- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2016

Top Senate Democrats announced legislation Thursday to grant government-funded lawyers to tens of thousands of illegal immigrant children and mothers who surged into the U.S. from Central America over the last few years, opening another front in the thorny immigration battle.

Arguing the Obama administration has been unfair to illegal immigrants by shunting them through a complex legal system without proper attention to their rights, Sen. Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the upper chamber, led colleagues in demanding lawyers and other protections, such as allowing migrants to delay their trials until they get access to their entire government file.

Currently, migrants are able to hire their own lawyers, but the government cannot pay for them.

Though unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Congress, the legislation is an important marker for both the presidential campaign and for the ongoing debate over how the U.S. treats the illegal immigrants — and, particularly, the unaccompanied children — that have skyrocketed in recent years.

“Look, deportation means death for some of these people,” Mr. Reid said. “Given the life-and-death consequences of deportation to this region, we must ensure that we are not putting asylum-seeking women and children in harm’s way. We can do this by making sure that these desperate women and children have a lawyer.”

The move by Democrats, including the lone Hispanic Democratic, Sen. Robert Menendez, puts pressure on a White House that has struggled to walk a middle line on immigration, trying to find a lenient policy for those already in the U.S. while still attempting to enforce laws against newcomers.

On Thursday Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, delivering a “state of homeland security” address, said they’re still trying to manage the tricky situation on the border, which has seen about 300,000 illegal immigrant families and children traveling alone stream into the U.S. over the last two and a half years.

Mr. Johnson had thought he had the problem licked in the summer of 2014, only to see a new, unexpected surge in the last half of 2015. Mr. Johnson said so far in 2016, the numbers are down again, by more than 50 percent compared to December.

But he said his department can’t let up, and he defended his decision to approve a small series of raids in early January that netted about 120 illegal immigrants who’d arrived in 2014, had been ordered deported and yet were ignoring those deportations.

“This six-week decline is encouraging, but it does not mean we can dial back our efforts,” Mr. Johnson said. “We will continue to enforce the law consistent with our priorities for enforcement, which includes those apprehended at the border in 2014 or later.”

Though but a tiny fraction — less than a tenth of a percent — of the total number of women and children caught over the last couple of years, the immigrants who were rounded up have become a major rallying point for immigrant rights groups.

Those groups managed to halt the deportations of 12 families caught in the raids, and eight of those families have now been released from custody as their cases wind their way through the system. Advocates say those releases are proof that Mr. Johnson acted too rashly and that the illegal immigrants didn’t get a fair day in court their first time through.

Mr. Reid’s new bill was prodded in part by those stories.

The Obama administration, advocacy groups and congressional Democrats say the families are fleeing horrific violence back home, are often targeted by gangs and deserve a chance at asylum in the U.S. That means making a complicated case to authorities.

But in interviews with Border Patrol agents, the illegal immigrants overwhelmingly say they’re coming because they believe they can take advantage of lax enforcement policies in the U.S. and disappear into the shadows with other illegal immigrants.

With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S., President Obama has taken steps to try to make their lives easier — and is poised to go even further still.

Mr. Johnson said he will “very soon” release final rules greatly expanding the number of illegal immigrants who will be able to claim “extreme hardship” if they were sent back home. That would allow them to remain in the U.S. despite a law that would normally make them have to go back home for up to 10 years.

Advocates say that could help as many as 1 million illegal immigrants gain a legal foothold here.

Mr. Johnson also said he’s working with the Labor Department to try to figure out ways to target businesses that are exploiting illegal immigrants.

The secretary delivered his evaluation of the state of homeland security in a speech to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

He said his department will begin testing an exit visa system at major airports by 2018, seeking to try to cut down on the number of illegal immigrants who sneak into the U.S. by overstaying their permits.

He also said he’s moving to expand the department’s use of social media in trying to screen out potentially dangerous immigrants, particularly in the refugee program, where Mr. Obama has said the U.S. will accept 10,000 applicants this year.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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