The Department of Justice has asked Congress multiple times for funds to provide legal counsel for unaccompanied minors facing removal proceedings in immigration court, but House Republicans have rejected all requests so far and have instead pushed to expedite the removal of unaccompanied minors.
In their recent emergency funding bill approved by the GOP-controlled House on Aug. 1, Republicans did not include any funds to hire attorneys for unaccompanied minors. They did, however, call for the hiring of temporary immigration judges to expedite the immigration court proceedings and deportation of unaccompanied minors.
But Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads the DOJ, has not given up on pushing for the hiring of additional attorneys to represent unaccompanied minors in court. In June, he announced a new program, dubbed justice AmeriCorps, to provide attorneys for unaccompanied minors caught crossing the southern border and are facing deportation.
With the launch of justice AmeriCorps, were taking a historic step to strengthen our justice system and protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society, Holder said in a statement. How we treat those in need, particularly young people who must appear in immigration proceedings many of whom are fleeing violence, persecution, abuse or trafficking goes to the core of who we are as a nation.
In its latest attempt to provide more attorneys to unaccompanied minors, the DOJ asked for a $13.2 million transfer of funds that would be divided into three areas, Politico reported. Those three areas are: $6.7 million to conduct court hearings through video conference and provide translation services, $2.5 million to expand legal orientation programs and $4 million to hire attorneys for unaccompanied minors.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the DOJ, recently approved the $13.2 million transfer but made major changes to how the funds should be allocated, Politico reported. He allocated $9.1 million to go toward video-conferencing and $4.1 million to increase the number of temporary immigration judges to expedite the deportation hearings of unaccompanied minors. However, no funds were included for legal counsel for these migrant children, many of whom are fleeing gang violence in Central America.
According to Politico, the DOJ has ignored some of Wolfs request and has gone forward with transfers in the past. But in a statement to Politico, a Justice Department official gave no indication that the agency will go forward with its $13.2 million transfer request it originally sent to Wolf.
As the immigration court system prioritizes the cases of recent border crossers, including unaccompanied children, having legal counsel available for these children is an important part of the overall effort, a DOJ official told Politico in a statement late Sunday. Involving lawyers at the beginning of the court process helps the system function much more efficiently.
Without these funds, the official added, our efforts to prioritize these cases will be less efficient and effective and we will be left with a deportation process in which these children will be expected to represent themselves.
According to Politico, this latest request by the DOJ comes as 40 percent of children many of whom are under the age of 14 and have limited English skills are being processed without legal counsel. It also comes as a group of immigrant advocacy groups and eight migrant children are suing the DOJ for what they say is a failure by the agency to provide legal counsel for children facing deportation.