One of the biggest domestic stories to take place this summer has been the tens of thousands of undocumented children coming across the southern border from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, many escaping from drug violence.
Concerned about the fact that many of these children are going before immigration judges without legal representation, House Democrats earlier this summer introduced the Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act, which would provide attorneys to unaccompanied minors and mentally disabled individuals during immigration proceedings.
On Thursday two activist groups, Awake Pinellas and CIRNOW, intend to make their way to CD13 Congressman David Jolly's district office in St.Petersburg to present him with a petition signed by several hundred people calling on him to support the legislation, formally known as HR 4936.
"People in immigration court are being advised that they have the right to have an attorney represent them, but at no cost to the government," says Tampa-based immigration attorney John Ovink. "No attorneys will be appointed for them. There is no public defender. If they want one, they have to pay for one." Ovink says that isn't very practical when in many if not most cases, the defendants are actually children who don't speak English (though they do have translators).
Ovink says he was in court a week ago last Monday when he saw a child no older than 10 years of age sitting at a desk in the courtroom where normally an attorney would sit with their client, opposed by a government attorney at the other desk.
"There's a judge and the judge is going like, 'did you receive your notice to appear?' And the kid is looking like a deer in the headlights," Ovink recalls.
He says that in any other court in the country, people get an attorney (like a public defender) to represent them if they cannot afford one. But that's not the case in immigration court. "Sorry, you don't have an attorney? Don't have your rights? Bye. Outta here," he says.
When asked about the legislation on Monday, Congressman Jolly told CL he wasn't familiar with the bill, but is very familiar with the situation. "I would hope the Senate would get into session and pass a border bill so then we would have something to negotiate on," he said.
That's in reference to legislation that the House passed on the last day before Congress broke for summer vacation on August 1. Those were two measures
to address the child-migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border. They would provide emergency funding to deal with the crisis, speed the deportations of most border-crossers and rescind President Obama’s authority to decide whether to deport certain illegal immigrants.
Those measures, however, aren't expected to get through the Democratic Senate. President Obama said last month that he would use executive authority to expand deportation protections and make other fixes to the ailing immigration system.
Jolly said he hadn't yet met with the groups who will be presenting their petition to his office, but said he was looking forward to hearing their opinions.