As San Francisco officials fought over the mayor’s veto of a measure that would relax the city’s policy on young undocumented immigrants charged with felonies, the immigrant mother of a 16-year-old watched her life become an example of why advocates want the policy changed.
On Oct. 27, police called Dolores Gutierrez, whose name has been changed at her request, and said her son had been involved in an incident between a group of boys and another man near Gutierrez’s home in the city’s Excelsior district. The officer assured her that ”everything was fine,” and that the police would take another youth, but not her son in for questioning.
When she went to look for her son, however, the story changed rapidly. He was gone, and police told her they had taken him to juvenile hall.
She went to visit him that night. “He said, ‘Mami, I didn’t do anything, they confused me with someone else… [the other boys] went off running, and I stayed. I didn’t have to run because I didn’t do anything,'” the boy’s mother said during an interview Thursday. “If you’re innocent and you didn’t do anything, I don’t think anything bad is going to happen,’” she said.
For two days, she said, she struggled to get in touch with two different probation officers assigned to his case. Eventually, she was told her son had a court date on Oct. 30, a Friday. When Gutierrez returned to juvenile hall for the hearing, her son was gone. The district attorney’s office declined to file charges against the 16-year-old, but San Francisco juvenile probation authorities had released him into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that day, and he was transferred to a facility outside of California, officials said.
“I just felt very bad because I felt that there was no justice,” Gutierrez said through an interpreter, dabbing at tears. “From that point forward, my life, there is no reason to live.”
Gutierrez said that her son is being held in Oregon.
While new legislation that would offer more protections to juvenile undocumented immigrants awaits the expected vote to override Mayor Gavin Newsom’s veto, San Francisco’s Juvenile Probation Department has continued to carry out a 15-month-old policy of referring undocumented minors to ICE. Newsom has promised to continue that policy no matter what the board does.
Under that policy, probation officers refer juveniles who have been arrested on felony charges are referred to ICE if they suspect the youth lack legal immigration documents. At times, immigration advocates have said, juveniles arrested on lesser charges are turned over to ICE. It’s unclear what Gutierrez’s son was charged with. The new proposal, sponsored by Supervisor David Campos, would protect undocumented youth until a judge upholds felony charges.
Abigail Trillin from Legal Services for Children is now working on behalf of the youth to get him returned to his family.
Angela Chan,a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, said that she has heard, second-hand, that the child is in Oregon.
This case “falls squarely into the cases that we’re concerned about, about innocent youth and youth being separated from their families.”
“This is one of the many cases that we would like Mayor Newsom to seriously consider.” They want Newsom to speak directly to the affected families “so that he can see the impact of his policy on San Francisco residents.”
Chan said the youth will be held at the facility, and that it “could be” for a “long period of time.” There is only a “small chance” the youth will be returned home to San Francisco, because the immigration requires families to give fingerprints and show ID. Some families comply, while others don’t.
“It’s still an uphill battle,” said Chan.
Gutierrez’s son joins at least 160 other juveniles who have been turned over to ICE under the policy change that became effective in July 2008, according to immigrant advocates in the legal community. It remains unclear how many of those youths were found not guilty or never faced charges.
Gutierrez, who has two other children, said police officers have stopped her son on prior occasions. Once, they issued him a ticket for jaywalking. On another occasion in September, when she was present, they told her he was a Norteño gang member and pointed to red markings on his shoes as an indication.
Gutierrez denied her son has ever had anything to do with gangs.
In the October 27th incident, Gutierrez said that her son, his younger brother and a friend were walking home from a nearby bus station after school when another group of youths harassed a drunk man on the street and spit on his shoe. The other children then ran away, while her two sons and their friend continued walking.
She had taught her older son to never run from the police, she said, because it would only make matters worse. Soon after the incident, a squad car with the victim sitting in the rear pulled up on the street next to the three, and police detained them.
He told his mother in a phone call from the Oregon detention facility where he is being held that authorities there now accuse him of having ties to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a Sureño-affiliated gang. Other youths there have tried to pick fights with her son based on his alleged gang ties, Gutierrez said. She said she told him to be patient and that she’ll help him.
William Siffermann, San Francisco’s juvenile probation chief, said he couldn’t confirm any details of Gutierrez’s case or even acknowledge that such a case existed, because the state Welfare and Institutions Code guarantees anonymity to minors in juvenile court proceedings.
Immigration lawyers and supporters of Campos’ measure to treat undocumented juvenile offenders different than adults have argued that the protections in the Code should also prevent Siffermann’s probation officers from divulging their suspicions about a youth’s immigration status to federal authorities.
Newsom ordered the change in the city’s sanctuary policy in July 2008, after a series of damaging articles in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed how juvenile probation authorities had interpreted the city’s 20-year-old sanctuary ordinance as a protection for all minors.
On occasion, the city paid to fly youths back to their home countries as a way of avoiding federal deportation. The controversy climaxed when the Chronicle reported that Edwin Ramos, an alleged MS-13 gang member charged in a triple murder, had received sanctuary protections even after being found guilty of two felonies as a juvenile. Under the Campos proposal that relaxes the policy, Ramos would have been released to ICE.
Siffermann declined to discuss the merits of his department’s policy change, citing the ongoing federal investigation into the city’s past policy toward undocumented juvenile immigrants and the uncertain “posture” of Campos’ legislation.
“The policy is what it is and it was constructed with the advice of the city attorney’s office,” he said. “They helped construct that policy and it’s our belief that it is sound policy.”
He said he didn’t have the data to determine how many times the department has released a juvenile to ICE who either was found not guilty or never faced any charges.
Brian Buckelew, a spokesman for District Attorney Kamala Harris, declined to comment, saying that “because this is a sensitive juvenile matter, our office is not in a position to talk about specifics of the case.”
According to Gutierrez, her son is a quiet boy who’s had trouble studying for school but spends most of his time at home or at the family shop. She said he has been receiving guidance and help with his studies from a social worker at La Raza Centro Legal for two years, and that school officials recently commended him for trying to avoid a fight with a boy who had picked on him.
Gutierrez said she wants to see Campos’ policy change approved, “because we would live better that way, as human beings, and there would be an opportunity to prove that people want to change.”
If her son is sent back to his home country, there will be no family waiting for him there, she said. All his relatives live in San Francisco. “Just thinking that he could go back and he doesn’t have anybody, that’s like a torture for me,” Gutierrez said.
Despite her fear of federal immigration authorities, Gutierrez said she chose to speak about her son’s case because “with this, I can get some relief and I feel like more than one person will hear and feel what I feel and I’ll feel like I’m not alone.”