About 20 kids as young as four years old form a single file line as they wait to go through security. Wide-eyed boys in t-shirts and jeans crack their knuckles. They have never been to a courtroom before. Some are wearing suits, in an attempt to make a good first impression.
They take a seat on one of the thinly padded metal chairs, crossing and recrossing their legs. Teenage girls with colorful hair braids study their surroundings. Toys, stuffed animals and coloring books decorate the waiting room. The children have come here not to play, but to stand in front of an immigration judge and defend themselves against deportation.
“It looks almost like you're going into a pediatrician's office,” said Katie Annand, managing attorney with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an organization that helps immigrant children find attorneys. “There are children lining the benches of the courtroom and have no one to represent them.”
For immigrant children housed in San Francisco, state funding, non-profit legal services and volunteer attorneys mean that they have a better chance of having a lawyer stand by their side during deportation proceedings. That’s not the case for children who must find their way 180 miles from Fresno County, in the heart of California’s Central Valley where a sizeable immigrant population lives.
"If you are indigent and are living in a remote area and don't have access to volunteer attorneys, at some point the judge is going to be required to insist that you proceed on your own behalf and represent yourself."
-Dana Marks, Immigration Judge and President Emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges
Each one is holding a colored dossier that contains legal documents proving their status as “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC), or minors who arrived in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian. As they settled onto the wooden benches, they listen carefully to a young female employee speaking in Spanish.
“If you don’t have an attorney, please follow me to the waiting room.”
Of the approximately 20 children who were there that day, only two have representation, as seen in the document below.
Immigration courts are classified as civil courts, which means that unaccompanied children aren’t guaranteed a right to a government-appointed attorney the way they would be in a criminal court— they have to find and usually pay for an attorney themselves. Around one-fourth of unaccompanied children going through removal proceeding are represented by an attorney, according to recent data.
Having an attorney makes a huge difference. Over 80 percent of children who showed up to court unrepresented were deported, according to recent data. For children who appeared in court with legal representation, only 12 percent were deported.
"We've seen lately a tremendous increase in the number of cases that come to us from California's Central Valley. It's much more difficult for anyone in those areas to access free immigration services,"
- Dana Marks, Immigration Judge and President Emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges
In the rural, agricultural communities near Fresno, reputable immigration lawyers are scarce. Limited free legal services and distance from immigration courts are major obstacles for unaccompanied minors in deportation proceedings. Children live in the shadows while navigating their way through a foreign legal system, with few resources that help the undocumented, who make up 38 percent of the immigrant population (PDF) in the Fresno region, according to a 2014 estimate.
“We’ve seen children from the Central Valley who have been to court four times without an attorney,” Annand said. “They’ve had to pay $200 each time to get a ride, just to say ‘I don’t have an attorney’.”
One 19-year old unaccompanied boy from Fresno showed up at the San Francisco immigration court unrepresented.
“I didn’t have lawyers, I didn’t have money to pay them, I had nothing.”
He’s currently in immigration proceedings and asked to remain anonymous, afraid that publicity could affect his attempt to gain legal status. He asked to be called Eduardo.
While Eduardo is not a minor anymore, he traveled from Guatemala to the United States when he was 17 to reunite with his mother in California. About $2,000 would get him a guide, or guia, who would take him as far as the U.S. border. After reaching the Rio Grande river, he wandered alone through the desert under the burning sun for about six hours, until he ran into authorities.
Eduardo turned himself in and was held in a detention center in Texas, before being sent to live with his mother in the Central Valley.
Listen to Eduardo's story of traveling alone to the U.S.
Most of the children arriving in recent years come from the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Some are hoping to reunite with family in the U.S. Others are fleeing gang violence, like one 18-year old girl who lives just outside Fresno County. She fled Guatemala when she was 17. She asked to be identified as Zoe.
Her mother, a small business owner, was blackmailed by gang members, she said. Zoe and her family decided that it wasn’t safe for her to stay in Guatemala. Zoe recalled waking up at two in the morning to take the bus. After saying goodbye to her mother and two brothers, who were staying behind so that the eldest could finish college, she left. The trip lasted about 20 days.
Listen to Zoe's story about leaving home.
Zoe's final destination was Fresno, where she hoped to live with her father, whom she hadn’t seen since she was 3 years old. Even if a child reunited with a parent or legal guardian who lives in the U.S., they may still be considered UACs since they entered the country on their own.
Once here, she received a letter to appear in front of a judge in San Francisco Immigration Court for deportation proceedings. Another difficult journey was ahead of her: finding legal representation.
Where one immigration attorney handles 3,000 cases.
Clients are requesting appointments. Others desperately need legal advice. With about 3,000 active cases, Doerrie’s earliest availability for many consultation-seekers without tight deadlines was close to 90 days. She gives priority to the most urgent cases. That means she turns people away on a daily basis. As one of the few immigration attorneys in Fresno, she says the demand for her services is overwhelming.
“I’m still in my office after 7:00 p.m. on a Friday night, so that may provide some insight in determining the level of demand for immigration legal services versus supply right now,” Doerrie wrote in an email one evening last spring.
The American Immigrant Lawyers Association (AILA) lists 28 member attorneys within a 50-mile radius of the city of Fresno. In her almost 14 years of practicing law in Fresno, Doerrie, 46, said she doesn’t believe she’s ever encountered at least six of the attorneys on the list, despite the fact that she’s the current AILA co-liaison in Fresno, and she said that there are another five or so who she doesn’t believe are extremely active in immigration law and have concentrated in other areas. By her count, the list is down to around 17 active immigration lawyers in the are. While there are active immigration attorneys in Fresno who aren’t members of AILA, there are still not enough to meet the demands of the roughly 200,000 immigrants living around Fresno county. Even fewer have expertise in child immigration law to help unaccompanied children like Eduardo and Zoe.
After arriving in the Central Valley, Eduardo started searching for an attorney, but to no avail. As his first court appearance approached, he felt increasingly worried.
“If I went to court without a lawyer, I wouldn't be able to defend myself, because I don’t know how,” he explained. “I would be afraid.”
Distance from immigration court is a major factor that contributes to the lack of attorneys in rural areas.
The immigration court in San Francisco has jurisdiction over localities from Bakersfield all the way to the Oregon border. Yet most attorneys live in metropolitan areas like San Francisco or Los Angeles, where immigration courts are located, because it’s more time and cost-efficient for them to be located near the court where they are required to appear frequently.
“It just makes common sense that lawyers who are practicing immigration law for a living are going to be centered and have offices close to the immigration offices that they serve,” said Dana Marks, the president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) and an immigration judge in San Francisco.
Fleeing violence, reuniting with family, or searching for economic opportunities are the most common reasons why minors travel to the U.S. alone. More than 50,000 children have shown up at the U.S. border every year since 2014.
Some immigration critics have argued that the sizable increase in unaccompanied children in recent years is a result of perceptions of relaxed immigration policies toward children under the Obama administration.
Due to their age and vulnerability, children have more legal protections than other immigrants. The law mandates that children who show up at the border and are apprehended by Homeland Security can’t be turned away. Instead, they are taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. When possible, they are housed with relatives or family friends who have agreed to act as sponsors and provide for their care.
“When I arrived, I was caught by immigration officers. Since I was a minor, they took me to a shelter for minors and asked me if I had family,” recalls the 18-year-old girl.
The officers sent Zoe to live with her father. After being housed with sponsors, children are then usually placed in immigration court proceedings, where a judge decides whether or not they will be deported. These proceedings aim to ensure that the children receive due process and allow them the opportunity to provide evidence that they are in danger of being harmed if deported to their home countries.
The White House has taken a variety of steps to reshape the legal landscape for unaccompanied children in the United States, even before the Trump administration’s family-separation policy generated outrage in the summer of 2018.
In an October 2017 letter to Congress, President Trump sought to restrict the special legal protections, or what he called “loopholes,” that help unaccompanied children gain asylum.
“Loopholes in current law prevent ‘Unaccompanied Alien Children’ (UACs) that arrive in the country illegally from being removed,” the letter read. “Rather than being deported, they are instead sheltered by the Department of Health and Human Services at taxpayer expense.”
Immigration advocates argue that tighter measures may target children who are fleeing abuse or abandonment. “The so-called loopholes … are in fact forms of protection that ensure we do not return unaccompanied children to grave danger,” said Megan McKenna, the director of communications at KIND.
But some argue that Trump's policies have the interests of minors in mind. This is especially true in instances that might constitute as child smuggling, which can cause children harm, said Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank which supports stricter immigration control. “There is also a concern that certain gangs may attempt to infiltrate the refugee flow.”
In 2017, California has the highest number of unaccompanied minors going through removal proceedings after Texas. Of the nearly $3 million California spent in 2017-2018 to fund legal services for unaccompanied minors, $125,000 went to cases in Fresno, a $40,000 increase from the year before. Most of the money was allocated to cities with Immigration Courts, like San Francisco or Los Angeles, where the majority of unaccompanied minors are housed. The number of unaccompanied children who settle around Fresno is relatively small when compared with Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area, which means that resources are scarcer.
“The Central Valley has never had an infrastructure that is adequate to serve the needs of the immigrants who live here,” said Jesus Martinez, the chair of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC).
Up until two years ago, there were no free legal-service providers for unaccompanied children based in the Fresno area. KIND opened a Fresno branch two years ago, to cater to the increased demand for legal services for immigrant children in that area and is currently the only free legal service provider specifically for unaccompanied minors in the city of Fresno.
One reason for the lack of legal services in Fresno is limited funding, said Jesus Martinez, the director of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC). Many people I spoke with described the area's political environment as conservative, which may have made it more difficult to drum up support for funding for the immigrant community. Traditionally, most of the Central Valley has voted red, contrary to the liberal coastal counties of California. In January of 2017, Fresno mayor Lee Brand announced that Fresno wouldn’t join the "sanctuary city" movement, designed to express support for people that enter the United States illegally.
Local immigration advocates fought back. Last year, after increased immigration enforcement under the Trump administration, community organizers led by Faith in the Valley, a grassroots organization, proposed a $200,000 legal defense fund for immigrants. The money could have provided some legal relief to immigrants, among them unaccompanied children.
Amidst dozens of banners and peaceful protesting inside the meeting, the proposal was voted down by the Fresno City Council.
“$200,000 is significant dollars and it belongs to the people who pay taxes...I am never going to support this.”
-Councilmember Garry Bredefeld, who voted against a legal defense fund for immigrants.
Martinez called the decision disappointing.
“They have a very distorted view of what immigrants are, what their contributions are to the U.S. and to the Fresno area and the responsibility that the local government should have towards immigrant residents,” Martinez said.
After the Fresno City Council rejected the proposal, Faith in the Valley started a fundraiser online to raise money for legal representation for immigrants, and eventually created a legal-defense fund.
Living far from the immigration court in San Francisco hurts the children in more ways than one.
In the fields of Fresno, 190 miles from immigration court in San Francisco.
Not only does it limit the number of lawyers who might help them, it makes it difficult for them to make court appearances or access free legal services in other areas. Fresno is a three- to four-hour drive from San Francisco. Without a driver’s license, children have to secure rides on their own.
“If you’re a kid from Fresno, you are not given an exception,” said Jacqueline Brown-Scott, an immigration attorney and assistant professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “You still have to go to the same amount of hearings.”
Many children struggle not only to get from the city of Fresno to San Francisco, but to the city of Fresno from the surrounding agricultural towns or neighboring counties. Fresno County is home to nearly one million residents, with almost 50 percent of the county’s population living outside of the city of Fresno. The majority of residents living in the county’s largely agricultural neighborhoods have to rely on public transportation, which can be limiting. While the Fresno County Rural Transit Agency has buses running Monday through Friday, for many children, simply getting to the city of Fresno on public transit can take up to twice as long as driving.
“The inner routes are really critical to connecting rural residents who don’t have the amenities that the urbanized population has,” said Moses Stites, the general manager of the Fresno County Rural Transit Agency. “If you are summoned to appear in court, you have to come into Fresno ... it’s going to take you a while to get here if your car is not working or if you have to rely on public transportation.”
For transit-dependent migrant workers and children without a car, relying on public transportation in order to get to San Francisco means taking an entire day off of school or work, or risking missing their scheduled hearings. Children who live in neighboring counties like Tulare or Kings County face similar transportation obstacles. Tight city budgets mean the buses run only at limited times of day, usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They have to serve large, spread-out communities.
In order to reach the court in San Francisco, children rely on drivers who often charge hundreds of dollars. Eduardo paid $250 for a ride to San Francisco.
“It took me a while to find someone to take me because people are busy, but it was very important for me to go,” Eduardo said.
Eventually he was able to find a ride with the help of the pastor from his church. But he was late to his appointment. If a child fails to appear in court, the judge can proceed with a removal order, but Eduardo said that a lawyer who was in the room at the time defended him, and the he was ordered to return to court at a later date with a lawyer by his side. He would have to pay the same amount, $250, for the ride multiple times after that.
The lack of access to attorneys, free legal services and transportation, means that unaccompanied children must rely on Bay Area lawyers for legal help.
“They have to travel three, four, five, six hours to get to court when they have hearings...A lot of times kids can't get rides. That's why we go to the Central Valley."
- Jacqueline Brown-Scott, Immigration Lawyer in San Francisco
As an immigration attorney, Brown-Scott noticed an increase in the number of unrepresented children coming from the Central Valley. She established the Immigration and Deportation clinic at the University of San Francisco Law School to respond to the increased demand for legal representation. That’s how Eduardo eventually found help. He says Brown-Scott saved him.
“I thanked god that they found me because if it wasn’t for them I would not be in this place anymore,” he said.
Brown-Scott said that compared to the Bay Area she also noticed less sympathy for the immigrant community among local governments in the Central Valley. She said that while there is some activism in the Central Valley around funding for immigrants and for coalitions that fight to protect immigrant rights, it’s on a much smaller scale than in the Bay Area. Through her work at the Defense Clinic, she paired up with community organizers to provide legal training workshops that help children and immigrants understand how the removal process works, what documentation and paperwork they need.
After opening an office in Fresno in 2016, KIND has been able to address some of the issues that leave unaccompanied children in a limbo. Zoe was able to find a pro-bono lawyer with the help from KIND.
All she can do now is wait. She says she has hope.
“When the day comes for me to go to court, I won’t be alone, the lawyers will be there with me.”
“The consequences of being deported, losing your immigration court case and being removed from the country, might be death for a child if they are facing gang threats or gang violence.”
-Katie Annand, Managing Attorney at Kids In Need of Defense (KIND)
“Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to enter the country as illegal unaccompanied alien minors”
- President Donald Trump
“The president is interested in limiting and regularizing the flow of individuals who come to the U.S. and children in particular,” said Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports more restricted immigration control. “Smuggling is a dangerous process and there is also a concern that certain gangs may attempt to infiltrate the refugee flow.”