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Cities Create Defense Funds For Immigrants Facing Deportation


President Donald Trump has threatened to punish cities that protect immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. Some cities are responding to that by creating funds to provide lawyers to people who face deportation, but that means making tough calls about which immigrants should get access to that money. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The first few months of Donald Trump's presidency have been worrisome for Rosa Martinez. She's in the country illegally and lives in an immigrant neighborhood in southeast Baltimore. For a while, she avoided leaving home. Recently, she's relaxed a little - enough to bring her 8-year-old son to a Cinco de Mayo street party the other day. Still, Martinez says she's preparing in case she does get picked up by immigration. Specifically, she is saving for an attorney.

ROSA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Martinez says she doubts she could afford a lawyer. Still, she's putting the money away.

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She keeps it under her mattress, hoping she'll never need it. Like for Martinez, a big worry for lots of immigrants in the U.S. illegally is how to fight their deportation cases if they do get detained. Unlike defendants in criminal court, defendants in immigration court aren't guaranteed lawyers. So here in Baltimore, the city recently announced a fund - $500,000 - to pay for lawyers.

CATALINA RODRIGUEZ-LIMA: Under the new reality and the increase Immigration Customs Enforcement, access to an attorney is the ultimate line of defense for some of our community members.

FLORIDO: This is Catalina Rodriguez-Lima of Baltimore's Office of Immigrant Affairs, which the then-mayor created a few years ago after realizing that attracting immigrants to Baltimore was one way to reverse decades of population decline. Rodriguez says this new legal fund - paid for through private fundraising, by the way - is a way to protect families but also the city's investment.

RODRIGUEZ-LIMA: You know, a person that is arrested and detained and owned a home or owned a business, employed people - that is a loss to the city.

FLORIDO: Baltimore is only the latest city to create a fund to provide deportation defense. Since Donald Trump's election, places like LA, Chicago and San Francisco have announced similar funds. New York City has had one for years. A study there found that guaranteeing counsel made it 10 times more likely for an immigrant to avoid deportation. With President Trump planning to triple the number of border agents, cities are anticipating huge demand for immigration lawyers. That's led some, like LA, to consider placing restrictions on which immigrants can get a publicly funded lawyer. Officials there have proposed excluding immigrants with certain serious convictions. Among them...

HILDA SOLIS: Murder, voluntary manslaughter, mayhem, rape, sodomy of a child, oral copulation of a child...

FLORIDO: Hilda Solis is an LA County supervisor. She supports immigrants and publicly funded deportation defense. But when it comes to some criminals...

SOLIS: You have to understand that we have limited funding, and I think it's very hard to go to the public and say, these are people that should not be excluded.

FLORIDO: But some advocates oppose this idea. They say access to a lawyer is a matter of due process and think leaving some immigrants out plays into the government's overly simplistic rhetoric that some immigrants are deserving while others are not. Hector Villagra leads the ACLU of Southern California.

HECTOR VILLAGRA: What you're seeing play out in these carveouts is, you know, whether conscious or not, people buying into that frame. And it's really a completely irrelevant consideration when you're looking at trying to make sure that a process is fair or not.

FLORIDO: Law Professor Peter Markowitz helped design New York City's program, which provides a lawyer regardless of criminal past. He says even for serious criminals with no chance of winning their immigration cases, there was good reason to provide a lawyer. Rather than fight their cases, they'll often agree to just be deported.

PETER MARKOWITZ: And by providing that minimal amount of representation. We've saved them unnecessary detention time. We've saved the federal government a whole lot of money, and we've saved immigrant communities from falling prey to unscrupulous private attorneys, who, all too often, give them false hope and provide no valuable services.

FLORIDO: Markowitz is among many advocates calling on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep New York's program intact. The mayor recently proposed changing it to exclude people with serious convictions. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.