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.
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.
Read more at The Atlantic.