Every other Wednesday night at the Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, immigrants pack the lobby and spill out into the hallway, waiting for a chance to speak with an attorney.
On a recent night, immigration program director Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis and her team of attorneys swept in and out, meeting with families privately to screen their cases.
“For me personally, what’s so difficult is knowing that we don’t have the resources to meet all these needs,” said Wolfe-Roubatis.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris is calling on more pro bono lawyers to help out legal aid groups like Centro Legal as they scramble to represent the hundreds of Central American children who have recently arrived in the Bay Area. And Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown joined Harris and legislative leaders to announce a bill that would provide $3 million to nonprofit legal services to help handle cases for young immigrants.
Centro Legal were stretched to capacity before the child migrant crisis. Now they are overwhelmed.
On this night at Centro Legal, Wolfe-Roubatis met with a 9-year-old girl from Guatemala who made the journey across two borders alone. She also spoke with a mother named Araceli from Honduras and her two children. (We agreed to not to use her last name out of safety concerns.) Araceli said her family fled vicious gang attacks in San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world.
“Many of my family members, my brothers, have been killed," she said in Spanish. "At my son’s school, they started to charge a 'tax', and if a kid didn’t pay, they wanted him to sell drugs, and if he didn’t, they threatened to kill him and his whole family."
Attorneys across the Bay Area are hearing stories like this again and again. Between January and June, more than 850 children detained at the border have been released to guardians in the Bay Area as they wait for their day in court.
Still others came with a parent, like Araceli’s children. Centro Legal will represent Araceli and her family, but Wolfe-Roubatis said she has to turn away about 40 percent of the people who come through their doors, many of them with what she says are valid claims for protection.
“What is emotionally exhausting is hearing the story and knowing that, without increased capacity, we are not going to be able to represent that person and help them explain their story and get the protection the law provides for them,” Wolfe-Roubatis said.
Rise of the Rocket Dockets
That’s partly because of the new fast pace of hearings. Kids who crossed the border alone now get court dates within three weeks of their release from government custody. Children and parents detained together have to appear within four weeks of release.
In San Francisco, that means two new courtrooms just for children’s first hearings. Attorneys call them the "rocket dockets."
On one weekday morning, a box with picture books in English and Spanish, coloring books and colored pencils sat on the back bench of one courtroom. Thirteen out of 15 families with children showed up without a lawyer.
“We’ve had children as young as 2 walk in,” said Wolfe-Roubatis. “And that child is supposed to explain somehow to the judge what they want to do with their case, while there’s an adverse party who is advocating that that child should be deported.”
That adverse party is an attorney paid for by the federal government. The government doesn’t pay for counsel for immigrants fighting their deportations, regardless of age. According to case records analyzed by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), without lawyers, children lose their claims nine times out of 10. With lawyers, half of them win their cases to stay.
After their initial hearings, children on the rocket docket are given about two months to find an attorney. In normal circumstances, adults in deportation proceedings get four to six months.
“It seems to me that some people like that the system takes so long to consider a case,” said Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush. “You know what happens when the process lasts two years. A lot of these children and families are released never to be seen again, and that’s a problem.”
Aguilar said the government should be able to make a final decision in these cases within three months. He said the process could be speeded up if there was more government funding to pay for some legal help for unaccompanied minors.
Congress hasn’t approved any of that funding. A Senate bill proposed to provide $55 million for legal services to children in immigration proceedings and advice to their families, but it failed on a procedural vote. So, legal aid groups in the Bay Area are having to get creative.
“Right now it’s both a challenging but kind of exciting time, where there’s a lot of interest and conversations going on,” said Carole Conn, director of public service programs at the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Bar Association of San Francisco.
Conn said a network of Bay Area lawyers is coming together to try to meet the need, and many are answering Harris’ call. Advocates are training attorneys on how to handle immigration cases and the special needs of children.
The response in San Francisco has been remarkable, especially in the attorney-of-the-day program. Lawyers are dropping their regular work to show up for children and families in their initial court hearings. The program already existed in San Francisco immigration court, but it jumped to a new level with the rocket dockets. Conn oversees the program.
“It is extremely intense,” said Conn. “There are 20 cases, or families, let’s say, on a given docket, but in one attorney’s case that meant 52 people. Quickly, the courtroom becomes this overrun environment, with kids crying, and all kinds of pressures, much less trying to get a moment where you can confer confidentially with your client.”
The real hurdle is to find attorneys who can stick with these children throughout the legal process and provide full representation. As more children are released to the Bay Area over the next couple of months, lawyers expect the need for legal aid to intensify.