Legal Defense Fund for Immigrants Could Begin Operating by February

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The U.S.-Mexico Border at International Park in San Diego. Photo by Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

Author: Joe Brizzolara / December 11, 2018

This article was originally published on FORTHE.org with a Spanish translation.  

A fund that will provide access to legal representation to low-income immigrants living in Long Beach who are facing deportation came closer to becoming a reality on Nov. 4. The city council approved a two-year agreement with the Vera Institute of Justice to manage the fund with a 6-3 vote.

Long Beach will be joining Vera’s SAFE Cities Network, a group of cities and counties that have committed to providing legal representation to undocumented individuals. Other California jurisdictions in the network include Sacramento, Oakland/Alameda County, and Santa Ana.

The $250,000 set aside by the city for the Long Beach Justice Fund is part of the People’s Budget that was lobbied for by a coalition of community groups during the city budget hearings earlier this year. Additionally, Vera will match the city’s “seed” funds with up to $100,000 in grant money.

The Office of Equity and City Manager will now team up with Vera to issue a request for proposals and select the organization that will actually provide the legal services. If all goes smoothly, the fund will begin operating early as mid-February, according to Deputy City Manager Kevin Jackson.

In order to be eligible for the legal aid, a person must reside in Long Beach and have a household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line—about $50,200 for a family of four.

Councilmember Lena Gonzalez (CD-1), who has spearheaded the fund’s implementation, pointed to Vera’s decades of experience and commitment of matching funds, as well as it’s “national perspective” as reasons for entering into the SAFE Cities Network.

Supporters framed the fund as a necessity in light of the Trump Administration’s hard line immigration policies.

Sarah Kim Pak, a fellow at the National Immigration Law Center, said during public testimony that she viewed the fund as correcting the “glaring imbalance” between the legal resources of federal prosecutors and many undocumented individuals, allowing the “anti-immigrant Trump deportation machine to blaze forward.”

Because deportation proceeding are civil, and not criminal, in nature, legal representation is not guaranteed for immigrants facing removal from the U.S. The consequences of deportation have in some cases proven to be dire.

Councilmembers Suzie Price (CD-3) and Stacy Mungo (CD-5) were the most vocal opponents to allowing Vera to manage the fund, ultimately voting against it along with Councilmember Daryl Supernaw (CD-4).

Pulling from her day job as a prosecutor with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, Price said she favored legal support for those convicted of low-level crimes but wanted “limitations” in place for those convicted of more serious crimes.

“If an individual is facing deportation because they were convicted of a qualifying criminal offense … than taxpayer dollars would not be used to assist that individual,” said Price, illustrating her desired restrictions.

Criminal offences cited by Price included: “murder, robbery, assault with a weapon, gang related shootings, and crimes of moral turpitude.”

At the meeting, Tania Karina Sawczuk, a Senior Program Associate with Vera, explained that if an individual is convicted of such crimes — and there was no reason to believe their conviction was mishandled — they would be disqualified from receiving legal defense assistance. Instead, she said, they would likely be given a consultation with an attorney who would inform them that they are without options and should accept the removal order.

“The basis of [this fund] is to provide due process and fair legal representation … for immigration [cases],” said Jackson, who had a hand in crafting the agreement.

“There is a reality that our communities face, that our criminal justice system is flawed, and abuse does take place,” said Councilmember Rex Richardson (CD-9).

Deportations have hit both the Latino and Cambodian communities in Long Beach.

Phal Sok, who came to the city as an infant when his family fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, was convicted of second-degree robbery as a teen. After serving a lengthy prison sentence, he became an organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition, working with incarcerated juveniles. But his previous conviction led to him receiving a removal order in 2015 and later being detained. During the hearing on Nov. 4, Gonzalez noted that she had penned a letter in support of Sok’s successful bid to receive a pardon by Governor Jerry Brown, which allowed him to stay in the country.

Not as fortunate was Long Beach-resident José Alvarez, a father of six and business owner, who was deported to Mexico in 2016 because of a decades-old drug conviction after being pulled over for a broken headlight.

“This is a perfect example [of] where the deportation fund would have come in and helped him. He was living an exemplary life, paid his dues. Now there’s a broken family,” said Roberto Uranga (CD-7).

Immigrants with past criminal convictions were 74 percent of all arrests made by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in 2017.

According to the Immigration Legal Resource Center, “For people whose convictions effectively close all doors to immigration relief, vacating the conviction in criminal court is the only way to preserve a chance of remaining in the United States.” One common reason that criminal convictions tied to deportations get overturned is that prosecutors in the case did not communicate to a defendant the effect a guilty plea will have on their immigration status.

ICE does not publish city-specific numbers on how many people are deported. However, Andrea Donado, who works within the Latino immigrant community as part of the the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization, said that in the average month she hears of at least two deportation cases involving local residents.

“We have a strong need for a fund like this .. this [fund] is not a guarantee that they are going to stay in our community, but it’s going to give them a bigger chance,” she said.

Like in the case of Alvarez, often times the person being removed is a family’s breadwinner, leading to their sons or daughters dropping out of school to find work. That continues a cycle of poverty that prevents upward mobility and ripples throughout the community, according to Donado.

Also what happens is that [the family] has to leave Long Beach. Sometimes they end up in San Bernardino, or wherever they can find cheaper housing,” Donado said.

“Deportation is a federal process [but] it does have an impact on local communities therefore it is the business of the city council,” said Richardson.

The legal defense fund is part of a larger strategy to protect the immigrant community in the city laid out in the Long Beach Values Act of 2018, which the council passed in March.

Additional reporting by Kevin Flores.

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