City Officials Clash Over Money for Immigrants’ Legal Defense

Instead of providing the requested $5 million for lawyers, Ed Lee has set aside $1.5 million — and that money will only go to community organizations.

Mayor Ed Lee is refusing togrant Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s request for $5 million to shore up his office and community groups that provide legal counsel for undocumented immigrants. But Adachi and those groups say that won’t stop them from protecting locals facing deportation under a Donald Trump administration.

Adachi’s office, along with Supervisor David Campos, asked Lee in November to bolster their coffers, expecting that more of San Francisco’s undocumented immigrants will face deportation after Trump takes office. Lee’s office tells SF Weekly that he will provide an extra $1.5 million this fiscal year — but only to community organizations, not to the Public Defender’s Office.

“From the beginning, the mayor has advocated to increase funding to help protect our immigrant communities,” says Deirdre Hussey, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. “The public defender is not the only office that can do this work. There are community-based organizations already doing this work who have the talent and infrastructure as well as the trust and connection to the communities at risk to best handle the reality we may face.”

Lee’s $1.5 million could go to one or both of two collaborative groups that include 21 San Francisco organizations providing services to immigrants and refugees, says Niloufar Khonsari, executive director of Pangea Legal Services, one of the groups that may share in the funds. However, how those dollars will be doled out hasn’t been decided, she says.

When Trump announced his candidacy, he whipped up fears about immigrants, claiming that many Mexicans, in particular, are “criminals” and “rapists.” Early in his campaign, he promised to deport “millions and millions of undocumented immigrants.” He also used the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle — by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant with a criminal history — to argue that sanctuary city policies in places like San Francisco should be abolished.

More recently, on 60 Minutes, Trump told Lesley Stahl that he would start by deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records, which he estimated would be 2 million to 3 million people, before “making a determination” about anyone else who might be in the country without authorization.

Deportation efforts were already very active under President Barack Obama, earning him the title “deporter-in-chief” among immigrant-rights activists. Between 2010 and the end of 2014, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it deported almost 2 million people — 850,000 of whom were convicted of a criminal act other than being in the United States without permission. Even in San Francisco, which has been a sanctuary city since the late 1980s, roughly 7,000 residents were deported each year between January 2010 and February 2015, according to Adachi’s office.

Currently, around 37,000 immigrants are subject to deportation actions in San Francisco’s Immigration Court, and roughly 1,500 were detained during deportation proceedings in the past year, according to the Public Defender’s Office. Immigrants who have some form of legal representation fare far better in the courts than those who wind up having to represent themselves, the office says.

“To think that someone not trained in law or not fluent in English, can navigate the system is absurd,” says Francisco Ugarte, the immigration attorney in Adachi’s office.

“There’s this misconception that by providing an attorney, undocumented people are getting out of their criminal obligations. Not true,” Ugarte says. “Someone who’s locked up indefinitely in detention — they’re facing separation from their own family, or deportation to a country where they could die. That person should have a basic legal right to the assistance of an attorney if they can’t afford one.”

Khonsari agrees, noting that immigration is the only area of the law where the government is allowed to put people behind bars without providing some form of legal counsel if they can’t afford their own. She said even the $5 million that local agencies and the public defender asked for wouldn’t have been enough to do all the work they expect they will have to do, but it would have brought them much closer to universal representation for immigrants who are at risk of being deported.

The mayor’s funds will help local agencies protect immigrants who are facing deportation, as well as victims of immigration raids and other potential attacks on immigrant communities, Khonsari says. For additional dollars, agencies may be able to dip into grants and rapid-response funds like the one provided by the San Francisco Foundation, she says.

But Lee’s refusal to also dole out support to the Public Defender’s Office throws a wrench into plans for Adachi’s office to work with community groups, and it forces those organizations to develop an emergency plan and other stop-gap measures to organize among themselves, Khonsari says.

“We’re not going to let the mayor be the one to decide that this is not going to happen,” Ugarte says. “We’re going to fight to make sure this is a reality, and to make sure every detainee facing deportation has, at a minimum, access to an attorney.”

Meanwhile, Ugarte says Lee’s move will also force the Public Defender’s Office to compete with others around the state for the additional money it expects to need.

Nonprofits are campaigning for legal defense funds at regional and state levels. This month, California legislators introduced two new bills — Assembly Bill 3 and Senate Bill 6 — that would provide additional legal assistance to immigrants facing deportation. But it remains to be seen whether they will be signed into law and how the money would be spent.

More money may also come with the next city budget cycle.

“The Public Defender’s Office has been encouraged to follow the regular budget process for the next fiscal year to add additional staff and resources, and that budget process is underway,” Hussey says.

Immigrant advocates say they still don’t have any solid idea what they will be up against once Trump takes office. Although he hasn’t spoken much about immigration in recent weeks, the president-elect’s appointments suggest he’s not backing down. He has tapped retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, who is likely to support Trump’s border-tightening plans, as homeland security secretary. And immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state, is Trump’s immigration adviser.

“We don’t want to get into the business of predicting a worst-case scenario,” Ugarte says. “But Trump wants more people deported than in this country’s history.”

Beth Winegarner is an SF Weekly news writer. Follow her on Twitter at @beth_winegarner.

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