Responding to the surge of young immigrants on the Southwest border, a group of Democratic lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation that would provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors caught illegally entering the country.
"Some of the children who have come to this country may not have a valid legal basis to remain, but some will," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). "Yet, it is virtually impossible for a child to assert a valid claim under immigration law in the absence of legal representation."
The Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act comes as congressional committees prepare to hold hearings Tuesday and Wednesday on the crush of new arrivals from Central America.
The measure is similar to a provision of a broad immigration bill that was approved by the Senate last year but has languished in the Republican-controlled House.
This new bill could face a similar fate. No Republican has signed on as a co-sponsor.
No cost estimate was immediately available. But a spokeswoman for Jeffries contended the bill would "effectively pay for itself" by reducing the time that youths would spend in detention.
"I suspect at the end of the day, this would save us money," Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a legal advocacy group, told the Los Angeles Times. "These cases tend to drag out when there's no counsel in the picture."
Some unaccompanied minors receive aid from volunteer attorneys, often provided by immigrant-rights groups. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. recently announced the start of a new effort, coordinated with AmeriCorps community service program, to provide about 100 lawyers and paralegals to immigrant children.
The bill's other cosponsors, all Democrats, are Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey, Karen Bass of Los Angeles, Judy Chu of Monterey Park, Suzan DelBene of Washington state, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Ted Deutch of Florida.
"Without counsel, these children cannot present their claim for safety in the U.S., and we risk returning them to great harm," Young added in a statement. "As a global leader in the protection of the most vulnerable, the United States must no longer allow children -- some as young as 2 years old -- to appear in immigration court alone. This is not who we are as a nation."