SACRAMENTO -- As unaccompanied children from Central America continue to flow illegally into California, Gov. Jerry Brown and top Democratic legislators on Thursday unveiled a groundbreaking plan to spend $3 million to make sure the young migrants get legal help.
The legislation, destined to be approved by the end of the legislative session this month because it requires only a majority vote of the Democratic-controlled Legislature, would provide money to nonprofit legal groups representing the unaccompanied minors.
"Helping these young people navigate our legal system is the decent thing to do," Brown said. "And it's consistent with the progressive spirit of California."
The Golden State is believed to be the first state to respond to the immigration crisis with direct funding for the Central American children, although states such as New York have approved some general funding for legal representation for illegal immigrants.
Immigrants facing deportation are not entitled to court-appointed lawyers in the federal immigration system, which already is dealing with an unprecedented backlog nationwide of asylum and deportation cases.
Unaccompanied minors from Central America, many claiming they'll be abused or killed if returned to their home countries, often cannot afford legal help and the crush of new cases has left a shortage of lawyers to volunteer.
Immigration experts say California's new effort could spell the difference between life and death for some children.
"It seems very timely and very necessary," said Dana Marks, a San Francisco immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
On Thursday, Republican leaders in Sacramento took no position on the legislation but questioned whether California should be paying for legal aid in the federal immigration system.
"Sadly too many of (the children) made the difficult choice to leave horrific situations in their home countries, even if it meant leaving their families," said Senate Republican leader Bob Huff. "Today's announcement will begin the discussion as to the appropriate role California can and should have."
But critics of the U.S. government's current approach to the border crisis blasted the proposal.
"There are guys in Sacramento who stay up late thinking up new ways to benefit illegal aliens," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that fights to reduce both legal and illegal immigration. "Why is it the California taxpayers' responsibility to pay for legal services for people who are violating U.S. immigration laws?"
Although the flow has recently slowed, since last October about 63,000 minors have crossed into the U.S. without parents or adult guardians. California alone has seen the arrival of 3,900 children, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The youngsters are attempting to escape poverty, drug cartels, political upheaval and high crimes rates.
The new California legislation is the latest in a string of bills helping undocumented immigrants that Brown backed in his first term, including legislation that gave them access to college financial aid and allowed them to obtain driver's licenses.
"As the state becomes increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, Democrats have seen the importance of crafting legislation that response to these changes," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. And the state Republican Party is trying to rebuild, in part by trying to attract more Latino voters.
Brown's Republican opponent in the upcoming election, Neel Kashkari, "has spent a lot of political energy discussing immigration and his openness to reform," Gerston said. "Is he out of step with Republicans in Sacramento or taking the party in a new direction? We'll know in November."
State Attorney General Kamala Harris, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins all strongly backed the measure.
In addition to the funding, the legislation would streamline the guidelines for state courts to grant so-called special immigrant juvenile status to the unaccompanied minors, which accelerates cases once they reach the federal immigration courts. Immigration rights advocates say the reforms could be particularly important given the crush of deportation cases.
"It could be huge," said Elizabeth Roehm, a staff attorney with the Immigration Center for Women and Children in San Francisco. "These cases often last for years."
A recent report by the Transactional Records Access Clearhouse at Syracuse University, analyzing national immigration court records, found that unaccompanied minors fare far better when they have lawyers. The report found 47 percent of the children were allowed to stay in the United States when they had a lawyer, while 90 percent were deported when they appeared unrepresented.
Staff writer Jessica Calefati contributed to this story.