shutterstock_238398439On April 27, 2016, the Mayor of San Francisco approved $1.8 million for two years to fund the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative (SFILDC), a unique partnership of 13 legal service providers brought together to represent children and families on the surge dockets before the San Francisco Immigration Court. This funding continues an initial grant by the City of San Francisco in 2014 to create and support the SFILDC through 2016. The SFILDC is an example of what a successful publicly-funded program to provide representation for vulnerable populations in immigration court can look like.

The SFILDC was created in response to the unprecedented thousands of children and families fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico. These refugees arrive at the U.S. border seeking protection only to be forced to navigate the maze of immigration laws and removal proceedings. Statistics have shown that the odds of being allowed to remain in this country increase more than fourteen-fold if women and children have counsel to assist them in overcoming the many procedural hurdles and in presenting their stories.

Juan and Jose, two young brothers from Honduras, illustrate a typical profile of the individuals represented by the SFILDC. They are part of a family of five, headed by a single mother in Honduras, who was terrorized by gang members seeking to extort monthly payments in exchange for granting her the privilege of operating a business in gang-controlled territory. When their mother could no longer make the payments, the gang began threatening Juan and Jose with death and beatings. The family was held hostage in their own home and their sister narrowly escaped being raped. Finally, their mother decided that the only way to protect the boys was to send them to the United States for safety. It took two tries before they were able to reach the U.S. border. Upon their arrival, the brothers were immediately taken into custody, placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, and put in expedited removal proceedings. Fortunately for Juan and Jose, they were settled in San Francisco, where they were able to obtain free representation through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco. That assistance made all the difference; the brothers have since been granted asylum and have been able to resume their high school education.

SFILDC partners* each bring their individual strengths to the Collaborative. Ten organizations provide one attorney dedicated to full-scope representation of San Francisco residents on the surge docket. Two additional organizations were funded to provide training and technical assistance, and another houses the SFILDC legal director, coordinates the intake and referral of cases, and administers a volunteer Attorney of the Day (AOD) program for the surge dockets at the Immigration Court.

For San Francisco residents, this funding has had an enormous impact on representation and outcomes. The SFILDC provides full-scope representation to more than 450 San Francisco-based children and families directly or through pro bono private partners. Of the cases resolved on the merits so far, almost all have been granted relief from removal in the form of asylum, trafficking visas, protection under the Violence Against Women Act, or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. The SFILDC has a centralized intake process for San Francisco residents, and distributes cases to each agency based on capacity, expertise, and other priorities. The SFILDC also receives referrals, works closely with the San Francisco Unified School District, and assists hundreds of other Northern California residents through the AOD program.

This year, in a time of budget cuts, continued funding for SFILDC was not guaranteed. However, the city government was impressed by the positive impact that legal representation has had on the lives of so many children and families, and the efficiencies achieved by this collaborative model. By renewing SFILDC’s funding for the next two years, San Francisco has demonstrated its commitment to protecting the right to counsel and the lives of the children and families fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico.

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act could provide a similar opportunity on a national scale and ensure that children and other vulnerable populations would not be forced to find their way through a complex, and often bewildering, process without the benefit of counsel. In order to protect the human rights of children and families seeking refuge, and in the name of human decency, nothing less is required.

Written by AILA Members Carol Bisharat, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Avantika Shastri, The Bar Association of San Francisco

*Members of the SFILDC: Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Central American Resource Center, Dolores Street Community Services, Immigration Center for Women and Children, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, La Raza Centro Legal, La Raza Community Resource Center, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Legal Services for Children, Pangea Legal Services, The Bar Association of San Francisco, and the University of San Francisco Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic.

Watch a video featuring Ana Camila Herrera, Managing Attorney, Dolores Street Community Services, a member of the San Francisco Immigration Legal Defense Collaborative: AIM: How Cities and Immigration Collaboratives Can Work Together