Vida En El Valle: Politicos focus on child refugees

August 26, 2014

By: Cynthia Moreno

SACRAMENTO — Democratic state lawmakers believe no Central American child should be left behind when it comes to legal representation in immigration court.

That is why Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg joined the Latino Legislative Caucus and other Senate Democrats in introducing a package of bills to help the undocumented and unaccompanied children who have been arriving at the U.S.-México border in recent months.

The announcement comes less than three weeks after several state lawmakers traveled to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to talk to elected officials about the problem.

"We all know about the plight of children traveling from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who are taking the most perilous journey because of the conditions in their own country; the fear for their safety, the gang activity, the lack of opportunity and economic stability and education," said Steinberg.

"These children are taking unbelievably risky — and to some degree — courageous decisions just to live a better life," said Steinberg at a press conference last Thursday.

The legislation will provide $3 million for qualified non-profit organizations to provide legal services for the unaccompanied minors, and clarify that California courts must issue orders with findings that are needed by the children to make their case for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) Visa, when the evidence supports the findings.

Steinberg said many state courts are not handling these cases with the idea that only a federal court can hear their case. But, by the time this happens, the children end up missing their one and only opportunity to tell their story.

"We want to make it clear that state courts in California have an important role to play and if they don't exercise it then the children don't even have the opportunity to obtain relief that in many cases they deserve and need," said Steinberg. "State courts must hear the cases of these children and see if the child returning to their home country would be a danger."

Currently, unaccompanied minors may be eligible to apply for a special visa and receive permanent residency. But, in order to apply for this visa, the child needs to obtain a predicate order with special findings from a state court.

Some California judges have not made the SIJS findings, claiming that they do not have jurisdiction. The legislation makes clear in statute that California courts must make the SIJS findings when evidence supports the findings.

When the unaccompanied children wind up in federal immigration court without the court order, they miss the opportunity to plead their case and are subsequently deported as soon as they appear before a federal judge.

Steinberg believes California judges are not aware that they have a duty to hear the cases of the children.

"A number of my staff has been taking the training necessary to qualify to represent these children," said Steinberg. "In the course of the training, we discovered this hole in the law."

Steinberg said that if a child can prove in federal court that being returned to their native country could endanger their lives, "they can get asylum and stay."

State Sen. Kevin De León, D-Los Ángeles, backs the legislation.

"Too many judges in California are unaware of this requirement and are denying any form of preliminary state relief because they think immigration is a federal issue," said De León. "A child has a better chance of presenting their case in federal court if they are given the opportunity to share their story first in a state court."

Getting legal representation isn't the only obstacle for the unaccompanied children. De León said children face language barriers. Some have been ordered to appear in court with less than 48-hours' notice, which reduces their opportunities to find legal representation.

Children who fail to appear, risk in abstentia deportation orders and are returned to the violent regions from which they originally fled. Several media reports have said at least five children who were recently deported from the U.S. have been murdered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

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

The proposed legislation also reinforces the court's authority and duty to provide interpreters to unaccompanied, undocumented minors.

"These young people have legal rights and responsibilities, but they cannot fully participate in complex immigration proceedings without an attorney," said Attorney General Kamala Harris. "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."

Doing their part

Ever since August's fall session began, California lawmakers have looked for ways to help.

Earlier this month, pro-immigrant organizations have lobbied, testified at hearings and supported legislation that benefits the Central American child refugees.

Last week, the state Senate unanimously approved a bi-partisan joint resolution urging Congress and President Obama to take immediate action to enact policies that require a 'best interest of the child standard' in immigration proceedings involving unaccompanied minors.

Senate Joint Resolution 31, authored by state Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, calls on the federal government to enact key policies to address the crisis.

"The unaccompanied children who arrived at our borders are refugees fleeing very dangerous conditions," said Torres. "This is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We need our representatives in Washington D.C. to follow California's lead and work in a bipartisan fashion to protect these kids."


Contact: Cynthia Moreno /