A bill signed on Saturday by California Gov. Jerry Brown will provide $3 million to qualifying nonprofits to offer free legal assistance for child migrants. Nonprofit legal service providers handling the cases of recently-arrived child migrants from Central America say the demand for pro-bono help is huge, especially since many of the children are seeking asylum.
“If you go to the court, you’ll see many, many children showing up, and being told to come back with a lawyer, and yet they can’t," said Judy London, an attorney with the pro bono firm Public Counsel in Los Angeles, which is representing about 50 migrant kids. "There is nowhere they can go. The kinds of agencies that do this work have hundreds of children on waiting lists.”
Roughly half the children and teens who arrived recently from Central America and are now facing deportation in the court system don't have legal representation, London said. Many of them fled gang violence in their native countries are seeking asylum. But without counsel, she said, their chances of being able to stay legally are slim.
London said there will likely be an application process for the funds. The additional money will help nonprofits hire attorneys to represent some of the more than 4,000 children who have been placed with relatives in California as their deportation cases are heard.
Federal law requires that minors caught entering the country who are from nations other than Mexico and Canada have their cases heard in immigration court.
The new funding in California will help more of these kids to get legal help, but it won’t do much to ease the crowded immigration courts, according to Judge Dana Leigh Marks.
“Although it’s very well-intentioned and extremely necessary, in terms of our overall backlog, I’m concerned that it’s just going to be a drop in the bucket," said Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, who hears immigration cases in San Francisco. "The backlog nationwide is over 400,000 pending cases.”
Marks says the new law is significant because it helps clarify the role of California courts in handling cases involving what's called Special Immigrant Juveniles Status.
This special status gives minors who have been abused or abandoned by their parents the opportunity to stay in the U.S. legally. It's granted by a federal immigration judge, but state courts must first make necessary findings in the child's case.