Legal Defense Funds for Undocumented in US Create Another Front in Immigration Conflict

While the U.S. federal government is working to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, some U.S. states and cities have started legal funds to defend them, opening up a new front in the conflict over immigration.

About 13 jurisdictions have joined a network to expand legal representation for immigrants facing detention and deportation — the ultimate line of defense, officials said.

The Safe Cities Network pledges to keep communities “safe and strong by protecting due process and providing legal representation to immigrants facing deportation.”

“We’re not just talking about one person going through. One person going to court. One in detention and going through the deportation process. You’re talking about families, entire families and communities being impacted,” Annie Chen, program director at the New York-based VERA Institute of Justice, a data center that partners with local and state government officials to change the U.S. justice system.

WATCH: Washington, US States at Odds Over Immigration Policy

“I would say with increased immigration enforcement, changes, harsher immigration enforcement policies, I think that city and county officials are more aware of this, and they see the impact in their communities,” Chen said.

The city of Baltimore in Maryland became one of the most recent jurisdictions to establish a legal defense fund in March when the city allocated $100,000 to help immigrants fight deportation.

The money was added to a pool of private money and was matched by funding from VERA.  

Catalina Rodriguez, director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, said following the increase in immigration enforcement that started in February 2017, the city received calls from residents.

“All of these individuals [arrested] were not necessarily criminals. Their ‘crime’ was they were here [in the U.S.] undocumented, and they had already a deportation order. However, they were members of our city, business owners, and contributors. So, there was a lot of panic in our city,” Rodriguez said.

Being in the U.S. unlawfully is a civil violation, not a criminal one. Rodriguez said Baltimore learned from New York, the first U.S. city to have a legal fund pilot program. The Baltimore fund is expected to help about 40 people going through removal proceedings.

Pros and cons

The immigration data tracker TRAC reports that out of 304,642 immigrants detained from 2002 to February 2018, only 62,697 had legal representation. 

According to immigration lawyers and advocates, access to legal representation “greatly” increases an immigrant’s chance of winning his/her case.

“In the criminal justice system, if you can’t afford an attorney, you get a public defender. In immigration court, you don’t. You have the right to pay for your own attorney. And if you can’t afford one, you do not have access to the same due process,” Chen told VOA.

Not everyone agrees with public money going into a legal defense fund.

Through a spokesman, Maryland’s Republican party chairman Dirk Haire told The Baltimore Sun that Maryland Republicans “questioned whether the money is being wisely spent, given funding shortfall issues in Baltimore, such as public schools without heat.”

“My hunch is that the vast majority of Baltimore residents would prefer to have that money spent on heat and air conditioning in Baltimore public schools instead of legal fees,” Haire said.

Baltimore city councilman Zeke Cohen told the Sun that in Southeast Baltimore, the area he represents, a small-business owner, a popular barber and a father dropping off a child at school were among the arrests.

“First, we lost a barber, then a small-business owner. Finally, a father was handcuffed and detained after dropping off his 9-year-old at school. The child’s mother is back in Honduras. What kind of a country do we live in that would orphan a child in order to enforce its broken immigration laws?” Cohen said.

Data from the New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors working toward immigration reform, shows that in the Baltimore metro area, there are 281,109 immigrant residents, or 10 percent of the population. In 2014, immigrants paid about $3.4 billion in taxes and had a spending power of $7.7 billion in the same region.

Feds vs. states

The legal fund network places some local jurisdictions at still greater odds with the federal government.

Governor Jerry Brown said in early March that the federal government was “basically going to war against the state of California” after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California over its so-called sanctuary state law.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump fired back via Twitter.

California is not the only state considered sanctuary, along with its numerous cities and counties. While the term “sanctuary” does not have a legal established meaning, it is generally applied to jurisdictions that choose not to participate with federal immigration agents.

“What happens is, if you don’t have someone complying with this and working with us, a criminal alien will be released from prison,” Tyler Q. Houlton, U.S. Department of Homeland Security press secretary, told reporters during an off-camera, on-the-record conversation.

Houlton said though cooperation is not a “mandatory thing,” immigration officers try to work with law enforcement to get undocumented immigrants off the street. He added that it is “much safer to pick up criminal aliens at the jail than it is on the streets.”

Many states and local jurisdictions support the federal government’s approach to immigration. Last week, the Orange County Board of Supervisors joined the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) lawsuit that condemns California’s sanctuary law, calling it unconstitutional. 

Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said in a statement that DOJ “welcomes” Orange County’s decision.

“Orange County’s residents have experienced firsthand the negative effects of SB 54 [California’s sanctuary law], which mandates releasing criminal aliens back into their communities instead of into the custody of federal immigration authorities,” O’Malley said.

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