While the rest of the nation debates the federal DREAM Act, a growing number of counties are crafting policies that crack down on undocumented youth. Local elected officials are increasingly directing law enforcement officers to help funnel undocumented young people into the nation’s detention and deportation machine. San Francisco has been among the most aggressive California counties, immigrant rights advocates say, but others in the state and around the nation are following closely behind.
In San Francisco, immigrant rights advocates have pushed for a revision of a 2008 ordinance that mimics the federal Secure Communities program, a controversial initiative that compels local cops to report to ICE the immigration status of all people they detain. Last week, Mayor Ed Lee finally attempted to assuage community concerns by narrowing the policy.
Under the old policy, which was instituted by Lee’s predecessor Gavin Newsome, all undocumented youth who were arrested by city police were reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even if their arrests never resulted in a conviction. Under this policy, an estimated hundreds of undocumented youth have been reported to immigration officials for deportation. In 2009, the Board of Supervisors tried to challenge the practice by declaring that all juveniles must be treated equally within the justice system regardless of their immigration status, which should have meant that no one gets reported to ICE.
Now, under Lee’s revision, the city will report only undocumented youth who have been convicted of felonies or who have no families in the U.S., regardless of whether they’ve been convicted of a crime. Immigrant advocates say Lee’s new policy, while an improvement, leaves those who are most vulnerable in the deportation cross hairs.
“Very often youth who [have no families in the U.S.] are youth who could have been victims of trafficking,” said Angela Chan, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, an immigrant advocacy group in the city. “They could be orphaned, or they might not have any guardians, or fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries. There are many reasons why youth could be in this country unaccompanied.”
“It’s unfortunate that the due process policy, while it is being implemented for some youth, it’s not being implemented for our most vulnerable populations.”
In fact, the overwhelming majority of the youth who have been reported to ICE under the program in San Francisco have been those who are here without a family. Chan said that according to numbers from ICE, 160 youth alone were released to ICE custody from July 2008 through the summer of last year, and that according to San Francisco’s juvenile probation department, 104 of the youth released to ICE were unaccompanied minors. Chan warned, though, that there were discrepancies between the numbers from San Francisco’s juvenile probation department and ICE, and guessed that there may be some underreporting happening.
It’s very likely that many of these young people were eventually deported.
Under these policies, the old and the newly revised, San Francisco will be treating some of its immigrant youth more harshly than undocumented immigrant adults who get arrested. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey recently announced that San Francisco will no longer keep undocumented immigrants who are booked for misdemeanors in custody so that ICE can come pick them up. Hennessey’s move comes among a surge of new local and statewide resistance against Secure Communities. Once pitched as a voluntary program, the Department of Homeland Security has blocked efforts to opt out of it by states like Illinois and counties in California.
Federal immigration policy calls increasingly on local police and law enforcement to act as immigration agents, but the matter of how individual counties handle undocumented immigrant youth who get caught up in the criminal justice system is a little understood issue, says Angie Junck, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Junck said that even though San Francisco got the most press for its policies regarding juvenile youth offenders, plenty other California counties have been doing similar things on the quiet. Junck said Humboldt and Orange Counties have instituted policies that call for probation officers to question youth about their immigration status, but that there’s no consensus yet in terms of when youth get reported to ICE. Junck said that part of the difficulty of tracking this issue is that many probation departments issue internal policies that are never publicized.
Junck and Chan pointed to Multnomah County, Oregon, and Santa Cruz County, Calif., as models for how counties ought to consider juvenile offenders. Santa Cruz made it a county-wide policy never to refer youth to immigration authorities, instead choosing to connect young people with a broad network of community-based organizations to help with constructive rehabilitation. Unaccompanied youth who really have no other family eventually are referred to Child Protective Services.
There may be no official standard yet for how to handle young people who get caught up in the criminal justice system and who are also undocumented, but these days, Santa Cruz seems to be the exception more than the rule.