The County Voice

Sonoma County: Helping Undocumented Children Win Legal Status

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Meyli was tired, thirsty and hungry for most of her trek on foot through Central America and Mexico. But it is the fear she remembers more than anything else. She was afraid of getting lost, afraid of being caught by the authorities, afraid of being robbed, or worse, by bandits. When she finally crossed into the United States she was still afraid that she’d be sent home and the arduous trip would have been for nothing.

It was inspiring to recently meet Meyli who made that journey a couple of years ago at age 12. It was just as inspiring to learn more about Sonoma County’s Unaccompanied/Undocumented Children Deportation Defense Project which worked within the immigration system to help her attain the legal status she was entitled to. The project received a CSAC Challenge Award in 2016.

Meyli’s parents came to the United States to work when she was two, leaving her with grandparents. But with gang violence becoming increasingly threatening and her grandparents not well, “home” became too dangerous. Like millions of immigrants before her, she was willing to risk unknown hardships for the promise of a better life. She left with her cousin to make the long, dangerous trek north. When Meyli finally arrived in the United States, she was detained as an undocumented and unaccompanied minor. Absent a full and fair hearing of her case, she was facing deportation back to the same untenable situation she left.

So many children were in the same situation that California’s Attorney General declared the flood of unaccompanied undocumented immigrants a legal humanitarian crisis.  Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein decided he had to do something. “Our office, along with the other attorneys in the county saw this as an opportunity to provide the type of pro bono defense, without which many of these young children would be returned to face potential death in their home countries.”

So he started where any lawyer would, with a little research. He discovered several important points.

  • Most of these children never get an attorney or an interpreter. They go through complex court proceedings without any representation.
  • Without an attorney, about 90 percent of them are sent back to their country, regardless of why they left, the conditions to which they would be returning, or if they were legally eligible to stay.
  • When these minors were represented by an attorney about half of them met the criteria to be granted legal status to stay in the country.

With approval from his Board of Supervisors, Goldstein and several of his attorneys began providing pro-bono legal services to unaccompanied immigrant minors on county time. They needed some training first—and turned to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco that provided a free workshop and materials and then recruited immigration attorneys in the community to be available as mentors.

Soon, Goldstein and several of his attorneys went to work, interviewing their young clients, finding out more about why they left their country of origin and how they came to the United States. They were supported by other County employees such as social workers, attorneys in other departments, and interpreters who similarly were provided the opportunity to volunteer their time during the work day to assist in these cases.

Many of these children are escaping violence, crushing poverty and political repression in their home countries. Those can be reasons for granting legal status. That was the case for Meyli. With help from her Sonoma County attorney, she has been granted asylum and has been reunited with her parents. Her life would have been vastly different if she had she been sent “home.”

The project has also had a profound impact on Goldstein and his staff. We spoke to several Sonoma County attorneys about their participation in the project, and universally they said they had a greater sense of camaraderie and common purpose. By working together to help vulnerable children they are creating tighter bonds among themselves and a greater sense of pride in their work.

With her new legal status Meyli is going to school, learning English and adapting to life in a new country—just like so many of our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents did. And while we don’t know what the future holds for her as a legal resident in the United States, she has the opportunity to accomplish all that her character and intellect will allow. That is the promise of this country. That is the right she earned—with help from Sonoma County.

The Sonoma County Unaccompanied/Undocumented Children Deportation Defense Project was honored as part of the 2016 CSAC Challenge Awards, which recognize the most innovative best practices developed by California Counties. 

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