Seeking to address a swell of unaccompanied children from Central America who have immigrated to the U.S. illegally in recent months, Gov. Jerry Brown and other California lawmakers announced a proposal Thursday to provide $3 million in legal aid to those minors.
The bill, if approved, would steer taxpayer money to nonprofit organizations that provide legal help to unaccompanied minors facing deportation.
Pro bono lawyers who specialize in such cases say they have been overwhelmed by demand amid a surge of immigration. They say many children, including some who have asylum claims, are being forced to navigate the complex immigration system alone.
Brown, who is up for reelection in November, said that helping immigrant children is a matter of values.
"Helping these young people navigate our legal system is the decent thing to do and it's consistent with the progressive spirit of California," Brown said.
The proposal drew support from immigrant advocates who are working with the children, many of whom say they are fleeing a rise in gang violence in Honduras and El Salvador. In the first half of this year, about 3,900 Central American minors detained at the border were released to guardians in California to wait as their deportation cases are heard.
"It really is a life-saving measure to give access to counsel for these children," said Judy London, directing attorney of the Immigrant Rights Project at Public Counsel, which provides free legal representation to immigrant kids.
Children who don't have a lawyer are more likely to be deported to dangerous conditions, said London, who said her organization will probably apply for the new state money if it is made available.
Opponents of illegal immigration criticized Thursday's announcement.
Jo Wideman, whose group, Californians for Population Stabilization, calls for stricter immigration laws, said taxpayer money should go to help Americans, not foreigners who have broken the law.
"In these tough economic times there are many unmet needs of American citizens," Wideman said. "That is where our limited tax dollars should be directed."
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said she had not yet seen the language of the proposal but worried that it could encourage further illegal immigration.
"Will this money solely address the current inadequacies of our system or simply attract more people into it, creating even greater burdens on the California taxpayer?" Melendez asked.
Earlier this year she criticized Brown for not alerting officials in Murrieta that a local Border Patrol facility would be used to temporarily house Central American detainees.
The proposal has political overtones for Brown and his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature who are anxious to increase Democratic turnout in November's election, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.
"Politically this is one way of energizing the Latino community," Pitney said. "It's the kind of issue where Jerry Brown can say he delivered."
Voicing his support for the measure, Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) took a veiled swipe at Texas, where Republican Gov. Rick Perry ordered National Guard troops to the border to stem the flood of immigrants.
"We're not sending the National Guard to confront these children as other states have done," Alejo said.
The plan is backed by state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, who is also seeking reelection. In July, Harris convened a working group to examine ways to provide legal representation to the children.
The proposals will be added to remaining budget-related bills and need majority approval in both houses to pass. The Legislature has until Aug. 31 to act on remaining bills before it adjourns for the year.