SF Chronicle: Immigrant children's cause boosted by California officials

August 21, 2014

By: Melody Gutierrez

Sacramento -- California's top Democratic leaders are calling for the state to provide $3 million in legal aid to thousands of undocumented minors who fled violence in Central America.

Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and legislative leaders announced legislation Thursday that sets aside the money for nonprofits that provide legal help to unaccompanied minors in California.

"Helping these young people navigate our legal system is the decent thing to do and it's consistent with the progressive spirit of California," Brown said in a statement.

The legislation would provide legal services and clarify that state courts can expedite the process for allowing undocumented minors to stay in California legally and ultimately become U.S. citizens.

More than 57,000 undocumented minors have been caught on the U.S.-Mexico border since October after making the treacherous journey from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Most have been placed in California, Texas, Florida and New York. While some are in detention centers, others are in the care of relatives while going through immigration proceedings.

In San Francisco, nonprofits like the Central American Resource Center and Legal Services for Children have reported dramatic surges in the number of juveniles from Central America seeking help.

"These kids face a daunting immigration process, and any failures in our justice system that lead to deportation can be a death sentence," said state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "The systemic challenges addressed by this bill are a direct product of my legal team's on-the-ground experiences and, without exaggeration, could make the difference between the life and death of a child."

Steinberg and five other California lawmakers traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala last month to meet with national leaders there regarding the surge in unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America for the United States. The California Latino Legislative Caucus called on the federal government to help the minors seek permanent residency after lawmakers visited a naval base in Southern California where a temporary immigration detention facility is set up.

"These young people have legal rights and responsibilities, but they cannot fully participate in complex immigration proceedings without an attorney," Harris said. "It is critical that these children, many of whom are fleeing extreme violence in Central America, have access to due process and adequate legal representation."

Contact: Melody Gutierrez / mgutierrez@sfchronicle.com