Mayor grants $1.8 million for legal aid of unaccompanied children

When Ronaldo Ordonez moved to San Francisco two years ago, he said he finally felt a sense of relief.

The teen grew up facing harassment from local gangs in his home country of El Salvador, where he said he often feared for his life. The violence the gangs stirred, paired with personal issues at home, made the decision to immigrate to the U.S. and seek asylum, even if it meant he had to make the trek alone, a little easier.

“I came because I could not stay there,” Ronaldo, 15, told the San Francisco Examiner in Spanish. “The gangs wanted to kill me.”

But when Ronaldo made it to San Francisco to live with his father, who had come to the U.S. eight years earlier, the two discovered the path to seeking asylum was a long and complicated process made more difficult by the scarcity of legal attorneys available to represent unaccompanied minors in court.

“We didn’t have anyone to help us,” said Ronaldo’s father, Bladimir Ordonez. “There wasn’t anyone here to help.”

Ronaldo is one of the thousands of children who cross the U.S. southwest border alone every year, a majority of whom come from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to the American Immigration Council. An unaccompanied child is considered to be any child under 18 who does not have legal immigration status and who enters the country without a parent or legal guardian.

In response to the growing number of unaccompanied minors who come to San Francisco seeking asylum like Ronaldo, Mayor Ed Lee announced Wednesday that The City will extend funding by an additional $1.8 million for the
legal defense of immigrant families and particularly children who enter the country on their own.

The money will go to the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative, a congregation of 13 nonprofit organizations that represent children and families facing deportation in The City’s immigration courts.

“The theme of family unification has been a strong principle of this city,” Lee said at a news conference at City Hall. “And certainly when it comes to the failed immigration policies for our country, we have maintained this very strong principle for those who have, by fortune or other circumstances, come into our borders.”

The additional funding comes two years after the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance granting $2.1 million for the legal aid of unaccompanied children. The initial money, which was allocated for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 fiscal years, is said to have helped as many as 414 children going through San Francisco immigration courts, according to Lee.

Having access to legal representation significantly impacts the outcome of immigration proceedings, said Avantika Shastri, a lead attorney at the Bar Association of San Francisco.

“It can be very complicated,” Shastri said. “It’s hard to manage if you don’t have an attorney or don’t speak English.”

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard Carranza said The City’s public schools have seen an estimated 400 percent increase in unaccompanied children since 2011. Since last Friday, the SFUSD had almost 400 students who are considered unaccompanied children, Carranza added.

“We know that when a student walks through our threshold, we don’t care about the immigration paperwork,” Carranza said. “They are our children and we are going to educate our children.”

In addition to providing legal representation, the money will also be used to assist unaccompanied children enroll into school as well as access social services.

As for Ronaldo, the teen said he has been able to secure asylum through the help of Pangea Legal Services after a year-long process.

“I feel happy,” Ordonez said. “I can finally be with my dad.”

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