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Immigration Reform Update: California Lawmakers to Pass $3 Million for Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children's Legal Aid

First Posted: Aug 25, 2014 04:51 PM EDT
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California lawmakers are attempting to pass $3 million to provide legal counsel for unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant children in immigration court.

California Assembly Bill 1477 and Senate Bill 873 would provide the $3 million to nonprofit organizations that help unaccompanied minors receive legal services. The bill would also grant undocumented children "special immigrant juvenile status," which in turn will expedite their naturalization process. The legislation would also reinforce minors' access to interpreters.

"With these bills we're making it clear California wants unaccompanied immigrant children treated as children. We want their well-being ensured, their best interests pursued, and their safety protected," California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said. "While no longer in the headlines, the humanitarian crisis that has brought so many children to our country continues. While the root causes of this crisis are being addressed, these victimized children deserve to be treated with kindness and justice."

According to Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, the purpose of the bills is to protect the human rights of the children. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, said the well-being of children is a top priority for California. He noted thousands of unaccompanied minors are "frightened" but deserve due process in determining whether they can stay in the U.S. or return to their native country.

"The recent surge of unaccompanied minors is an issue that goes beyond the debate of our nation's flawed immigration system. This is a question of whether or not we ought to take proper care of helpless children with no one to turn to," Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, said.

Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, said the immigration process is "complex and intimidating" for children and there must be accountability to ensure the minors are treated fairly under the U.S. legal system.

National Latino organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) lauded the California lawmakers' efforts for the unaccompanied undocumented children.

"Without legal counsel, the protection of these refugee children -- scared kids who have traversed several countries to escape the horrors at home -- would be trumped by the complexities of the American immigration legal system," LULAC National Executive Director Brent Wilkes said. "We commend California for being the first state to emerge as a leader in protecting the refugee children and look to other states with high concentrations of relocated children to mirror California's leadership."

According to the Sacramento Bee, Republican votes are not needed to pass the $3 million legislation.

"Helping these young people navigate our legal system is the decent thing to do, and it's consistent with the progressive spirit of California," California Gov. Jerry Brown said.

Meanwhile, national immigrants' rights groups are suing the U.S. government over claims of lack of due process for "scores" of Central American women and children at the Artesia immigrant detention facility in New Mexico.

The American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council, National Immigration Law Center, and National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild announced their lawsuit in response to what they say is a failure of immigration laws, notably in denying mothers and children fair deportation processes. The lawsuit claims the detainees at Artesia are given "little to no advanced notice" about seeing an immigration court judge, and that officials in the Artesia facility -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents -- are not following protocol.

"We are filing this lawsuit today to ensure that each mother is able to have her fair day in court, and that we are not sending children and their mothers back to violence or their deaths," National Immigration Law Center's Managing Attorney Karen Tumlin said in a statement.

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