'A fighting chance': LA nonprofit advocates for immigrants at risk

The L.A. Justice Fund is a nonprofit supporting immigrants through legal battles to avoid deportation. Having attracted nearly $23 million in funding, the nonprofit fills gaps left by a lack of comprehensive federal immigration reform.

Richard Vogel/AP/File
Pro-immigration demonstrators stand on the steps of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration on Dec. 20, 2016, in downtown Los Angeles. Foundations in the city are supporting the legal battles of immigrants facing deportation.

As the number of immigrants seeking court permission to avoid deportation grows, foundations in Los Angeles have joined with local governments to direct millions of dollars to pay for lawyers to represent the immigrants, an effort they hope will be copied across the country.

Unlike defendants in a criminal case who can be represented by a court-appointed lawyer, immigrants who face deportation are not provided legal counsel. Unaccompanied children and non-English speakers don’t stand much of a chance advocating for themselves. And for many immigrants facing the byzantine hearing process, paying for an advocate is out of reach.

By responding to an emergency need, nonprofit leaders were able to build a case that legal counsel for potential deportees should be viewed as a right, says Miguel Santana, president of the Weingart Foundation. A sustained wave of deportations could cripple a city like Los Angeles that depends on immigrants as workers, employers, and civic leaders, Mr. Santana says.

“It’s in our collective interest as Angelenos to provide support to immigrants who cannot defend themselves during this process, he says. “This is a service, like any other service, that the taxpayers should cover.”

The cost of a deportation case can go well above $10,000, according to Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, a group that has received support from foundations. A family with a member facing deportation faces “cascading” problems, including massive debt to pay for a lawyer, missed time from work to go to hearings, and the possibility that it could lose its main breadwinner, Ms. Salas says.

“There’s no way a low-income construction worker or domestic worker can actually pay for that,” she says. “This gives those families a fighting chance.”

The combination of philanthropic and local government dollars, called the L.A. Justice Fund, was created by the California Community Foundation and the Weingart Foundation in 2017 after President Trump signed a series of executive orders that strengthened immigration enforcement and led to a sharp increase in deportations.

In the years since, the L.A. Justice Fund has attracted nearly $7 million in philanthropic support and more than $16 million in combined support from Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles. Last summer, both jurisdictions and the foundations committed to continue the project for three more years.

But the notion of using government money to represent undocumented residents strikes some as unfair. U.S. citizens who are parties in other civil proceedings aren’t provided a lawyer, so why should someone who is in the country illegally, asks Lora Ries, senior research fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

With 1.8 million cases pending nationally, using government money to pay for legal services isn’t sustainable, she says, particularly because people awaiting deportation hearings and their lawyers can ask for a series of delays before the case is heard on its merits.

“If someone’s here unlawfully, they want to stay here as long as possible. So it is in their interest to drag out the proceedings because it buys them more time,” Ms. Ries says. “This is a bottomless fiscal pit.”

Others say the free counsel is fiscally prudent.

It makes sense for the county to provide legal help, says Rigoberto Reyes, executive director of the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs, because if a person is deported, especially a family’s main breadwinner, the county might have to pick up the tab for a whole range of other social services like food and help with rent that family would be more likely to qualify for.

“Eventually the county has to bear the brunt of trying to address those issues,” Mr. Reyes says.

The foundations backing the L.A. Justice Fund say their effort is unusual in how closely philanthropy worked with government to design the program and coordinate services. The government support is largely limited to the actual payments made to legal staff provided by a group of a dozen nonprofits, which in addition to the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles include Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles, Kids in Need of Defense, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and the University of Southern California Gould School of Law’s immigration clinic.

The grant makers support those nonprofits and other groups that provide legal training and evaluation, like the Vera Institute and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. They also established a shared workspace for lawyers near the Adelanto Detention Center, about two hours outside of the city of Los Angeles.

Before the fund was established, foundations and the nonprofits they support helped call attention to the problems faced by families with members in line for deportation, making publicly supported deportation lawyers a priority for local elected officials, Mr. Reyes said.

Philanthropy was also willing to quickly provide cash with fewer restrictions than those imposed by local governments to groups that train and hire lawyers. The early success of the foundation-supported effort, say nonprofit and government officials, helped unlock larger, sustained contributions from the city and county of Los Angeles.

Working with the grant makers was a “no-brainer,” Mr. Reyes says, because the philanthropies and the groups they support have a thorough understanding of the needs of the people they serve. In addition to the legal representation paid for by the county, defendants and their families can receive wraparound services, like mental-health treatment, child care, and the provision of basic necessities that foundation-supported nonprofits provide.

The philanthropic dollars also were directed to the general operations of the fund’s grantees, something the government dollars were not allowed to do. Private money “filled in gaps where we knew government funding was not able to stretch into, says Rosie Arroyo, senior program officer for immigration at the California Community Foundation. “It really gave us the flexibility to right-size the program to the needs of the community.”

During the first year of its existence, the L.A. Justice Fund hired 34 lawyers and provided training to 143 attorneys and law students. The fund’s lawyers have taken on nearly 750 cases. Of those, 94 have been closed. In each case, the defendant has been allowed to remain in the United States. Nationally, only 5% of people in a deportation case are allowed to remain, according to the California Community Foundation.

At their 2019 peak during the Trump administration, immigration courts initiated 658,000 deportation proceedings, not counting criminal and terrorism cases, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research center at Syracuse University.

That number dropped the following two years. But fiscal 2022, which began in October, started with a surge of new cases.

As cases mount, the Biden administration has taken steps to reduce the backlog. In April, Kerry Doyle, the legal adviser to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, urged federal prosecutors to mind their budgets when deciding whether to prosecute cases, provided that defendants aren’t suspected of being terrorists or criminals.

“Sound prioritization of our litigation efforts through the appropriate use of prosecutorial discretion can preserve limited government resources [and] achieve just and fair outcomes in individual cases,” Ms. Doyle wrote in an April memo.

Meanwhile, a group of 20 Democratic U.S. Senators has urged Congress to direct $400 million to provide for legal counsel in deportation cases. Securing those funds is a long shot, as is passage of a broad immigration overhaul that would provide immigrants already in the country illegally with a form of amnesty or a path to citizenship.

What that means, says Weingart’s Mr. Santana, is that hundreds of thousands of people will remain under threat of deportation without help.

Mr. Santana says: “Until the federal government passes comprehensive immigration reform, these kinds of efforts are going to be needed.”

This story was reported by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and distributed by The Associated Press.

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