Fairfax County is considering creating a taxpayer-funded legal defense fund for immigrants caught in deportation proceedings, part of a growing effort by local governments to counter the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
At a budget hearing Wednesday, the county board of supervisors heard about a proposed $200,000 pilot program aimed at assisting low-income immigrants — both undocumented and those in the country legally — detained by federal agents.
The program, which also would educate eligible immigrants in Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction about their legal rights, came at the urging of advocacy groups responding to an increase in deportation cases in the county, officials said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of removal proceedings, does not keep statistics based on local jurisdictions. But data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University found that about 12,000 Fairfax County residents were in deportation proceedings late last year. About a third of the county’s 1.1 million residents are immigrants.
“This will help some,” said supervisor John Foust, a Democrat, who co-sponsored a motion to create the legal defense fund with fellow Democratic supervisor Jeffrey McKay. “But, it’s not the be-all, end-all, because it’s not a lot of money, given the need.”
As the Trump administration has ramped up deportation efforts, 12 cities and counties — including Chicago and Atlanta — have steered tax money toward legal-aid programs.
Under federal law, low-income people are not entitled to a public defender for immigration proceedings, because they are civil rather than criminal. Detainees can hire lawyers on their own.
“This kind of work has incredible impact,” said Corey Lazar, a senior program associate at the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which contributes money to legal defense funds created by local governments and often provides training.
The institute says that having a lawyer increases a detained immigrant’s chance of avoiding deportation more than tenfold.
Said Lazar: “Across the nation, nearly 90 percent of detained individuals are going to court by themselves. And they’re winning their cases 3 percent of the time.”
In the Washington region, Prince George’s County in Maryland has allocated about $200,000 a year to helping undocumented immigrants with legal costs related to deportation proceedings, while much smaller Arlington County in Virginia has dedicated $100,000 toward services that include fighting deportation.
Washington’s budget includes $900,000 for immigrant legal assistance that — to avoid a clash with Congress — is not related to deportation proceedings. The city of Baltimore has a $200,000 legal defense fund for deportation cases.
The efforts to use tax money and matching grants have caused some controversy, with some critics saying tax revenue should benefit legal residents and others noting that some of the aid programs can be used to help undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.
Last year, a Montgomery County, Maryland, proposal to dedicate $374,000 for legal aid was abandoned after opposition by some residents moved the Democratic county council to add a long list of restrictions on who could benefit.
The Washington-based Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (CAIR) — which, along with the CASA immigrant advocacy group, is behind the Fairfax proposal — backed out of the Montgomery County effort after those exclusions were made.
The restrictions, “would have made representation almost impractical,” said Kelly White, who oversees CAIR’s adult detention program and is again trying to negotiate with Montgomery officials to steer money toward helping detained immigrants.
In Fairfax, the $200,000 would be a one-time expenditure through July 2020, officials said, used by CAIR and CASA for outreach and legal work.
After that, the program would be considered for more funding through the county’s $13 million Consolidated Community Funding Pool, which supports a variety of programs targeting the indigent.
Most Fairfax supervisors appear willing to adopt the pilot program, although supervisor Pat Herrity — a Republican and the board’s most conservative member — said he is against it.
“These services compete with our ability to fund employee and teacher pay raises,” Herrity said. “They compete with parks, they compete with libraries, with public safety dollars. To me, that’s the real issue.”
McKay, who is running to replace retiring board chairman Sharon Bulova, a Democrat, in November, called the program “a social-justice issue.”
But, he said, the $200,000 should not be used to help people who’ve been convicted of serious crimes before entering a deportation proceeding.
“What we’re intending it for are people who are going through a deportation proceeding either unrelated to a crime that’s been committed in Fairfax County or a very minor infraction,” he said.
McKay’s three opponents in the June Democratic primary said the proposal doesn’t go far enough to help undocumented immigrants.
Alicia Plerhoples, a law professor at Georgetown University, said there shouldn’t be restrictions on who benefits from legal representation. “When one side doesn’t have a lawyer and isn’t able to properly advocate for themselves, then we aren’t upholding the rule of law,” she said.
Tim Chapman, a developer based in Reston, argued that a broader pool of immigrant advocacy groups should be able to use the money.
“The universe of people who could help that undocumented person should not be limited,” he said.
School board member Ryan McElveen, a Democrat, said a legal defense program for undocumented immigrants is a good step, but hardly enough after several years of the county doing little to assist undocumented immigrants.
“Whoever is elected this fall is going to need to take that issue on,” he said. “Because this is a growing segment of our population, and they’re in need of more protection.”
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