USA First Look

L.A. vs. Trump: City unveils $10 million legal defense fund for immigrants

Los Angeles is one of a number of cities and states creating legal funds to aid residents facing deportation. But some question diverting tax dollars from other services. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (l.) and City Attorney Mike Feuer announce the creation of a $10 million fund to provide legal assistance to immigrants facing removal proceedings, at a City Hall news conference Monday, Dec. 19, 2016.
Nick Ut/AP
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Los Angeles is creating a $10 million fund to provide legal aid to residents who face deportation under a Trump administration.

The announcement of the legal fund, one of a number created by Democratic strongholds in recent days, pits cities like Los Angeles and Chicago against President-elect Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall and deport undocumented immigrants.

Advocates of the funds say they will provide the “right to counsel” to undocumented immigrants who often lack the legal representation that has been shown to improve their chances of succeeding in court.

“We don’t know how far the new administration will go when it comes to our nation’s immigration policy, but we’ve all heard the rhetoric, the dangerous rhetoric of the election,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “And we are ready to support people who can’t afford or who don’t realize they might need a lawyer.”

But opponents, including lawmakers and anti-illegal immigration groups, argue the funds are drawing tax dollars away from American citizens in need.

“I’m not a hater,” said Nicholas Sposato, an alderman from a Chicago district with strong Trump support, during the city council vote. “Any given day, 1,000 homeless veterans [are] out there. What are we doing for them?”

Los Angeles joins a number of cities and states that are either already creating legal funds or mulling similar proposals. According to the proposal, the Los Angeles Justice fund, as it is known, would receive $5 million total from the city and county governments, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Philanthropic groups are expected to donate the remaining half of the money, with the California Endowment, the state’s largest private healthcare foundation, planning to provide $2 million, according to a foundation spokeswoman.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council are scheduled to vote on the allocation of the funds in the coming days. 

Chicago has already approved $1.3 million for a legal fund to help the city’s estimated 150,000 undocumented immigrants. The money will be divided between two nonprofits, one that focuses on poor immigrants facing deportation and another that plans to deploy 200 “community navigators” to network via churches, schools, and community events to identify undocumented immigrants and help them figure out if they have legal grounds to stay in the US.

The cities of San Francisco and Santa Clara, as well as California and New York states, are considering similar funds.

Such actions are a response to Mr. Trump’s campaign promises to build a wall and deport all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants. He has since indicated he will scale back these promises, but hasn’t detailed his plans.

But the rhetoric has created profound fear among immigrants and those who support them. 

Funding legal services is one concrete step that has been shown to make a significant difference for undocumented immigrants. Immigrants aren’t guaranteed a lawyer in immigration court, and only about 37 percent of those in deportation proceedings have legal representation, according to a September report from the American Immigration Council.

But some opponents of the legal funds note that deportations are exempt from the constitutional promise of a right to counsel.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates for restrictions on immigration, told the Los Angeles Times she questioned the “dubious use of scarce taxpayer dollars.”

”Immigration proceedings are a civil matter, not criminal, and no Americans who are defending themselves in civil proceedings are entitled to taxpayer-funded representation,” Vaughan said.

Also at issue is the effect deportations would have on the economies of cities and states with large populations of undocumented immigrants. Immigrants, regardless of legal status, work and pay taxes. California, for instance, is thought to have the largest undocumented immigrant population, with estimates of up to 1 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Supporters of the legal funds point to some precedents for states and local governments providing legal services to undocumented immigrants. In 2013, Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that allocated $3 million to provide legal services to children that crossed the border, fleeing violence in Central America. That same year, New York City piloted a program to fund public defender offices to represent detained immigrants, with 70 percent of attorneys winning their 1,500 cases, according to the most recent statistics available.

When Arizona passed its controversial anti-immigration law in 2010, it also created a legal defense fund to fight several lawsuits, including one from the US Justice Department The state received an influx of donations totaling $3.6 million from about 41,000 sympathizers across the country, The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.