The Obama administration announced a program late last week that would provide attorneys for the young illegal immigrant children crossing in waves over the U.S.-Mexico border, saying they want to make sure the unaccompanied minors are getting fair legal representation.
The joint project between the Justice Department and AmeriCorps, the government’s national service organization, aims to recruit 100 lawyers and paralegals to shepherd the children through the immigration system, making sure they are treated properly and can make claims for legal status or protection if they are eligible.
“We’re taking a historic step to strengthen our justice system and protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement announcing the plan.
“How we treat those in need, particularly young people who must appear in immigration proceedings — many of whom are fleeing violence, persecution, abuse or trafficking — goes to the core of who we are as a nation,” he said.
Known as unaccompanied alien children, they are generally from Central America, are escaping poverty, abuse or dangerous gangs back home, and make the harrowing trek through Mexico and across the U.S. border.
The government expects more than 90,000 of the children to be apprehended on the U.S. side of the border this year and more than 140,000 to be caught next year. That doesn’t include the tens of thousands more who avoid capture.
As the numbers have spiked in recent weeks and border officials have struggled to keep up with the flow, Obama administration officials have declared it an “urgent humanitarian situation” and have tried to find ways to make the children’s lives easier once they get into the U.S.
The effort to give the children some legal representation won praise from immigrant rights groups, who said they were happy to see the administration respond to the spike in children with humanitarian aid rather than stiffer enforcement policies.
“They have real protection claims which should be heard. Without legal assistance, the likelihood of them receiving relief goes down dramatically,” said Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ office of migration policy and public affairs.
The spike in children crossing the border without their parents has shaken the immigration debate. Some analysts say it’s proof that the southwestern border isn’t secure — and blame the influx on mixed messages from the Obama administration.
In a draft memo dated May 30, Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald D. Vitiello warned that the all-hands-on-deck effort to manage the flow of children is distracting the Homeland Security Department from other critical parts of its mission, including going after gunrunners, drug smugglers and adult illegal immigrants.
He suggested the government needs to find ways to deter illegal crossings — chiefly by punishing those who cross.
“If the U.S. government fails to deliver adequate consequences to deter aliens from attempting to illegally enter the U.S., the result will be an even greater increase in the rate of recidivism and first-time illicit entries,” he wrote in the memo, which was viewed by The Washington Times.
“Releasing other than Mexican family units, credible fear claims and low-threat aliens on their own recognizance, along with facilitating family reunification of [unaccompanied alien children] in lieu of repatriation to their country of citizenship, serve as incentives for additional individuals to follow the same path,” the memo says.
The children, however, present a difficult problem.
Under U.S. law and regulations, they are supposed to be transferred from the Homeland Security Department’s custody to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is supposed to look after them and try to either connect them with their families or place them in foster families.
The legal program will cost $2 million and involve about 100 AmeriCorps members.
Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the lawyers and paralegals can help in a couple of areas, including making sure the children have an advocate as they go through the complex immigration system.
“Fairness, legal due process [are] all things that children especially would need to have someone guide them through the process,” he said.
He said the immigration lawyers in particular can review each case and see whether the children already qualify for some legal status — in some cases, they may actually be the child of a citizen parent, for example.
They may also have a valid claim they can make for asylum based on conditions at home or for Special Immigrant Juveniles status, which is available to children unable to reunite with their parents.
The AmeriCorps volunteer notice specifically lists both asylum and special juvenile visas as options the lawyers should consider.