Congressional Democrats on Monday introduced a bill to grant taxpayer-funded lawyers to the illegal immigrant children surging across the border, with backers saying the children shouldn’t be forced to face the complex U.S. immigration system alone.
Even though the administration has said the children aren’t eligible for legal status under President Obama’s nondeportation policies, the House lawmakers said there are several other laws, including claims of asylum or other special visas available to crime victims or youngsters without families here.
“It is a fantasy to believe that unrepresented children have a fair shot in an immigration proceeding,” said Rep. Hakeem S. Jeffries, New York Democrat and chief sponsor of the legislation.
Federal law prohibits using taxpayer money to grant legal representation to those going through the immigration system — though they are able to hire attorneys themselves, and the Obama administration has announced a program to try to recruit dozens of volunteer lawyers to help out where they can.
One estimate from before the recent surge said up to 40 percent of unaccompanied minors — those traveling without a parent — could qualify for asylum or some other legal status that would entitle them to stay.
The Democrats’ bill underscores the mixed messages coming out of the U.S. concerning the children’s ability to gain a foothold in the U.S.
Over the weekend, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson penned an op-ed that ran in a number of Spanish-language outlets in the U.S. and Latin America that said the children shouldn’t expect legal status.
“The long journey is not only dangerous; there are no ‘permisos,’ ‘permits’” or free passes at the end, Mr. Johnson wrote in his department’s official English translation of the op-ed.
An internal Customs and Border Protection memo that summarized interviews with children and families who have recently crossed the border said most were coming for what they called a “permiso,” which appears to be a summons to appear in immigration court for a deportation hearing. That document is called a Notice to Appear, or NTA.
Part of the difficulty is the way both sides see the NTA.
American officials consider it a part of their enforcement, since it’s the official designation that someone could be deported.
“If your child is caught crossing the border illegally, he or she will be charged with violating United States immigration laws and placed in deportation proceedings — a situation no one wants. The document issued to your child is not a ‘permiso’ but a Notice to Appear in a deportation proceeding before an immigration judge,” Mr. Johnson wrote.
Those in Central America, however, don’t see it that way. According to the internal memo, they see the NTA as a foothold in the U.S., giving them a chance to apply for asylum and fight deportation — and possibly to disappear into the shadows along with the 11 million other illegal immigrants.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called for Mr. Obama himself to make a forceful statement, arguing that only he can command the type of attention that would ensure the message would break through to Latin American parents considering sending their children north.
Mr. Johnson is scheduled to testify Tuesday to the House Committee on Homeland Security, where Republicans are poised to say the Obama administration’s own policies have been responsible for the surge.
“Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed our southern border, and the problem is growing from bad to worse. They are being drawn here as a result of our failed border policies,” said committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican.
The issue continues to roil Washington politics.
On Monday, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele chided fellow Republicans, telling them to “stop playing political football” with the issue.
In an interview on MSNBC, he singled out for criticism two Texans, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz, both Republicans who are eyeing a 2016 presidential run.
“It would be very helpful if Ted Cruz and Gov. Perry in particular came out in support of the solution here,” Mr. Steele said. “It is a humanitarian crisis, as the president, I think, rightly noted, and it is one the United States has to deal with.”
Part of that humanitarian crisis involves the way the children are treated when they arrive.
Immigrant-rights advocates have filed a complaint with CBP alleging verbal and physical abuse of children. But in a statement late last week, Honduran officials said the U.S. government has done a good job of taking care of them.
The Honduran embassy in Washington said in a statement that it has sent teams to visit the two processing facilities U.S. Customs and Border Protection is running in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, Arizona, and said the children are getting medical care, counseling and emotional support.
Children are also able to contact their families, the embassy said in its release, issued in Spanish.