In Court and in Trouble: Humanitarian Immigration Issues in Contra Costa County
Nancy and her 11-year-old cousin David were walking home from school when gang members pursued them. Nancy outran them, but David was not so fortunate. His family searched for him until it was too dark to see.
The next morning, they found his stabbed, mutilated body half-buried by the river. Devastated, his grandmother had to pay the mortuary to re-attach David’s severed head and limbs. This murder was so senseless and barbaric that it not only made local news but was reported in the Christian Science Monitor. Nancy and three cousins had to escape from death threats.
Blanca’s partner brutalized her and tried to drown her in a laundry tub in full view of the neighbors. As his “woman,” she was his property, the same as a horse or dog; she had
to obey him and she could not leave him. He could track her down, and the police did not protect her. Finally, to save her life, she had to leave her children with relatives and escape to find her family in California.
Edwin was repeatedly beaten and harassed by gangs because they could tell he was gay. The abuse escalated into death threats. When he reported it to the police, they ridiculed him and did nothing. Finally, after an assault where several men beat him and tried to rape him, he fled from the country.
These are just a few of the stories of children and young adults who have been fleeing from Central America in record numbers since 2014. When detained at the border, they are placed in removal (deportation) proceedings before an immigration judge.
As priority cases, some have been ordered to hearings in as little as 60 days after being released from detention. In fiscal year 2016 alone, 86 children were released to relatives in this county.
Families are under pressure to find legal representation quickly; immigration courts are considered administrative, not criminal, so respondents—including children— do not have a constitutional right to pro bono counsel.
Children of all ages are in removal proceedings. In San Francisco, an immigration judge may have as many as 40 cases to hear in an afternoon. Despite the small stuffed animals and books that some courtrooms offer, the children are shy, eyes downcast, voices barely audible, except for infants and toddlers, who feel free to raise a ruckus no matter where they are.
Some of us are still debating how, under any circumstances, due process is satisfied when a child is served with a Notice to Appear, the charging document that orders an immigrant to appear before an immigration judge to explain that deportation is not necessary because he or she can qualify for some kind of immigration relief.
Many immigrants are eligible for humanitarian forms of relief—if they can connect with an attorney or organization to help them. Adults as well as children may be eligible for asylum.
For minors who cannot reunify with one or both parents due to abuse, abandonment or neglect, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) was one of Immigration’s best-kept secrets until 2014, when the numbers of unaccompanied minors fleeing to the United States reached record numbers and many immigration attorneys had to learn, for the first time, how to appear in Superior Court.
Contra Costa County’s courts and attorneys play a crucial role in helping children and adults find a safe haven in this country.
- SIJS cases require custody orders and specific factual findings from judges in probate, family law, juvenile dependency and adoption courts; an unusual crossover for immigration law. The Superior Court’s role is of paramount importance; as the “make or break” requirement, SIJS factual findings made by judges in Contra Costa County have literally saved lives.
- Padilla v. Kentucky requires that non-citizens must be advised of the potential immigration consequences of a guilty plea. Many public defenders now have in-house immigration counsel. Juvenile dependency courts also consider a minor’s immigration status in adjudicating cases. Family law attorneys must consider the potential immigration consequences for clients who want to marry—or divorce—their U.S. citizen partners.
- Adopting a foreign child does not automatically confer U.S. citizenship, and adoption attorneys often partner with experienced immigration attorneys.
The importance of the CCCBA, pro bono and private attorneys, non-profit agencies and judges in this county cannot be over-emphasized, and the results are rewarding beyond words.
Some clients are now in college; one student has just been accepted to four universities, including UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine, where she plans to major in sociology. LGBT clients are now able to breathe free. Children are safe. Women are becoming empowered.