Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) urged members of the Hispanic National Bar Association on Thursday to represent some of the thousands of immigrant children who arrived in the United States alone and now must navigate the legal system.
“I’m calling on all of you... to be a part of this effort,” O’Malley said during the association’s annual convention in D.C. on Thursday morning, “to help these refugee children, to help them navigate the legal process and make sure that their hopes and their dignity is properly represented in this, the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Earlier this week, O’Malley said, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals sent a letter to bar associations in Maryland and asked for pro bono representation.
“Your profession does matter in this fight,” O’Malley said.
The United States has been overwhelmed by a rush of tens of thousands of Central American children who have arrived at the southern border and have overwhelmed the immigration court system. Often, there are not enough pro bono lawyers to represent these children, slowing the system down even more.
This summer, the Obama administration said it would send many of those children back to their home countries, an idea that O’Malley fiercely criticized, saying that the children would “face certain death.” It’s a stance that put the Democratic governor — who is thinking seriously about running for president in 2016 — at odds with the White House.
O’Malley was then criticized for raising concerns about housing some of the immigrant children in a former military building in rural Maryland. Hundreds of immigrant children are already living with relatives in Maryland, O’Malley said, and the state is looking for temporary homes for even more.
At the bar association event, O’Malley talked about the benefits of having a diverse population and the need to teach the next generation the virtues of compassion, generosity and hospitality.
O’Malley told the group that his great-grandparents immigrated to the United States and that his great-grandfather spoke Irish, not English, when he first arrived to start a new life. The governor said that he keeps a sign from the late 1800s in his office that reads: “No Irish need apply.”
“It’s a reminder that we were all once strangers in a strange land,” O’Malley said. ”And it’s a reminder that we must be diligent about doing all that we can to ensure that we respect, appreciate and revere the dignity of every individual.”
O’Malley also took the opportunity to list off actions that his state has taken to help immigrants, while Congress has been gridlocked on immigration reform.
“We all do better when we’re all doing better,” he said.
O’Malley received the most applause when he mentioned that in 2011 the Maryland General Assembly approved the “Dream Act,” which allowed undocumented immigrant students who attended Maryland high schools to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities and colleges instead of paying the much higher out-of-state rate.
The governor also bragged that Maryland has passed legislation that helps middle-class families, expanded access to drivers’ licenses for new immigrants, and limited participation in the federal “Secure Communities” program, which works with law enforcement agencies to deport those who are in the country illegally.
“We want to keep families together,” O’Malley said. “Keeping families together keeps America together and makes America stronger.”