Immigrant Defense Fund struggles with donations

The Northwest Detention Center on the Tideflats is operated by GEO Group for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and holds people facing possible deportation. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma’s Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will commence its monthly meetings every fourth Monday at 5:30 p.m. starting June 25 with the task of providing aid to immigrants facing reviews of their residency status.

The commission held a retreat in May to find its footing as a group as it begins to figure out how to tackle the issues at hand. The main objectives for the June meeting will be to elect a chair, vice chair and establish bylaws. 

“We’ve never had a commission on immigrant and refugee affairs before, so this will be where we establish our goals and decide what we want to accomplish. Because we want it to be driven by the residents and the people on the commission, we’re asking for their input first,” explains Alison Beason, senior policy analyst for the Equity and Human Rights Department.

The issue came into focus in light of President Donald Trump’s 120-day travel ban last year. Tacoma had dubbed itself a “welcoming city” in 2015, but then the new presidential administration added pressure on issues concerning immigrants and refugees with stepped up enforcement of illegal immigrants entering or living in the country. 

Those efforts led to a call for the city to do more for residents facing reviews of their immigration status, specifically the fact that immigrants and refugees in Tacoma were not receiving legal assistance when facing possible deportation and criticism of the Northwest Detention Center, a 1,675-bed facility run by a private company through a contract with Immigration and Custom Enforcement, being located on Tacoma’s Tideflats.

Seemingly unknown to many people, the criminal justice system does not match the immigration justice system, causing a confusing web of reviews and rules. For one thing, a fair trial is not constitutionally guaranteed to immigrants whose status is under review should they lack the means of attaining a private attorney. Immigrants can be brought into centers such as Tacoma’s under “mandatory detention,” and in some cases, may be denied the chance to make their case before a judge or an adjudicator. Even if they have the opportunity for a hearing, they may wait several years until their case is finally decided on and resolved.

To address the issue, a city-formed task force convened in 2017 to come to terms with what defined a “welcoming city” as well as developed a list of three recommendations for future steps: The formation of an immigration commission, the creation of a legal defense fund and the drafting of a language access policy to educate detainees of the immigration review process and their rights.

In addition to creating the commission, the city responded by setting aside a one-time $50,000 grant from the Council’s contingency fund as a starting point for a Deportation Defense Fund, established to help those facing deportation get the legal assistance they might not otherwise be able to afford. The initial plan was that either after three months had passed or the original $50,000 had been matched by public donations, the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights would begin looking for an outside entity to administer the contracts and offer those legal services.

Donations have been slow in coming, just $6,300 in the last several months. The numbers are relatively low considering the cost of acquiring legal counsel, providing language assistance, and navigating the multitude of steps immigrants must take to obtain citizenship or avoid deportation. 

Beason is hopeful for changes in the coming year “as we’re establishing for the various departments within the city of Tacoma that maybe we can advocate for this type of funding to continue until we establish some kind of fluidity with the community and the city.” 

With this funding, she hopes it would be possible to create more awareness through outreach where community participation could be enhanced through partnerships.

Recently, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project picked up the contract to administer the funds. Beason explains that building a conversation with NIRP is a sign that things are moving in the right direction. “They have money from Seattle also and from other entities, so I feel like they have a better history and understanding of what the community needs and how to serve them.”

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