“Why bother going to school? You are a worthless Indian!”
These are the words that pierced 16-year-old Mario’s ears as he walked to school in Guatemala in October 2013. For Mario, it felt like any other day, as he was often harassed on account of being indigenous. But today, his bullies were members of the Mara Salvatrucha.
Mara Salvatrucha is a Latin American gang that has become so powerful it functions like a de facto government, ruling with an iron fist and near impunity. It has also begun a sustained campaign to forcibly recruit young men, like Mario, to join its ranks. When Mario refused, the gang increased its pressure by threatening him and his entire family with death, physically beating him and vandalizing his home. Finally, Mario fled, and arrived alone in the United States in February 2014.
The U.S. government immediately put Mario in court proceedings intended to expedite his deportation from the United States. In court, he could apply for asylum in the U.S. but was expected to represent himself. Unlike criminal court proceedings, in which indigent clients like Mario would have access to a public defender, Mario has no right to an appointed attorney to help him present his asylum claim, despite the fact that immigration law has been characterized as second only to the tax code in complexity. Based on national data from 2015, cases that were closed without representation resulted in 2.3 percent of those individuals being able to remain in the United States, while that number increased more than 14-fold when women and children had representation. Fortunately for Mario, he resettled in San Francisco, which is one of the few places in the U.S. that has recognized the importance of attorneys in immigration court to protect children like Mario.
In response to leadership from immigrant rights advocates, Supervisor David Campos and the rest of the Board of Supervisors in 2014 approved two years of funding to provide attorneys for kids and families through the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative. The defense collaborative is comprised of 13 nonprofit organizations in San Francisco that provide legal representation to more than 450 San Francisco residents like Mario, individuals fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries and facing expedited court proceedings alone.
One of the collaborative members, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, represented Mario and helped him present his case. Mario was granted asylum in November 2015. Now, Mario can live safely in the United States, continue his education and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.
Although the funding for this innovative and important program was set to expire in December 2016, Mayor Ed Lee announced on April 27 that he would continue to fund this initiative through June 2018. This means that children like Mario will not lose their advocates and therefore have a greater chance of not being forced to return to countries where they will be harmed or killed. Mayor Lee should be lauded for leading the way in demonstrating San Francisco’s commitment to due process and protecting its children and families by renewing the defense collaborative’s funding.
Although Mario now has asylum, in 2015 alone, Customs and Border Patrol stopped more than 39,000 unaccompanied minors at the southwest border of the U.S. who have similar stories. The need only continues to grow; the situation in places like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico worsens by the day and children like Mario need refuge in the United States more than ever. And they need a lawyer by their side.
Nationally, more than 100 members of Congress recognize this crisis requires a systemic national response and support the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016, legislation that would require counsel for unaccompanied children in all immigration hearings. On April 29, 177 groups nationwide called on Attorney General Loretta Lynch to halt the practice of pursuing deportation against unrepresented children.
San Francisco should be proud for stepping up to fill the justice gap in this moment of moral crisis and should continue to lead the country in making sure children like Mario are not forced to fight for their lives without counsel.
Esmeralda Santos is a staff attorney at API Legal Outreach. Judah Lakin is a staff attorney at Dolores Street Community Services. Avantika Shastri is legal director of the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative.