WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Department of Justice said on Friday it will help provide lawyers for the growing number of children coming to the United States illegally, without parents or relatives accompanying them.
The new program, established in conjunction with the agency that administers the AmeriCorps volunteer program, will seek out around 100 lawyers and paralegals to provide legal services to the children, the department said.
"We're taking a historic step to strengthen our justice system and protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Earlier this week President Barack Obama described the growing numbers of children as an "urgent humanitarian situation," and put the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of coordinating humanitarian relief for them, including housing, care, medical treatment and transportation. The Obama administration estimates that about 60,000 "unaccompanied minors" - children under 18 - will enter the United States illegally this year. It projects that number to grow to nearly 130,000 next year.
As recently as 2011, the number was only some 6,000.
Senior Obama adviser John Podesta described it as a "heart-breaking situation" at a Friday breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, and said it was another reason comprehensive immigration reform was needed.
The Senate last year passed a wide-ranging immigration bill with bipartisan backing. It has languished in the House of Representatives, where Republicans are deeply divided on the issue and stress the need for tougher border controls before advancing broader legislative changes.
The minors flooding over the border are often teenagers leaving behind poverty or violence in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. They are sometimes seeking to reunite with a parent who is already in the United States, also without documentation.
The children often end up before immigration courts without legal representation and with little knowledge of English or the U.S. legal system.