WASHINGTON -- Gov. Martin O'Malley called on the legal community to address the shortage of attorneys available to represent immigrant children and touted Maryland's progress in making the state more hospitable to newcomers in an address Thursday to the Hispanic National Bar Association.
O'Malley, a Democrat who is considering a run for president in 2016, noted the passage of a 2011 state law that allows some immigrants who entered the country illegally to attend Maryland colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates, as well as a more recent decision to limit the impact of a controversial federal program known as Secure Communities.
The governor steered clear of President Barack Obama's plan to delay executive action on immigration enforcement until after the midterm elections in November – a move that has stirred controversy on both sides of that issue.
"In Maryland, we strongly support comprehensive immigration reform but we have not waited for the federal government to act," O'Malley told several hundred gathered in a Washington hotel conference room. "We want to keep families together."
The lack of attorneys available to represent the unaccompanied minors is a well-documented reason for the backlog in immigration court. In Maryland and nationwide, nearly 60 percent of minors facing deportation to countries such as El Salvador and Honduras are arriving in court without a lawyer.
O'Malley called on the attorneys in the room to provide pro bono counsel to the children "to help them navigate the legal process." He noted that Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote a letter this week to bar associations in the state requesting volunteers.
The governor has received praise from advocates for the tuition law as well as for backing a measure last year to let immigrants in the country illegally to apply for driver's licenses.
More recently, O'Malley limited the circumstances under which the state-run jail in Baltimore will hold immigrants beyond their scheduled release. He then tightened those rules in August after a letter from the Attorney General raised constitutional questions about the detentions.
The practice has long been criticized by groups such as the ACLU.
O'Malley also tussled with the Obama administration in July over a White House policy intended to speed the deportation of unaccompanied minors crossing the border with Mexico. The governor criticized the policy, arguing that "we are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death."