U.S. to Provide Lawyers for Children Facing Deportation


A child from Honduras, center, unsure of his age, sat with a group of youths at Fort Brown Station in Brownsville, Tex. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

The Obama administration said on Friday that it was launching a program to help recruit lawyers for children facing deportation as it scrambles to deal with the soaring number of unaccompanied Central American minors illegally crossing the border from Mexico.

Under the plan, the federal government will issue $2 million in grants to enroll about 100 lawyers and paralegals to represent children making their way through the immigration court system.

“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. “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.”

Administration officials have been trying to cope with a surge of unaccompanied children, mainly from Central America, that has overwhelmed border officials as well as the nation’s family and immigration court systems.

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On Monday, the administration ordered federal emergency authorities to coordinate a multiagency response to the relief effort.

Two emergency shelters have been opened on military bases — one at Naval Base Ventura County in Oxnard, Calif., and the other at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio — to house as many as 1,800 youths.

Since October, more than 47,000 children traveling without parents have been caught trying to cross the Southwest border, a 92 percent increase over the same period last year. Most are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, officials said.

Conservative critics say that the administration’s lax enforcement of immigration law has sent encouraging signals to Central Americans suggesting that they may enjoy a de facto amnesty if they get across the Mexico border.

“The broader message is that we don’t take our immigration laws seriously,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tightening immigration laws. “That’s what it is, and people are acting on it.”

The new legal representation program will be a collaboration between the Justice Department and the Corporation for National and Community Service, which operates the AmeriCorps national service program. The program’s services will be restricted to children under the age of 16 who have already received a notice to appear for deportation proceedings but are not in the custody of the federal government, officials said.

The grants will be issued to nonprofit organizations in 29 cities with large immigrant populations. Those groups would in turn recruit and enroll the attorneys and paralegals for the program, said Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokeswoman for the corporation.

Each legal representative will be asked to commit to about a year of service and in exchange will receive a living allowance, Ms. Warfield said.

In criminal or family courts, defendants who cannot afford a lawyer have the right to obtain one at the government’s expense. Nothing in the law provides such a benefit in immigration court, not even for children, and immigration law in general provides few protections specifically for minors.

Immigrants’ advocates, arguing that children should be provided with special care, have long pressed for a system of universal representation for unaccompanied minors facing deportation. They have redoubled their call amid the recent influx of young people from Central America.

Many advocates applauded the announcement, but at the same time pointed out that the program promised to provide representation for only a fraction of all unaccompanied minors trying to navigate the American legal system.