Capitol Alert

Young immigrants would get $3 million in legal help under California bill

Young immigrants poised to flood California’s courts could get extra legal help under a bill offering $3 million to bolster legal services.

An extraordinary influx of young, unaccompanied minors into the country has dominated the national debate over immigration policy in recent months, setting President Barack Obama against congressional Republicans and prompting calls for action from California lawmakers.

Some of those state legislators have already spotlighted the issue, visiting a Ventura County naval base serving as a temporary detention center to survey living conditions for the immigrants housed there. In remarks to the press after the tour, lawmakers emphasized ensuring that the new arrivals get full legal hearings as they face potential deportations.

“I think we all came away with a feeling that these kids really needed our support, that it was about their safety, their due process, the ability to look beyond bigger political considerations and deal with a humanitarian crisis,” Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, told reporters on Thursday.

The newly announced bill would set aside $3 million that would be distributed to nonprofit organizations that offer legal services. Many of the immigrants pressing their cases could be seeking refugee status.

“We all know that children are more likely to be deported if they don’t have legal representation in immigration court,” Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, told reporters. “As a former immigration lawyer, we know that cases of asylum or refugee status in immigration court (are) complex.”

The bill represents California’s most significant effort to respond to what remains a federal issue. Until now state lawmakers had offered largely symbolic gestures, such as a resolution calling for humane treatment of the young immigrants.

“Helping these young people navigate our legal system is the decent thing to do and it’s consistent with the progressive spirit of California,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement.

As an urgency measure included in a budget cleanup bill, the legislation would take effect immediately and could make money available within a few weeks, according to Atkins’ office.

It would not require Republican votes to pass. Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, called the bill “an unprecedented and inappropriate use of taxpayer money.” The assemblywoman representing the town of Murrieta, where protests have flared as buses carrying immigrants to detention centers passed through, said in a statement that the cash infusion misses the overarching issue.

“It is nice to see that this issue is finally on the Governor’s radar,” Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said in a statement. “The only question is: 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?”

A separate bill would direct state courts to evaluate the cases being presented by immigrant minors, an often-overlooked first step for them to obtain legal residency from a federal court. Immigrants who obtain legal permanent status are shielded from deportation and become eligible for citizenship.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he became aware of the need for the clarification to the courts when one of his staff members took the training to become a legal advocate for children arriving from Central America. Too often, Steinberg said, the migrant children arrive at federal court only to find they don’t have the required finding from a state court.

“We want to make it clear that the state courts have an important role here,” Steinberg said.

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