Thousands of children who braved treacherous journeys from Central America to the U.S. may no longer be alone every step of the way.
After seeing hordes of migrant children stand before immigration judges on their own, the Department of Health and Human Services is funneling $9 million over the next two years in direct legal representation for 2,600 unaccompanied minors throughout their court proceedings, the Office of Refugee Resettlement announced Tuesday.
Officials now from all levels of government -- from federal down to local -- have set aside funds in the last week to expand access to legal representation for the thousands of young migrants making their way through the court system. Last week New York City teamed up with local advocacy groups to provide $1.9 million in counsel for the children, while California Gov. Ed Brown signed legislation Saturday to allocate $3 million to nonprofit groups to provide legal services.
The flood of young children at the southwestern border who claim to have fled extreme violence in Central America has exacerbated an already stressed immigration system. In the last fiscal year alone, more than 66,000 children have been caught trying to cross into the U.S. border, up 88% from the year before. And because they are not guaranteed legal representation in immigration courts, thousands of children have been unable appear before a judge with an attorney by their side.
Human rights advocates have criticized the process in forcing children to navigate a complex legal system alone when they could potentially qualify for asylum or humanitarian relief in the U.S.
Immigrant rights groups hailed the funding infusion as a positive step forward in ensuring due process rights for children escaping gang violence and unrest in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"I think it's a recognition that many of these children have valid protection claims and they need legal representation," said Kevin Appleby of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is set to receive more than $4 million in grants from HHS to provide legal services for the so-called border kids.
"It is a result of advocacy and raising awareness about why these children are coming and why they're fleeing," he said.