WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — A group of Democratic congressmen announced a bill on Monday that would give legal representation to unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border illegally.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., joined three southern California Democrats — Lucille Roybal-Allard, Judy Chu and Karen Bass — in a press conference announcing the introduction of the Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act of 2014 (VIVA). Federal officials estimate 90,000 unaccompanied children will attempt to cross the U.S. border by the end of the year. The bill would prevent the illegal minors and people with mental disabilities from facing immigration courts without legal counsel.

“Under our laws, we give the right to legal counsel to the most dangerous, hardened criminals in America,” Roybal-Allard said at the Monday press conference. “Murderers, drug dealers and gang members are all guaranteed professional legal assistance. Our bill simply gives vulnerable migrant children the same rights to counsel because tragically today, as you have heard, small children facing the prospect of deportation don’t have this basic right.”

“This is unfair, it is unjust, it is un-American,” she added.

A large percentage of the minors crossing into the U.S. are fleeing Central American countries, with an increasing amount flowing being arrested flowing through the borders since 2011. The U.S. government has detained 52,000 unaccompanied minors since October. Recently, President Barack Obama echoed what many on the border are calling a “growing humanitarian crisis.”

“There is a growing humanitarian crisis at the border that worsens exponentially by the day. It is a serious problem, and it requires a serious response,” said Jeffries, from New York’s 8th District. “Some of the children who have come to this country may not have a valid legal basis to remain, but some will. Yet, it is virtually impossible for a child to assert a valid claim under immigration law in the absence of legal representation. That is why we have introduced legislation to provide unaccompanied minors involved in immigration proceedings with access to counsel.”

Some of the undocumented immigrants could be eligible to stay in the U.S. under a special immigrant juvenile asylum, status or visas for crime victims. In a 2012 report, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that 40 percent of the unaccompanied minors taken into U.S. custody could potentially be given immigration relief.

“The hallmark of our democracy is a judicial system where legal adversaries compete in order to arrive at the correct result. It is a fantasy to believe that unrepresented children have a fair shot in an immigration proceeding,” said Jeffries.

The Obama administration announced last week that more immigration judges and officers were being sent to border areas to quicken the increasing caseloads for unaccompanied minors.

“The crisis of tens of thousands of undocumented children crowding into detention centers across the United States is quickly turning into a disaster for Americans and for countries around the world where these children are from, and how we respond is a question of our humanity,” Bass said in a statement.

“The clearest answer is Congress absolutely must immediately pass comprehensive immigration reform, but in the meantime we should guarantee that each of these children as well as the people in these centers with serious mental disabilities have access to legal counsel so they do not become statistics in our foster care system. This legislation ensures that the American ideals of legal representation will be guaranteed to those people who are most in need.”

Benjamin Fearnow


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