Supervisor Chiu Announces Program That Will Provide Free Legal Aid for Migrant Children

Free legal help is on the way for the rising number of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America and other immigrants facing deportation in San Francisco, thanks to new funding for pro bono attorneys.

“We’re here because liberty and justice for all has not been a reality for all,” said Supervisor David Chiu at a news conference this morning outside of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building on Sansome Street.

“We want that to change – particularly for immigrants who want to come to San Francisco,” he said.

Over the past two years, Chiu has pushed to expand the city’s existing Right to Civil Counsel program, which provides attorneys and other legal services for free to low-income people and focuses on residents facing eviction.

Chiu led the charge to include an additional $100,000 in the city’s recently approved budget to create the San Francisco Immigrant Right to Counsel Program and provide legal help for undocumented immigrants facing deportation.

With the help of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, the organization awarded the funding, the program is expected to leverage that amount to cover free training, mentorship and translators for hundreds of pro bono attorneys from top law firms who will represent undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be forced to act as their own attorneys, according to Chiu’s office.

“This money could not come sooner,” said Chiu, citing the roughly 60,000 to 70,000 unaccompanied minors estimated to have poured into the U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in recent months.

Paul Chavez, senior attorney and pro bono coordinator for the Laywers’ Committee, said “several thousand” undocumented children without lawyers are currently awaiting deportation proceedings in San Francisco immigration court.

Studies have shown that children undergoing deportation proceedings without attorneys are deported nine out of 10 times, while those with representation have a 50 percent chance of not being deported, according to Chiu’s office.

Since January, about 185 unaccompanied Central American minors have been placed with adult sponsors in the city, but it is estimated that hundreds more have sought refuge in San Francisco without a sponsor, according to Chiu’s office.

About 58 percent of unaccompanied Central American children who have come to the United States in recent months are fleeing extreme violence and other dangers such as extortion and sexual assault and qualify for international protection, according to a study from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

But many of the children who appear in San Francisco immigration court are forced to represent themselves in “complex, high-stakes legal proceedings,” said Paul Chavez, senior attorney and pro bono coordinator for the Lawyers’ Committee.

At today’s news conference, Chavez told the story of 4-year-old Javier, who covered his face and trembled in fear during a recent appearance without an attorney in San Francisco immigration court.

“When he comes back this time, I hope he has an advocate,” Chavez said.

Corral Sanchez, a 17-year-old San Franciscan whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, broke into tears this morning while discussing the plight of children like Javier and others who she said, “are being sent back to their home countries awaiting a failed destiny.”

“I don’t think a child should have to go through that, they should get a chance to…live a life without fear of being caught at any moment and being sent back,” she said.

Sanchez, who is headed to the University of California, Santa Cruz this fall, joined about a dozen other local students earlier this month in a five-day hunger strike to bring awareness about unaccompanied children crossing the border.

California state officials are also highlighting the humanitarian crisis, with Gov. Jerry Brown last week announcing a similar plan to provide immigrant children with free legal aid.

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos said today that he plans to seek an additional $1.2 million in funding to provide legal help for undocumented minors in the city. He said the $100,000 currently allocated for the Immigrant Right to Counsel program “is far below the actual need.”

Laura Dixon, Bay City News

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