Fearing a zealous immigration crackdown by the new administration in Washington, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to commit millions of dollars toward boosting legal services for immigrants facing deportation proceedings. The decision comes after months of deliberation on how much money to set aside for legal support, and whether county funds ought to support immigrants convicted of serious and violent felonies.
In a unanimous vote, supervisors agreed to devote $2.9 million in county funds for hiring attorneys to represent immigrants in need of legal assistance, including representation for those facing deportation and for immigrants seeking to become legal residents. Another $400,000 will be spent on a "Know Your Rights" campaign to educate immigrants on legal, housing, employment, refugee and tenant rights, and $200,000 will go towards a media campaign aimed at alerting residents about issues affecting the immigrant community.
Supervisors began hatching a plan to support the immigrant community in early December, citing a need to bolster legal services for county residents vulnerable to a mass deportation effort under President Donald Trump, who made such an operation a central theme of his campaign. Supervisor Joe Simitian urged the county to move quickly to prepare for "potential abuses" that might come with a massive increase in the types of immigrants targeted for deportation.
"The activity at the federal level is already being ramped up," Simitian said at a Feb. 28 Board of Supervisors meeting. "I've mentioned my concerns that the (Trump) administration would be overzealous, and I think that concern has been realized and demonstrated."
A crackdown by federal immigration enforcement could have a profound effect on Santa Clara County, which is home to between 120,000 and 183,500 undocumented immigrants, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center and the Public Policy Institute of California. What's more, federal enforcement could extend to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, including more than 100,000 green card holders and 400,000 residents with some combination of non-immigrant visas, according to a county report.
Unlike the process followed in the criminal court system, immigrants facing deportation proceedings are not guaranteed legal representation if they cannot afford to hire an attorney. Immigrants without representation are far less likely to prevail in immigration court and to be granted asylum.
California's Legislature could also be heading down the same path. Senate Bill 6, introduced in December, would put $12 million towards legal services for immigrants who "are not otherwise entitled to legal representation under an existing local, state, or federal program." Although the bill could eventually help immigrants facing deportation here in Santa Clara County, Simitian said the county ought to move ahead with its own plans instead of waiting for potential matching funds from the state and private funding.
"I'm getting a little bit itchy about when we're going to start doing more and talking less," he said. "We started work ahead of the curve, but at the risk of stating the obvious, we've got people who need help right now and they need it pretty seriously."
Though Trump's campaign rhetoric on deportation focused on Latino immigrants -- particularly from Mexico -- Simitian encouraged the county to make a concerted effort to help minority groups within the immigrant community as well. Immigrants fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria may not be high on the list of priorities because their numbers are small, he said, but that doesn't mean they should be left out.
In the case of the Know Your Rights campaign, the county will be contracting with organizations that have good access to "hard-to-reach immigrant populations, including geographically isolated or dispersed groups, as well as small immigrant populations such as Armenians, Iranians, Ukrainians, Russians, and those hailing from the former Yugoslavia," according to the staff report.
With a finite amount of resources to go around, supervisors grappled with the question of whether to fund legal representation for all immigrants, or to exclude people who have been convicted of serious or violent felonies. A letter signed by 24 organizations including the Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto and Immigrant Services of Mountain View urged supervisors to include all classes of immigrants regardless of individuals' criminal background.
Old convictions can have devastating consequences, said Beth Chance, the in-house immigration lawyer at the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office. Long-term, lawful permanent residents who have had green cards for most of their lives go to apply for naturalization, she said, only to find out that an old conviction has put them directly into removal proceedings. These convictions can include "crimes of language" -- such as criminal threats or dissuading a witness -- as well as an old bar fight or a burglary when someone was still a teenager, she said.
"The Constitution does not differentiate between who deserves due process and who doesn't," she said.
But Supervisor Dave Cortese said he couldn't back the idea of using county dollars to defend immigrants facing deportation when they have been convicted of violent felonies, which include murder, rape, and other felonies punishable by death or life in prison. At some point the county has to draw the line, he said, and he urged people to be "realistic" about the scope of the legal assistance.
"I can't in good conscience say that some of these crimes, which would in effect have someone locked up for life, merit an investment of limited taxpayer money for deportation defense," Cortese said.
Despite the calls for an all-inclusive policy, supervisors ultimately voted for a compromise. The funding will not go to support immigrants who have been convicted of a violent felony and finished their sentence within the last five years; but immigrants convicted of a serious felony -- a designation that includes a list of 42 charges including assault, robbery and kidnapping -- will be included in the scope of the plan.
Simitian, who supported the motion, said the debate about whether to exclude immigrants convicted of criminal offenses goes to a larger question about who, if anyone, should be deported. During a discussion in late 2015 on whether Santa Clara County ought to cooperate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Simitian was in the minority in supporting deportation for immigrants convicted of serious or violent felonies.
"It was my view, and it remains my view, that if someone has come to this country unlawfully, is in our custody, has been convicted of a serious or violent felony, and we are approached by ICE to cooperate, we should cooperate," Simitian said at a January meeting.
When it comes to legal representation, however, Simitian said everyone ought to get a fair hearing. The court system may not genuinely understand the circumstance of each immigrant convicted of a crime, he said, or it's possible that they got caught up in a system that has brushed their rights aside.
"Innocent people don't need representation as much as guilty people do," Simitian said. "The larger question is are we prepared to make sure everyone who goes through the system is treated with the kind of fairness and equity we would want for ourselves or any member of our family."