The Conversation

Susan Sward: San Francisco immigration court a window to children’s crisis

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Should California provide legal help for unaccompanied minors in immigration court? Or should all children crossing the border illegally be sent back without a deportation hearing? To write a letter, go to Or comment on our Facebook page at

SAN FRANCISCO – Rosa sits on a red vinyl chair with her two young sons close by and her 1-year-old daughter gurgling in her baby carriage in the federal immigration court’s waiting room. Rosa ended up here, she says, because a gang in her native El Salvador gave her a chilling choice: She had to allow her 10-year-old son, Tomas, to work for the gang or her family would be killed.

Underscoring her point, Rosa – a 31-year-old woman with brown hair pulled back in a ponytail – put her hand to the side of her head and pantomimed a gun being fired.

Rosa, who like other immigrants in this column is not being identified by her real name due to fear for her safety, told me in Spanish that she slipped away from home at night with Tomas, his 4-year-old brother, Diego, and 1-year-old sister, Gabriela.

Twenty-two days later, Rosa said, U.S. authorities apprehended her and her children as they tried to cross the Texas border. At her immigration court hearing last month, Judge Stephen Griswold gave Rosa’s attorney an extension until Nov. 4 to prepare to fight the deportation of Rosa and her children back to El Salvador.

Rosa’s case embodies the harsh quandary posed for the United States by the recent surge of more than 50,000 children who have flooded into this country illegally. Congress, which returns from a five-week recess Monday, adjourned for its break without agreeing on legislation to address the problem. So the coming weeks will tell whether Congress is able to arrive at a compromise on the issue.

“Congress has to appropriate money” to tackle this problem, Ann Morse, immigration policy director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told me. “A lot of communities are stepping forward to try to help these kids, which is good, but this really needs a national resolution.”

Out of this politically charged quagmire, though, no simple path exists.

Politicians are well aware that many Americans – already viewing immigration as a serious problem weighing on the country – oppose allowing these children to remain in the U.S. after they crossed our border illegally. But still the young people come – often because relatives live here and because the United States seems a safe, promising haven to those who have lived in countries where governments and police fail to rein in the far-reaching violence of gangs.

“There is a future here,” said Elena, a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor who told me she fled Honduran gangs who threatened to kill her when they tried to recruit her. Traveling with other migrants by train and bus, she was caught by U.S. authorities in Texas as she tried to reach California to live with family here.

Though the media have been filled lately with poignant pictures of detained children – most of them from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – the magnitude of the problem often gets buried in the crush of bleak, dramatic news out of places like Gaza, Ukraine and Ferguson, Mo. When one visits the immigration court in San Francisco, however, and sees children whose families are fighting deportation, it is hard to close one’s heart to them.

During the two days I watched the “removal proceedings” in San Francisco, Judge Griswold conducted continuous, initial hearings for unaccompanied minors and for families with children. Nationwide, Department of Justice statistics show immigrants often face a very uphill battle when seeking to stay here.

At initial removal hearings, those fighting deportation typically are represented by pro bono lawyers or attorneys hired by immigrants with money to pay. The judge instructs immigrants without lawyers to work very hard to find attorneys. But immigration law is complicated, and cases are often costly to prepare. Immigration advocates say immigrants often can’t pay.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and lawmakers proposed legislation providing $3 million for legal help for unaccompanied minors in the state. In another development, San Francisco will be providing $100,000 this year for pro bono lawyers representing people in the city who are facing deportation, including families with children.

A statistical review by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse has demonstrated just how important lawyers are in the mix.

“The university’s analysis has shown that for the San Francisco court, 58 percent of the time juveniles represented by lawyers in immigration court get to stay in the United States while 86 percent of those without lawyers are sent back home,” said Susan Long, co-director of the clearinghouse program and an assistant professor of managerial statistics at Syracuse.

A TRAC study also found that, as of June 30, there were almost 2,000 cases pending in San Francisco’s immigrant court that involved unaccompanied juveniles. Nationwide, juvenile cases in immigration courts end with deportation orders 77 percent of the time when no lawyer represents the juvenile; when an attorney represents the juvenile, only 28 percent culminate with a deportation order.

Gautam Jagannath, co-founder of the Oakland-based Social Justice Collaborative who served as a pro bono attorney for immigrants in the court, told me: “When many of these kids are sent back, there is no safe place to go back to, and a deportation order could be a death sentence.”

One day last month in the busy waiting room for the San Francisco immigration court – one of seven such courts in California – most of the adults were single mothers, who sat quietly. Two young boys crouched on the floor, reading a picture book about dinosaurs. Another boy pushed a blue, plastic car back and forth on a bench. One 2-year-old girl, Marta, giggled, getting her mother to unbutton and button the pink buttons on her tiny jacket.

This could be a scene at a day care facility. But it’s not. The judges hearing these children’s cases will decide whether the immigrants will stay in America or return to their countries. Those granted asylum will have convinced an immigration judge or asylum officer that they should be allowed to remain in the U.S. “based on their past persecution, or based on a reasonable possibility of future persecution, on account of their membership in a distinct social group and on grounds that their government will not protect them if they were to return,” Jose Marin, Rosa’s attorney, told me.

“I had one client from El Salvador who had his eye gouged out when he wouldn’t cooperate with a gang – then he fled,” Marin said. He added that he also had read a published account about five boys, age 12 to 18, who were killed after being deported to Honduras.

For anyone doubting the amount of violence in the countries from which a large number of immigrants have fled, U.S. State Department advisories and reports make instructive reading.

The State Department says that since 2010, Honduras “has had the highest murder rate in the world.” In El Salvador, the State Department reports “the homicide rate has been rising steadily since August 2013.” Guatemala, meanwhile, “has one of the highest violent crime rates in Central America,” the department reports.

So where are the president and the public on the matter of whether to send those fleeing this mayhem back to their native countries?

In July, President Barack Obama spoke of the “urgent humanitarian situation” when he asked for almost $4 billion for more holding facilities, increased aerial surveillance and additional immigration judges and Border Patrol agents. A White House fact sheet offering background for the president’s proposal listed as first among its focuses “deterrence – including increased detainment and removal of adults with children and increased immigration court capacity to speed cases.” At a White House briefing about the president’s request, one unnamed official made it clear deportations should increase, saying: “The bottom line here is the number of children removed is not large enough.”

The Obama administration’s stance has triggered some criticism from immigration attorneys. “The message of the president is, ‘We want to send the kids back,’ when a lot of these kids fled in fear for their lives,” said Ilyce Shugall of Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. “That message is disturbing.’ ”

A poll, released by The Associated Press and GfK, a German market research company, about three weeks after the president made his emergency funding pitch, gave a snapshot of how the U.S. public views the issue.

More than half of those polled – 51 percent – said that the law should be changed so that all children crossing the border illegally are sent back without a deportation hearing. Less than a third supported the president’s call for more money to deal with the crisis.

In a Field Poll released last week, 58 percent of California voters favored offering migrant children “shelter and support” until their cases are resolved, while 33 percent said they should be deported immediately.

Jagannath, the co-founder of the Social Justice Collaborative, said the public needs to understand that while “this is being pitched as a humanitarian crisis, it is really a political problem where governments can’t control the violence within their borders. The majority of surge cases relate to governments not being able to control gangs, and a lot of the kids being persecuted fled because they don’t want to join a gang” or for a mix of other reasons.

Marin said when people think of children who have fled their countries and come to the U.S. illegally, “they should think about their own children – if they would be willing to send their kids abroad to save their lives. It is sad when these kids come here for safety, they are told by protesters to go home.”

Generally, Americans like to think of their nation as offering an open hand to countries in crisis, and often I think that is true. The crush of children coming out of Central America, however, has no foreseeable end.

With violence rampant there, the tide of illegal immigrants will surely continue. If our Congress were truly a deliberative body with the vision to craft a workable, humane approach to this crisis, we could hope for some solution. But Congress has given us ample evidence that it is unwilling to tackle major social problems. With no solution as yet from Washington providing a reasonable path forward, it is left up to states such as California to chart a course on their own.