By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. lawmakers announced legislation on Monday that would provide lawyers for thousands of undocumented minors streaming across the border into the United States, saying forcing children to face deportation proceedings alone goes against fundamental American values.
"It is a fantasy to believe that they have a fair shot in immigration proceedings without counsel," New York U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries told a news conference.
Jeffries and the other House of Representatives Democrats introducing the bill said as many as 40 to 50 percent of the undocumented children would have legitimate claims to remain in the United States under current law, citing studies by the United Nations and other agencies.
They also said their bill could save some $2 billion a year because timely immigration proceedings would eliminate the need to house thousands of children for months at a time.
From October to June 15, 52,000 unaccompanied children arrived on the U.S. border with Mexico, according to the Obama administration. Most are fleeing gang and drug violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
A similar provision to provide legal counsel for children and mentally impaired immigrants was included in a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate last year. But the measure has stalled in the House, where Republicans hold a majority of seats.
There was no immediate indication that the new bill would make any more progress, given deep partisan divisions on the immigration issue in the United States.
Many Republicans blame the influx of undocumented children on Democratic President Barack Obama's 2012 decision to give temporary relief from deportation to some young people brought illegally to the United States by their parents.
"(These parents) have been led to believe that all their child has to do is get to America and they will receive amnesty," Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on Monday after touring a facility at Lackland Air Force Base to house unaccompanied minors, exposing children to "unspeakable horrors" as they travel through Mexico to the United States.
"The way to act to prevent that is to enforce our laws and stop engaging in the lawlessness that has so characterized the Obama administration," Cruz said.
The White House announced a plan on Friday to address the growing crisis that focused on expanding the government's ability to process and deport the children, with new funding to boost security in their home countries.
Democrats at the news conference on Monday said they considered Obama's plan just a first step.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in San Antonio; Editing by Caren Bohan and Cynthia Osterman)