Amid Immigration Crackdown, Local Governments Consider Legal Aid

But should cities and counties be paying for lawyers to help undocumented immigrants facing deportation?
by | May 9, 2017
Children of illegal immigrants -- often raised in the U.S. from infancy -- can make it through the public education system without anyone knowing of their status, but then don't have the documentation to enter college or obtain a job. There is no simple solution for this situation. Shutterstock/Ryan Rodrick Beiler

As the Trump administration clamps down on undocumented immigrants, more and more state and local governments are getting involved by funding legal services for those fighting deportation. But should they?

That’s the question before Montgomery County, Md., a Washington, D.C., suburb, which is considering giving $374,000 in public funding to a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants facing deportation. If the county approves funding, it will join neighboring Prince George’s County and the cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in doing so. Nationally, more than a dozen state and locali governments in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington state and Wisconsin have taken similar actions.

At a public hearing in last week, many residents who lined up in opposition questioned whether the effort was a proper use of taxpayer money. “It’s a legitimate question,” says Councilwoman Nancy Floreen. “Who does government service?”

But it’s not one that comes with an easy answer, says Floreen, who points out that there are many instances in which the government is required to provide services regardless of status. “There was a certain argument that we're here to serve the residents who are here under legal circumstances rather than residents whose status is less certain,” she says. “But most of what we do as a county is unrelated to citizenship. Schools are a big one -- they have to let you in no matter what your status is.”

Montgomery County is far from the first to wrestle with these issues. When Los Angeles unveiled its $10 million fund for immigrant defense in December 2016, for instance, some anti-illegal immigration activists called it a waste of taxpayer dollars. L.A. officials “should be focused on assisting the citizens, [not] taking tax dollars to pay for services to assist illegal residents countywide,” Robin Hvidston, executive director of We the People Rising, said at the time.

But proponents of funding counter that this is a government expense. “What these [government funding] programs are trying to do is provide due process,” says Annie Chen, who heads up the SAFE Cities Network at the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice. “It’s giving people a fair shake and helping them access what they’re already entitled to under immigration law.”

A study by the Vera Institute found that immigrants represented by an attorney increase their chances of avoiding deportation by as much as 48 percent. To Chen, that’s important because it shows the defendants in these cases often aren’t just people who entered illegally and have tried to stay under the radar. Some have entered the country under Temporary Protected Status and have since been asked to leave. On average, she says, these immigrants have been in the United States for more than a decade, pay taxes, and have friends and family.

In Montgomery County, the proposed funding would support the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which says it habitually falls short of finding pro bono legal services for Maryland residents facing deportation. Of the 65 Montgomery County residents detained for deportation proceedings in 2016, for example, the coalition could only represent four of them.

In fact, a Montgomery County man was recently detained for 10 months before the coalition could find anyone to take his case pro bono. The man, who was ultimately released last week, is married to a U.S. citizen. While he was in custody, his child was born and had to undergo surgery. “You have family members in extreme hardship. He’s a member of his community,” says Claudia Cubas, litigation director for the coalition. “And despite how strong [his case] was, we had difficulty placing it.”

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