On Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security committee held a hearing examining the U.S. government’s response to last year’s arrivals of unaccompanied children fleeing Central American violence. Despite continuing disagreements between Senators as to the cause of the increased numbers of children fleeing their homes, two solutions received uniform support from U.S. government officials: providing lawyers to children and hiring more judges to address the overburdened immigration courts.

Both Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), the Committee Chair, and Senator Thomas Carper (D-DE), the ranking Democrat, acknowledged that thousands of children are still leaving Central America for the United States. Sen. Johnson noted that “many more would be arriving if not for Mexico’s increased enforcement at its southern border,” and Sen. Carper cited research that “Mexico, Belize, and Nicaragua have seen a nearly 1200% increase in asylum seekers.” While Sen. Carper took those facts to mean that “children and families are still fleeing” violence, Senator Johnson repeatedly argued that President Obama’s DACA initiative was the “root cause.” Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) rebutted that claim by citing the American Immigration Council’s recent Guide—specifically, the section citing evidence that the rise in numbers of arriving children was before, not after DACA. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) also stated that “violence and instability were the key factors that pushed children to seek refuge.”

Significantly, U.S. immigration officials from various departments all agreed that providing lawyers to children for court proceedings would help process their cases more fairly and efficiently. Juan Osuna, from the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) (i.e., the U.S. immigration courts), stated that lawyers would “assist in reducing [the immigration courts’] case backlog while providing fair and efficient adjudicatory proceedings.” Joseph Langlois, responsible for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS’) asylum processing, testified “there is no question counsel makes the process more efficient.” Mark Greenberg, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), touted HHS’ efforts to provide $9 million to NGOs that provide pro bono representation to unaccompanied children in proceedings. Osuna also reiterated the Administration’s request for $50 million for lawyers for children in the fiscal year 2016 budget.

Sen. Carper agreed that “cases often advance more efficiently when unaccompanied minors have a lawyer,” but since “many minors all over the country still lack attorneys… there is more work to be done.” Indeed, Senator Peters asked whether immigration is the only legal arena where children are unrepresented. Sen. Johnson, however, noted that an immigration statute provides for the “privilege” of representation “at no expense to the government,” and questioned whether a “conflict” exists between that law and HHS’ efforts to provide pro bono counsel. HHS’ Greenberg responded that the “law is clear” that the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 requires HHS to “make every effort to utilize the services of pro bono counsel“ for children tothe greatest extent practicable.”

Additionally, the U.S. immigration officials all agreed that more immigration judges are necessary. For example, EOIR’s Osuna argued for “comprehensive reform with a bolstered court system,” and HHS’ Greenberg supported the funding for 55 more immigration judges in both the House and Senate pending appropriations bills. Senator Carper reiterated his support for additional immigration judges, calling the current situation of “overwhelmed immigration courts… unacceptable.”

In the weeks and months ahead, Congress is expected to complete the FY 2016 budget process. Let’s hope that Congress hears the call for additional resources and appropriates adequate funds both for judges and legal representation.

Photo by Varun Maliwal.

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