SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — The Obama administration is spending $4 million on lawyers for unaccompanied immigrant children in deportation proceedings, a move an influential Republican lawmaker says is illegal and will fuel an increase in illegal immigration.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, said on Tuesday that it is the first time the office that oversees programs for unaccompanied immigrant children will provide money for direct legal representation.
The grants to two organizations are part of a bigger $9 million project that aims to provide lawyers to 2,600 children. The move comes after the number of unaccompanied Central American children arriving on the U.S.-Mexico border more than doubled this past year, many of them fleeing violence.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, said the funding violates federal law "and only makes the problem worse by encouraging more illegal immigration in the future." He urged the government to focus its efforts on deterring future border crossers.
Most of the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children who arrived on the border in the last year don't have attorneys, and immigrant advocates have been scrambling to secure grant funding and ramp up efforts to recruit and train pro bono lawyers to take on their cases.
After being detained by federal authorities, children are placed in shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services until they can be released to a relative or sponsor in the United States. The children are then given a date to appear in immigration court for deportation proceedings, though many will seek to remain in the country by applying for asylum or other forms of immigration relief.
In the past, Wolfe's agency has funded know-your-rights presentations, legal screenings and efforts to recruit and train pro bono lawyers, but not direct legal representation, he said. The grants issued to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants for legal services in cities including Los Angeles, Houston and Miami would be formally announced later in the week, Wolfe said.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the bishops' organization, said the funding is an important first step. "It is a recognition that many of these children have valid protection claims and they need legal help to navigate the process," he said.
Immigrants are allowed to have counsel in immigration courts, but lawyers are not guaranteed or provided at government expense. Immigrant advocates have filed a federal lawsuit in Seattle demanding the government provide attorneys for the children.
Having a lawyer can make a big difference: While almost half of children with attorneys were allowed to remain in the country, only 10 percent of those without representation were allowed to stay, according to an analysis of cases through June by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced plans to enroll about 100 lawyers and paralegals as members of AmeriCorps to provide legal assistance to unaccompanied immigrant children.