete Young

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San Francisco Moves to Pay for Kids’ Immigration Lawyers
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