The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will vote next week on a groundbreaking motion that, if passed, would fund legal aid for undocumented county residents facing removal proceedings.
There are currently more than 50,000 people in removal proceedings in Los Angeles County — a number expected to increase significantly under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
In immigration court, defendants don’t have the right to a court-appointed attorney, and pro bono legal representation is limited to special cases like those involving children or the mentally disabled. Only a handful of nonprofit groups in L.A. provide legal services to immigrants facing deportation.
The legal aid proposal, co-authored by supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn, is the first of its kind at the county level in California. Immigrant advocates in L.A. are hailing the measure as a crucial safeguard against the aggressive immigration enforcement they anticipate from the incoming Trump administration.
“This would dramatically change the landscape of available legal services for people facing deportation,” says Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the ACLU of California and a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. “It’s something we think the federal government should have done a long time ago.”
The county motion would set aside $1 million in this year’s budget for legal aid for immigrants facing deportation and request a proportional share be donated to the fund by local “stakeholders” such as philanthropies, universities and businesses. The county would disburse the funds to the most qualified legal service providers through an open bidding process, the motion states.
A 2015 survey published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found that among similarly situated respondents, the odds were nearly six times greater that immigrants with legal counsel, as opposed to those without, obtained relief from deportation proceedings. Nationally, only 37 percent of immigrants in deportation proceedings are able to get lawyers, and of the immigrants held in detention centers, only 14 percent get lawyers.
Earlier this month, state lawmakers introduced new bills to strengthen due process rights and provide legal assistance for undocumented residents facing deportation proceedings. The state program focuses on providing lawyers for immigrants who are being held in detention centers. Though details remain to be settled, advocates in L.A. say the county’s fund could be directed more broadly to residents who are not in immigration detention but still need lawyers.
“It would be a huge step forward,” says Caitlin Bellis, a fellow at Public Counsel representing detained immigrants. Bellis testified at the Board of Supervisors meeting last week, telling the board that "every person who is held in immigration detention and threatened with permanent separation from their family should have a lawyer."
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Immigrant advocates say the county program is modeled after a similar program that the New York City Council and New York State Assembly began funding in 2013. The New York Immigrant Family Unit Project, as it is known, funds legal counsel for three nonprofit legal service providers in the city. Proponents say it increases the chances that immigrants will win their cases by 1,000 percent.
The timing of the board’s motion for legal aid is hardly a coincidence.
“There is a real fear that the promises that were made during the campaign are going to be implemented,” says Graciela Martinez, a deputy public defender in L.A. County. “The need for people to fully understand their rights and the potential for relief when in removal proceedings is greater now because the net is going to be so wide.”
Supervisors Solis and Hahn filed the motion on Wednesday afternoon; the board is scheduled to vote on it on Dec. 20, its last session of 2016.