Immigration courtrooms in the San Francisco Bay and surrounding areas have seen an increase of “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC) in court for removal proceedings. Most of these children, sometimes as young as four years old, do not have legal representation. In 2017 California had the second highest number of UACs in removal proceedings. While volunteer immigration attorneys, state funding, and organizations that provide legal aid to these immigrant children are more easily accessible in larger cities such as San Francisco, for immigrant children hundreds of miles away in the Central Valley and Fresno County areas, these resources are hard to access. “We’ve seen children from the Central Valley who have been to court four or five times without an attorney,” Katie Annand, managing attorney for the Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) organization, says. “They’ve had to pay $200 each time to get a ride up here for court, so they are coming up to court just to say ‘I don’t have an attorney.’”
Over the last four years, more than 200,000 children under the age of eighteen have crossed the US border, according to data complied by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As of 2014, more than eighty percent of immigration children who have shown up to their removal proceedings without an attorney were removed. According to Syracuse University’s TRAC immigration database, out of the number of children who appeared in court with an attorney, only twelve percent were removed. In rural areas such as Fresno County, where UACs make up thirty-eight percent of the immigrant population, the scarcity of legal resources and long distances from immigration courts make it incredibly difficult for these children to obtain counsel and leave them to navigate the complicated immigration system on their own.
Jennifer Doerrie, an immigration attorney in Fresno, has received approximately seventy or eighty phone calls a day at certain periods requesting appointments or legal advice. With over 3,000 cases, Doerrie’s closest availability for these clients is still roughly ninety days away, and she sometimes has to turn clients away to make room for those with more pressing matters. “I’m…still in my office after 7 p.m. on a Friday night…so that also may provide some insight in determining the level of demand for immigration legal services versus supply right now,” Doerrie says in an email to the The Atlantic.
Organizations such as KIND have been trying to help immigrant minors. “We know that we will see kids going through this process on their own,” Annand says. “Especially for children whose parents have been removed from the country.” Their clients include one young immigrant who asked to be identified as Zoe and who fled violence in Guatemala. She says: “When the day comes for me to go [to court], I won’t be alone; the lawyers will be with me.”