In a prior blog post, we noted the difficulty many lawyers faced in getting access to immigrant detainees. It appears that access may be improving, just in time for groups of pro bono attorneys to take up the cases for many of the recently arrived immigrants. The Obama administration is even providing millions of dollars to provide the unaccompanied immigrant children with representation.
The Obama administration has announced they will be spending $4 million on lawyers to represent the unaccompanied immigrant children in deportation hearings. Spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, Kenneth Wolfe, stated that this was the first time money was earmarked for direct legal representation for the unaccompanied immigrant children.
Legal counsel will come as a welcome relief for many of the more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors who have come to the US over the past year. The majority of those children have come from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, fleeing violence and criminal gangs.
US law does not provide for free legal representation for immigrants facing deportation hearings. Most of the children do not have attorneys, which greatly affects their chance at success. According to one estimate, about half of children with attorneys are allowed to remain in the US versus. In contrast, only about 10 percent of children without lawyers are permitted to stay.
Immigrant advocates have been rushing to train and recruit lawyers to help represent the children in immigration hearings. The money will go to two organizations, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Those organizations will provide for legal services in a number of US cities.
Republicans have argued that funding lawyers for immigrants violates federal law. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has said the move, “only makes the problem worse by encouraging more illegal immigration in the future.” However, there does not appear to be any immigration reform in the near future from either party.
Immigration advocates have criticized the rushed proceedings. After Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials file a deportation order, unaccompanied minors are to be seen by a judge within only 21 days. Prior to this recent policy change which created a fast track for these children's cases, people would often wait for months or a year before their initial hearing.
Even before the federal funding, some groups have been busy training pro bono lawyers to help with the large numbers of immigrant children facing immigration hearings. The Safe Passage Project is training volunteer lawyers as fast as it can. Staff attorney with Safe Passage, Claire Thomas, said the cases are being put on priority dockets, and are processed more quickly, requiring quick training.
Training lawyers from a variety of background, Safe Passage works to help pro bono attorneys navigate the unique legal system surrounding immigration law. Thomas indicated that their representation has had a high success rate. “Of the children Safe Passage has worked with, 80 to 90 percent have found a form of legal relief.”