The San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative: Bay Area Public Interest Attorneys’ Collective Response to Crisis

Adina Hemley Bronstein

The backlog of cases in San Francisco Immigration Court continues to swell, leaving nearly a half million individuals in limbo, some not scheduled for hearings until the year 2018.

As the chronically under-staffed and under-resourced immigration court system has been slowed by the constant influx of new cases, so too have Bay Area immigration advocates struggled to attend to the thousands of individuals in desperate need of legal counsel. In the last several years, unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children and families from Central America and Mexico have entered the United States, many of whom have fled violent and often life-threatening circumstances in their home countries.

In the spring of 2014, the Department of Justice, in an attempt to alleviate strains on the court and to discourage future migrants from making the journey north, issued a directive that immigration judges prioritize the processing of these cases, leading to the creation of special “expedited dockets” in immigration courts nationwide, including in San Francisco. But the plan backfired. As a consequence of this expedited timeline, many children and families have struggled to find competent, affordable attorneys to help them defend their right to remain in the United States. According to Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration Project, 77% of children without attorneys are ordered deported, while almost half of those with attorneys are allowed to remain. Needless to say, having representation can be a matter of life and death.

The Bar Association of San Francisco’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service has positioned itself in the epicenter of this immigration crisis, both through its longstanding Attorney of the Day (AOD) Program and through its participation in the recently launched San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative (SFILDC), funded by the City and County of San Francisco. To date, the SFILDC provides pro bono representation to over 200 unaccompanied minors and family members who are residents of San Francisco. The SFILDC also provides continuing education and training to member attorneys, designs and implements coordinated legal strategy, and tracks the case placement and outcomes of all children and families on the surge dockets.

Though the crisis persists, the work of the SFILDC and its strategic partnership with the Bar Association’s Attorney of the Day Program offers an example of a creative response to this urgent humanitarian – and administrative – crisis.

Adina Hemley-Bronstein

Adina Hemley-Bronstein


Support the SFILDC by representing a client on the surge docket! The collaborative will provide training and mentoring to all who participate. Contact Adina, Immigration Case Coordinator, at