The Obama administration will pay $9 million over the next two years to give taxpayer-funded attorneys to some of the illegal immigrant children who have surged across the U.S. border this year, the Health and Human Services Department said Tuesday.
About 2,600 immigrants will be able to be represented by lawyers thanks to the funds, which were awarded in two grants to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, according to a notice to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday.
Advocates cheered the decision, which they’d been demanding for months, saying it will not only help the children get a fair hearing on asylum claims, but it will also make the court proceedings go faster, which will end up saving the government money.
But administration critics in Congress said the move could violate federal law and will most likely prolong illegal immigrants’ time in the U.S., encouraging more children to make the dangerous crossing.
“To end the surge at the border, the Obama administration should instead focus its efforts on deterring future border crossers and enforcing the laws against illegal entry into the United States,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican. “Without such actions, the flood of people attempting to cross the border illegally will only continue.”
The administration’s move marks another effort to circumvent Congress.
Mr. Obama had requested $15 million to provide lawyers for the children in his emergency spending request earlier this summer, but Congress left town without approving the money.
The money comes even as the surge at the border has abated somewhat, dropping from about 10,000 children a month in May and June down to only several thousand, or about the level of the previous year.
Still, 66,000 unaccompanied children — and tens of thousands more families — were caught at the border between Oct. 1 and Aug. 31.
HHS has processed and released some 56,000 illegal immigrant children this fiscal year, sending them to live with relatives or foster families scattered throughout the country.
The Washington metropolitan region, with its high population of Central American immigrants, has taken an outsize number of the children, so it’s not surprising the Baltimore/Arlington region is one of eight areas that will get the money for lawyers.
The other seven are: Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Dallas, Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans and Phoenix.
The Catholic bishops and USCRI will decide which children get lawyers. Neither organization returned messages seeking comment on Tuesday about how they would spend the money.
Advocates say most of the children are fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse, and many of them should qualify for asylum in the U.S.
On Tuesday, the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank with deep ties to the White House, released a memo arguing that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender children are also fleeing Central America and need protection.
The center said those children are subject to particularly rough abuse during the journey and also face harsh treatment at the hands of federal authorities or the facilities the government pays to house the children.
“It is time for these policies to work for members of the vulnerable LGBT community, who are risking their lives to come to the United States only to face similar physical and verbal abuse in the very country that should be helping them,” said Sharita Gruberg, one of the authors of the memo.
The latest injection of money for lawyers is in addition to $2 million the Justice Department set aside earlier this year to form a voluntary corps of lawyers to help represent illegal immigrant children.
Gregory Z. Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the money is an important marker from the federal government that it recognizes the need for lawyers — though he said it’s far less than needed.
“There needs to be a lot more funding to provide counsel to children, especially because the volume of children is far beyond 2,600,” he said.
Mr. Chen said providing lawyers helps all sides in the process. The lawyers help the judges process the cases more efficiently, which means they can clear the cases, and immigrants with lawyers are more likely to show up for their court dates.
The lawyers can also make sure those with valid claims are heard fairly, he said, pointing to statistics that show those making asylum claims are up to eight times more likely to be found eligible if they have a lawyer.
“It’s impossible for children to navigate our complex immigration and asylum processes without a lawyer,” said Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First’s refugee program.
She said paying for lawyers could end up paying for itself in the long run. She pointed to a study done earlier this summer saying that if the government provided lawyers for the children, it would cost slightly more than $200 million a year — about the same as would be saved from speedier cases and lower detention costs.
Congressional critics have pointed to provisions in federal law that say aliens going through immigration proceedings can hire lawyers “at no expense to the government.”
Analysts at the Congressional Research Service, however, said no court has accepted that argument, and that it appears the language means that while immigrants aren’t entitled to a government-sponsored lawyer, there’s no prohibition if the administration wants to make one available.