WASHINGTON -- Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and state officials are urging attorneys in the state to represent unaccompanied children and teenagers who stand the risk of being deported to countries with dangerous conditions because they don't have legal help.
The chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, Mary Ellen Barbera, sent a letter on Monday to bar associations and other groups across the state asking them to take on cases of unaccompanied minors on a pro bono basis, and the O'Malley administration has met with legal organizations to discuss aid needs. About 2,800 migrant children and teenagers are staying with relatives and foster families in Maryland, which is hosting the highest number of unaccompanied minors per capita of any state.
Although the flow of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally has slowed, there are still tens of thousands of children and teenagers slated to go through immigration proceedings, many of whom are without legal counsel. The government does not guarantee lawyers for people -- even children -- in deportation proceedings and is currently fighting a lawsuit that would require it to do so.
For now, pro bono attorneys and legal aid groups are often left to pick up the slack to ensure migrant minors get a fair shake at staying in the U.S. The application process can be extremely complicated, and unaccompanied minors have in the past been more likely to be allowed to stay if they have legal counsel. An estimated 40 percent of minors who go into Department of Health and Human Services custody could be eligible to stay.
Some other state officials have also tried to pull in more support for unaccompanied minors. California Attorney General Kamala Harris asked law firms in July to provide pro bono representation to minors, and Democrats in the state proposed a bill in August to provide $3 million for lawyers for unaccompanied children and teenagers in immigration proceedings.
"These young people have legal rights and responsibilities, but they cannot fully participate in complex immigration proceedings without an attorney," Harris said in August. "It is critical that these children, many of whom are fleeing extreme violence in Central America, have access to due process and adequate legal representation."
O'Malley sparred with the Obama administration earlier this summer over its plans to speed up removal proceedings for unaccompanied minors.
"We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death," he said in July. "I believe that we should be guided by the greatest power we have as a people, and that is the power of our principles."