A few times a month, San Francisco's immigration court becomes a day-care center of sorts. Toys, stuffed animals, and coloring books decorate the waiting room. Children as young as four years old have come here not to play, but to stand in front of an immigration judge and defend themselves against deportation.
When I visited the court one afternoon this past March, about 20 kids had formed a single-file line as they waited to go through security. Wide-eyed boys in t-shirts and jeans cracked their knuckles. Many had never been to a courtroom before. Some were wearing suits in an attempt to make a good first impression. Some of them took a seat on the thinly padded metal chairs, crossing and recrossing their legs. Teenage girls with colorful ribbons in their hair studied their surroundings.
“It looks almost like you're going into a pediatrician's office,” said Katie Annand, the managing attorney with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an organization that helps immigrant children find attorneys. “There are children lining the benches of the courtroom. Many of them ... have no one to represent them.”
For immigrant children living in San Francisco, state funding, non-profit legal services, and volunteer attorneys mean that they have a better chance of having a lawyer stand by their side during deportation proceedings. That’s not the case for children who must find their way roughly 180 miles from Fresno County, in the heart of California’s Central Valley, where a sizable immigrant population lives.
On that day in March, the children entered the courtroom slowly and silently. These children are classified as “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC), or minors who traveled to the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian. As they settled onto the wooden benches, they listened carefully to a young female employee speaking in Spanish. “If you don’t have an attorney, please follow me to the waiting room.” That’s almost all of them: Of the approximately 20 children who were there that day, only two had representation.
Immigration courts are classified as civil courts, which means that unaccompanied children aren’t guaranteed a right to a government-appointed attorney the way they would be in a criminal court. Instead, if they want legal help, they have to find—and, usually, pay for—an attorney themselves. Around one-fourth of unaccompanied children facing deportation are represented by an attorney, according the most recently available data which was collected in August 2017.
Having an attorney makes a huge difference: As of 2014, more than 80 percent of children who showed up to court unrepresented were deported, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration database. For children who appeared in court with legal representation, only 12 percent were deported.
Since 2014, more than 500 unaccompanied children have settled in Fresno County; after being released to sponsors who can care for them temporarily, these children must undergo court proceedings to determine their future. In the rural, agricultural communities in this county, reputable immigration lawyers are scarce. And limited free legal services, as well as distance from immigration courts, are major obstacles for unaccompanied minors in deportation proceedings. This means that many children are left navigating their way through a foreign legal system that has few resources to help the undocumented, who make up 38 percent of the immigrant population in the Fresno region, according to a 2014 estimate.
“We’ve seen children from the Central Valley who have been to court four or five times without an attorney,” Annand said. “They’ve had to pay $200 each time to get a ride up here for court, so they are coming up to court just to say ‘I don’t have an attorney.’”
More than 200,000 children under the age of 18 have traveled to the U.S. across the Southwest border alone in the past four years, according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (these numbers don’t account for children who may have crossed into the country unnoticed). Most of the children arriving in recent years have come from the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Some are hoping to reunite with family in the U.S. Others are fleeing gang violence, like one 18-year-old girl who fled Guatemala when she was 17 and lives just outside Fresno County. (She asked to be identified as Zoe in order to protect her identity.)
Zoe’s mother, a small-business owner, was blackmailed by gang members, she said. After that, Zoe and her family decided that it wasn’t safe for Zoe to stay in Guatemala. Zoe recalled waking up at two in the morning to take the bus. After saying goodbye to her mother and two brothers, who were staying behind so that the eldest could finish college, she left. The trip lasted about 20 days. Zoe's final destination was Fresno, where she hoped she would live with her father, whom she hadn’t seen since she was a small child. Even if a child reunites with a parent or legal guardian who lives in the U.S., they may still be considered UACs since they entered the country on their own. Once here, she received a letter to appear in front of a judge at the San Francisco Immigration Court.
One 19-year-old living in Fresno who showed up at the San Francisco Immigration Court unrepresented told me, “I didn’t have lawyers; I didn’t have money to pay them. I had nothing.” He’s currently in immigration proceedings and asked to be referred to as Eduardo, since he was afraid that publicity could affect his attempt to gain legal status. While Eduardo is not a minor anymore, he was when he arrived in the U.S. He traveled from Guatemala to the United States when he was 17 to reunite with his mother, whom he hadn’t seen since he was 3 years old, in California. About $2,000 got him a guide, or guía, who took him as far as the U.S. border. After reaching the Rio Grande river, he wandered through the desert under the burning sun for about six hours, until he ran into authorities. Eduardo turned himself in and was held in a detention center in Texas, before being sent to live with his mother in the Central Valley.
After arriving in the Central Valley, Eduardo started searching for an attorney, to no avail. As his first court appearance approached, he grew more and more worried. “If I went [to court] without a lawyer I wouldn't be able to defend myself, because I don’t know how,” he explained.
On an average day last April, the immigration attorney Jennifer Doerrie was receiving approximately 70 or 80 phone calls. Some were clients requesting appointments; others were those who desperately needed legal advice. With about 3,000 active cases, Doerrie’s earliest availability for many consultation-seekers without tight deadlines was close to 90 days away. She gives priority to clients facing the most pressing issues. That means she must turn people away almost daily. “I’m … still in my office after 7 p.m. on a Friday night … so that also may provide some insight in determining the level of demand for immigration legal services versus supply right now,” Doerrie wrote in an email to me one evening last spring, which she said tends to be her busiest season.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) lists 28 member or pending member attorneys within a 50-mile radius of the city of Fresno. In her almost 14 years of practicing law in Fresno, Doerrie, 46, said she doesn’t believe she has ever encountered at least six of the attorneys on the list, despite the fact that she’s the current AILA co-liaison in Fresno, and she said that there are another five or so who she doesn’t believe are extremely active in immigration law and have concentrated on other areas. By her count, the list is down to around 17 active immigration lawyers in the area. While there are active immigration attorneys in Fresno who aren’t members of AILA, there are still not enough to meet the demands of the roughly 200,000 immigrants living around the county (according to the most recent available census data). Even fewer have expertise in child-immigration law and are able to help those who arrive as unaccompanied children.
The scarcity of attorneys in rural areas of California is due in part to how far these areas are from immigration courts. The immigration court in San Francisco has jurisdiction over areas from Bakersfield all the way to the Oregon border. Yet many people I spoke with told me that most immigration attorneys in California live in metropolitan areas like San Francisco or Los Angeles, where immigration courts are located. “It just makes common sense that lawyers who are practicing immigration law for a living are going to be centered and have their offices close to the immigration offices that they serve,” said Dana Marks, the president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) and an immigration judge in San Francisco.
Fleeing violence, reuniting with family, and searching for economic opportunities are some of the most commonly cited reasons why minors travel to the U.S. alone. But some immigration critics have argued that the increase in unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border in recent years is a result of perceptions of relaxed immigration policies toward children under the Obama administration.
Due to their age and vulnerability, unaccompanied children have more legal protections than other immigrants. U.S. law mandates that children from Central America who show up at the border alone and are apprehended by Homeland Security can’t be turned away immediately. Instead, they are taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. When possible, they are housed with relatives or family friends who have agreed to act as sponsors and provide for their care.
“When I arrived, I was caught by immigration officers. Since I was a minor, they took me to a shelter [for] minors and asked me if I had family,” Zoe recalls. The officers sent Zoe to live with her father. After being housed with sponsors, children are then usually placed in immigration court proceedings, where a judge decides whether they will be deported. These proceedings aim to ensure that the children receive due process and allow them the opportunity to provide evidence that they are in danger of being harmed if deported to their home countries.
The White House has taken a variety of steps to reshape the legal landscape for unaccompanied children in the United States, even before the Trump administration's family-separation policy generated outrage in the summer of 2018. In an October 2017 letter to Congress, President Trump sought to restrict the special legal protections for children, which he called “loopholes.” “Loopholes in current law prevent ‘Unaccompanied Alien Children’ (UACs) that arrive in the country illegally from being removed,” the letter read. “Rather than being deported, they are instead sheltered by the Department of Health and Human Services at taxpayer expense.”
Immigration advocates argue that tighter measures may target children who are fleeing abuse or abandonment. “The so-called loopholes … are in fact forms of protection that ensure we do not return unaccompanied children to grave danger,” said Megan McKenna, the director of communications at KIND.
But some argue that Trump’s policies have the interests of minors in mind. This is especially true in instances that might constitute child smuggling, which can cause children harm, said Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank which supports stricter immigration control. “There is also a concern that certain gangs may attempt to infiltrate the refugee flow.”
In April, the administration announced a “zero-tolerance” policy for immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally, which led to the separation of thousands of children from their families. Those children are considered unaccompanied minors, and they are required to go through removal proceedings to determine whether they’ll be deported—with or without a lawyer. “We have imposed ‘unaccompanied status’ on thousands of children now that didn't have to be unaccompanied,” said Stephanie Canizales, an assistant professor of sociology at Texas A&M University who studies Central American immigration, on the recent separation of children at the border. “[These] are children that we make unaccompanied because of U.S. policy, even though they migrated with parents.”
In 2017, California had the second highest number of unaccompanied minors going through removal proceedings, after Texas. Of the nearly $3 million California spent in the 2017-2018 fiscal year to fund legal services for unaccompanied minors, $125,000 went to Fresno, a $40,000 increase from the year before. Still, most of the money was allocated to cities with immigration courts, like San Francisco or Los Angeles. The number of unaccompanied children who settle around Fresno is relatively small when compared with Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area, which means that resources are scarcer.
Up until two years ago, there were no free legal-service providers for unaccompanied children based in the Fresno area. Kids In Need of Defense opened a Fresno branch two years ago to provide pro bono legal services for immigrant children in that area. KIND is currently the only free legal-service provider specifically for unaccompanied minors in the city of Fresno.
One reason for the lack of free legal services in Fresno is limited funding, said Jesus Martinez, the director of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC). Many people I spoke with described the area’s political environment as conservative, which may have made it difficult to drum up support for funding for the immigrant community. Traditionally, most of the Central Valley has voted red, contrary to the liberal coastal counties of California. In January of 2017, Fresno mayor Lee Brand announced that Fresno wouldn’t join the “sanctuary city” movement, which was formed to express support for people who enter the United States illegally.
Local immigration advocates fought back. Last year, after increased immigration enforcement under the Trump administration, community organizers led by Faith in the Valley, a grassroots community organization, proposed a $200,000 legal-defense fund for immigrants, to be created with public and private funds. The money could have provided some legal relief for immigrants, among them unaccompanied children.
The proposal was voted down by the Fresno City Council, a decision Martinez called “disappointing.” “They have a very distorted view of what immigrants are, what their contributions are to the U.S. and to the Fresno area [are], and the responsibility that the local government should have toward its immigrant residents,” Martinez said of the City Council members who opposed the proposal. After the Fresno City Council rejected the proposal, Faith in the Valley started a fundraiser online to raise money for legal representation for immigrants, and they eventually created a legal-defense fund.
Living far from the immigration court in San Francisco hurts immigrant children in Fresno in more ways than one. Not only does it limit the number of lawyers who might help them, but it also makes it difficult for the children to make court appearances or to access free legal services in other areas. Fresno is a three- to four-hour drive from San Francisco. Without a driver’s license, children have to secure rides on their own. “If you’re a kid in Fresno, you are not given an exception,” said Jacqueline Brown Scott, an immigration attorney and assistant professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “You still have to go to the same amount of hearings.”
Many children struggle not only to get from the city of Fresno to San Francisco, but to the city of Fresno from the surrounding agricultural towns or neighboring counties. Fresno County is home to nearly one million residents, with almost 50 percent of the county’s population living outside of the city of Fresno. The majority of residents living in the county’s largely agricultural neighborhoods have to rely on public transportation, which can be limiting. While the Fresno County Rural Transit Agency has buses running Monday through Friday, for many children, simply getting to the city of Fresno on public transit can take up to twice as long as driving.
“The inner routes are really critical to connecting rural residents who don’t have the amenities that the urbanized population has,” said Moses Stites, the general manager of the Fresno County Rural Transit Agency. “If you are summoned to appear in court, you have to come into Fresno ... it’s going to take you a while to get here if your car is not working or if you have to rely on public transportation.”
For transit-dependent migrant workers and children without a car, relying on public transportation in order to get to San Francisco means taking an entire day off of school or work, or risking missing their scheduled hearings. Children who live in neighboring counties like Tulare or Kings County face similar transportation obstacles. Tight city budgets mean the buses run only at limited times of day, usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They have to serve large, spread-out communities.
In order to reach the court in San Francisco, children rely on drivers who often charge hundreds of dollars. Eduardo paid $250 for a ride to San Francisco. “It took me a [while] to find someone who would take me because people are busy ... but it [was] very important for me to go,” Eduardo said.
Eventually he was able to find a ride with the help of the pastor from his church. But he was late to his appointment. If a child fails to appear in court, the judge can proceed with a removal order, but Eduardo said that a lawyer who was in the room at the time defended him, and that he was ordered to return to court at a later date with a lawyer by his side. He would have to pay the same amount, $250, for the ride multiple times after that.
The lack of access to attorneys and free legal services means that unaccompanied children in the Central Valley must rely on Bay Area lawyers for legal help. As an immigration attorney in San Francisco, Brown Scott has noticed an increase in the number of unrepresented children coming from the Central Valley in recent years. She established the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at USF School of Law to respond to the increased demand for legal representation in the Central Valley. That’s how Eduardo eventually found legal help. He said that Brown Scott saved him. “I thank God that they found me because if it wasn’t for them, I would not be in this place anymore,” he said.
Brown Scott said that compared with the Bay Area, she has noticed less sympathy for the immigrant community among local governments, and even perhaps among the general population in the Central Valley. She said that while there is some activism in the Central Valley around funding for immigrants and for coalitions that fight to protect immigrant rights, it’s on a much smaller scale than in the Bay Area. Through her work at the Defense Clinic, Brown Scott has paired up with community organizers to provide legal-training workshops that help children and immigrants understand how the removal process works, and what documentation and paperwork they need.
After opening an office in Fresno in 2016, KIND has been able to address some of the issues that leave unaccompanied children in limbo. Zoe was able to find a pro bono lawyer with help from KIND. All she can do now is wait. She says she has hope. “When the day comes for me to go [to court], I won’t be alone; the lawyers will be with me.”
Back inside the courtroom in San Francisco, judges and lawyers are trying to do as much as they can to help the children who show up unrepresented. Sometimes Marks, the San Francisco judge, takes off her judicial robe to make them feel comfortable. For kids who come to court alone and are scared, she compares the process to school: There will be some teaching, some questions, and some homework. “I try to put it in the context of something that would be more familiar and hopefully less frightening,” she said. “If we want individuals coming to the United States to believe that American democracy is the best, that the American legal system is one that should be emulated ... we have to walk the walk,” Marks said.
A final decision on these children’s future could take anywhere from several months to two to five years. The backlog of pending children’s cases reached an all-time high of almost 90,000 in August 2017. The recent family separations at the border will only exacerbate the demand for legal representation among immigrant minors, lawyers say.
“We know that we will see kids going through this process on their own. Especially for children whose parents have been removed from the country,” said Annand. The need for attorneys already was high, she said. Now, “there's even more of a need.”