Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Federal grants help LA's child migrants navigate the legal system

A child remains near to the railroad as the train known as
A child remains near to the railroad as the train known as "La Bestia," or The Beast, goes by in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico. As more recently arrived child migrants from Central America navigate the crowded U.S. immigration court system, the federal government is kicking in money to help provide them with legal representation.

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Recently arrived child migrants in Los Angeles will be among those who benefit from legal help paid for by grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency, which is charged with sheltering child migrants and reuniting them with family in the United States, has announced two grants totaling roughly $4.2 million, earmarked for children’s legal counsel in the coming year. HHS officials have proposed spending $9 million over the next two years to help cover legal representation for some 2,600 unaccompanied migrant children.

The grants were awarded to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those organizations will choose the providers in selected U.S. cities, including Los Angeles.

One local legal provider, the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles, has already learned it will receive grant funds.  That extra money will allow it to double its legal staff and take on more cases, said program director Caitlin Sanderson.

“The funding will allow us to provide comprehensive legal representation to 500 unaccompanied children in their immigration court proceedings," Sanderson said. "These are 500 kids who would otherwise not have lawyers.”

More than 66,000 unaccompanied children and teens have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border since Oct. 1, 2013.  Most arrived from Central America, where gang violence has been driving young people and families out. While fewer youths have arrived in recent months, there is a large backlog of children in the immigration court system.

By some estimates, about 50 percent of those who are now in court as they seek asylum and other means of avoiding deportation don’t have lawyers. Their families can’t afford private counsel, and pro-bono firms say they are are maxed out.

The idea of using federal funds to pay for legal representation for these children has met with resistance. House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) protested the HHS decision in an emailed statement:

"The Obama Administration’s decision to provide taxpayer-funded lawyers to unlawful immigrants is a violation of federal law and only makes the problem worse by encouraging more illegal immigration in the future."

Goodlatte urged the the Obama administration to instead "focus its efforts on deterring future border crossers and enforcing the laws against illegal entry into the United States."

Last Saturday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will provide $3 million to qualifying nonprofits to offer free legal assistance for child migrants.

Minors who arrive in the U.S. illegally from countries other than Mexico or Canada must have their cases heard in immigration court, according to federal law.