Lawyers may sue city for turning juveniles over to feds

Twice this summer, a group of lawyers dropped by Mayor Gavin Newsom's office to talk about his decision to help federal agents deport underage immigrants.

San Francisco has traditionally refused this sort of cooperation with the feds. Until recently, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city actually shuttled some kids out of town and others over the border to keep them safe from mean Uncle Sam. Newsom reversed course after the Chron reported that these practices might be breaking federal law.

But, as a bunch of lawyers tried to tell Newsom this summer, his solution might have a few legal problems of its own. “We were very direct with the mayor's office in both meetings,” said Angela Chan, a staff attorney at Asian Law Caucus. “We flat out said they were facing liability” in court.

Chan said her group has tried to work with Newsom's staff, but the talks have not been fruitful. Now it looks like the group is getting ready to sue. And if events unfold as Chan fears they might, the city could end up with a big dent in its bank account.

In a Sept. 12 column in local legal newspaper The Recorder, Chan and another attorney, Shannan Wilber, spelled out the basic strategy for a legal challenge. They said the mayor's policy violates children's constitutional due process rights by reporting them to immigration before they can contest their detention in juvenile court. For youth with families in the U.S., Chan and Wilber say, the policy violates a California law meant to keep kids in the system united with their parents. And it could undermine federal provisions that help some undocumented immigrants resist deportation.

A spokesman for the mayor didn't return calls seeking comment.

Chan, who assists immigrant families in juvenile court proceedings, said some kids are unclear about their own status, so mistakes are bound to happen. In fact, they already have, she said, pointing to a case of mistaken deportation — where the government locked up a legal Mexican immigrant — costing San Joaquin County and the federal government $100,000 in settlement fees. Chan said her legal pals referred directly to that case in meetings with the mayor's staff, but they didn't seem immediately concerned. “I think the mayor's more immediate interest is in running for governor,” she said, “and not looking soft on crime.”

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