Gov. Jerry Brown, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and a roster of other elected state officials want to spend $3 million on legal help for unaccompanied minors facing federal immigration court hearings in California. It's a good humanitarian impulse, and a practical one. This page has called for the federal government to ensure that all children facing deportation alone have a legal advisor to look out for their interests.
But who should pay for that? Though using state money to address a federal problem gives us pause, the children's needs outweigh questions about which tax dollars should be used. In addition, confusion about overlapping state and federal responsibilities for the children is creating delays. In the spirit of pragmatism, we support this effort.
Beginning in 2011, an increase in gang and drug-trafficking violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador prompted an exodus of children. Most headed for relatives already in the U.S. (legally or illegally), lured in part by rumors that once they got here the government would let them stay. From October 2013 through the end of July, Border Patrol agents detained nearly 63,000 unaccompanied minors, double the number stopped during the same period the previous year. The recent surge has abated, but it could well resume once the summer heat breaks.
Under federal law, Border Patrol agents must turn over unaccompanied minors to the Department of Health and Human Services until an immigration judge determines whether they have a right to remain in the country. But they aren't entitled to a lawyer, which has left young people to argue alone in court that they meet the legal criteria for being allowed to stay, such as abandonment or being the victim of trafficking.
In some cases, a minor can qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, but only if a state court judge has declared the child a dependent of the court and found that deportation would be contrary to the child's best interest. That need for certification by a state judge in an otherwise federal matter has further muddied the attempt to treat these children fairly. Under Brown's proposal, those roles would be clarified, and children who appear in state proceedings would have a lawyer.
It's not a large number of minors who need legal help. As of the end of July, the federal Office of Refugee Settlement had placed 3,909 unaccompanied minors with California sponsors. The proposal does not create a new bureaucracy; the money would go to existing nonprofit legal assistance programs. And the proposal does not commandeer federal immigration law; it merely attempts to help children in California understand their rights within that law.
In light of the persistent failure of the federal government to live up to its moral responsibility for these children, it has fallen on the state to act. Brown is right to do so.