LOS ANGELES (AP) – With tens of thousands of Central American immigrants arriving on the U.S.-Mexico border in the last two years, federal authorities are launching a program Thursday to encourage more of them to show up for their hearings in immigration court.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement hired a contractor to help some immigrant families find transportation, housing and low-cost lawyers, hoping that getting them on stable footing will make them more likely to attend court hearings that determine whether they should be allowed to stay in the country or deported.
When immigrants show up for court, federal authorities can keep track of asylum cases to ensure those who lose return home. Advocates want immigrants to attend the hearings because they believe many of those arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have a strong shot of winning asylum but must be in court to do so. Judges routinely issue deportation orders for those who don't show.
As many as 800 families who pass an initial asylum screening can join the program in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago and Miami starting Thursday. Caseworkers will help newly arriving immigrants with tasks such as finding transportation to immigration court and enrolling their children in school. Later, they will help those who lose their bids to stay in the country head home.
The program will cost $11 million a year and reach a tiny sliver of the 54,000 Central American immigrants with children who have arrived on the southwestern border since October 2014. It comes as the Obama administration faces court-imposed limits on the detention of immigrant families and as authorities began arresting those who lost their asylum cases in raids earlier this month.
Those eligible for the program include pregnant women, nursing mothers and immigrants with mental illness, ICE said.
"We are looking at Central American mothers, predominantly heads of households, because that is what we're seeing now as the biggest population to be served," said Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a deputy assistant director for enforcement and removal at ICE.
Since 2014, immigrant families have been sent to family detention centers or released and told to appear in immigration court.
Nearly 790 deportation orders have been issued for immigrants with children who have arrived since July 2014 and were detained. More than two-thirds were for those who didn't show up for hearings, court statistics show.
Advocates welcomed the new program, hoping immigrants can prove they are fleeing persecution and win the right to stay in the U.S. It faces opposition from those who want the government to quickly screen immigrants on the border and turn away those who don't qualify for asylum.
"Instead, the administration continues to take actions that encourage more illegal immigration, such as providing taxpayer benefits to those who have come here illegally," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Immigrant advocates said newcomers are often overwhelmed when they start life here and may miss key hearings if they get bogged down with enrolling their children in school or forget to update their address with the courts.
They applauded the aid to immigrants but questioned ICE's selection of a contractor to run the program that is a unit of GEO Group, which also oversees immigration detention centers. The company declined to comment.
The surge in border arrivals has stoked raucous debate on the presidential campaign trail and in Washington. The Obama administration arrested 121 people with deportation orders several weeks ago in raids targeting Central Americans who came here in recent years.
Since last year, federal authorities have released immigrant families more quickly from detention centers after a federal judge ruled that mothers with children could not be held for lengthy periods of time. Some were outfitted with ankle bracelets after being freed.
Before launching the new plan, ICE ran a pilot program with two nonprofits in which participants almost always attended their immigration hearings and appointments, agency officials said.
"A lot of these people are not going to be deported," said Annie Wilson, chief strategy officer for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "The more important question is: How should we be treating people who are going to be here, and who are going to win asylum?"