City ponders immigrant defense fund, seeks details

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The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma holds people while their immigration status is reviewed. The city is pondering ways to provide them with legal assistance. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger.

Tacoma City Council members who serve on its Community Vitality and Safety Committee generally support the idea of the city having a legal fund to assist city residents who find themselves facing reviews of their immigration status and residency.

“In light of recent changes to federal immigration policy, several cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago have created immigrant defense funds,” Councilmember Keith Blocker wrote in his proposal for council consideration. “These funds help to ensure those facing deportation hearings are able to have a lawyer present with them. Currently, since immigration cases are considered civil, not criminal, there is no right to have a public defense attorney, and often undocumented immigrants are not able to afford counsel. One study has shown that undocumented immigrants are 10 times more likely to be deported when they face deportation hearings without counsel.”

The council formed an immigrants’ rights task force earlier this year over concern for the uptick in immigrants being detained around the nation, particularly at the Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats, where 1,500 detainees are housed.

That task force drafted recommendations, one of which was presented to the council’s committee meeting and is now being fleshed out by city staff. The idea is for the city to establish an immigrant defense fund that would provide legal assistance to detainees. Two concepts are in the works. One $440,000 option would provide full legal services to all Tacoma residents who find themselves facing legal residency questions, while a second option would be half that cost. It would provide legal screenings of all cases but only legal representation for Tacoma residents who fit financial-need requirements.

The money would fund two immigration attorneys and two paralegals to handle Tacoma cases. About 50 to 100 detainees at the Northwest Detention Center were residents of Tacoma when they were arrested for immigration issues and face possible deportation.

One outstanding question is how much the city would ultimately pay for the legal-defense fund and for how long. The city, for example, could provide the seed money to get the program started and then allow for donations to fund the program after it starts.

“We don’t want to be a sole-source funder,” Councilmember Joe Lonergan said during a committee meeting, noting that the city could provide start-up funding and then allow members of the community and nonprofits to donate to the fund after that.

Councilmember Marty Campbell said that business groups, such as those representing construction and restaurant companies, should be interested in aiding the legal-defense effort, for example, since they often find themselves short staffed when a worker is detained because of residency questions.

“We have an opportunity to reach out,” he said.

City staffers are now working out some details and options, which will likely face council discussions this fall.

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