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California Democrats plan to spend $3 million to offer legal aid for Central American minors

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SACRAMENTO, California — California lawmakers will approve legislation supported by Gov. Jerry Brown to spend $3 million in state money to provide legal help for unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America, Democratic leaders announced Thursday.

Making the money available is "the decent thing to do, and it's consistent with the progressive spirit of California," Brown said in a statement.

He announced the plan along with Attorney General Kamala Harris, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and the Latino legislative caucus, all Democrats.

Because Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, they will not need Republican support to approve the funding. The move could give Democrats a boost with Latino voters in the November election.

Brown said during a recent trip to Mexico that the estimated 57,000 unaccompanied children who have been caught crossing into the U.S. illegally since Oct. 1 present a humanitarian challenge.

Atkins said some lawmakers visited detention centers in Ventura County this summer.

"I think we all came away with a feeling that these kids really needed our support, that it was about their safety, their due process, the ability to look beyond bigger political considerations and deal with the humanitarian crisis," she said.

Atkins said the money would go to nonprofit groups that offer help to immigrants and would come from savings in the Assembly's budget. The funds will be included in bills to be taken up next week.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said the proposed legislation will prompt discussion of the appropriate role for California in the immigration issue. Republicans will need to review the legislation, which was not yet written on Thursday, before deciding whether to support it, he said.

Republicans in the state Assembly also declined to comment on the proposed legislation, but spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said they hope to work with Democrats to ensure children's rights are protected.

The legislation will also give state courts the jurisdiction to make findings needed for federal officials to grant special immigrant juvenile status to the minors. Steinberg said children need a ruling from a state court before they can make an asylum claim in federal court.

"Too many state judges aren't aware of this requirement and are denying any form of preliminary state relief because they think this is just a federal immigration issue," Steinberg said.

It will be labeled as urgent, and officials hope the money can start going out within two or three weeks.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates there are about 3,900 unaccompanied minors in California.

"We're not sending the National Guard to confront these children as other states have done," said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, vice-chairman of the Latino legislative caucus, taking a jab at Texas Gov. Rick Perry's decision to deploy troops to the Texas-Mexico border.

Alejo, an attorney by training, said children are more likely to be deported if they do not have legal representation. He said immigration law is complicated and requires specialized knowledge.

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