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County Votes to Fund Legal Defense for Immigrants Fighting Deportation... On One Condition

Demonstrators at the 2017 May Day rally. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday by 4-to-1 to finance the L.A. Justice Fund, a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants in removal proceedings. With the vote, Los Angeles joined a growing number of jurisdictions, including New York City, San Francisco, Sacramento and Austin, that provide publicly funded attorneys to deportation defendants.

Unlike in the criminal courts, in immigration court, defendants have no guaranteed right to a lawyer. Those who cannot afford private counsel are left to themselves to navigate a body of law that is often compared to the tax code in its level of complexity.

The human cost of that system is enormous. Many of the defendants who enter immigration courts on a daily basis have fled persecution or gang violence in their home countries, and face the prospect of being murdered, raped, or conscripted into gangs if they’re sent back. One former judge described immigration court dockets as “death penalty cases heard in traffic court settings.”

The L.A. Justice Fund, which, pending a vote by City Council, will comprise contributions from the city, county, and private foundations, will provide attorneys to some of those defendants. The $10 million fund, however, will not be large enough to cover everyone in need, and the Board of Supervisors has barred one segment of immigrants from accessing it outright: those with convictions (including those under appeal) for what the California Penal Code defines as “violent felonies.”

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According to immigration attorneys, the “violent” part of the “violent felonies” label can be misleading. Domestic violence victims, for instance, are routinely charged with assault for defending themselves against their abusive partners. In other cases, undocumented defendants might find themselves saddled with a violent felony conviction after feeling compelled to “plea up” to a more serious but “immigration-safe” charge when accepting a lesser charge would have triggered automatic deportation.

The “carve-out” that bars immigrants with this class of convictions from accessing the L.A. Justice Fund, immigration lawyers argue, will preclude the kind of careful adjudication necessary to determine who is truly a threat to public safety and who merely became ensnared in the contradictions of the criminal justice system. “No Angeleno should face detention and deportation without a lawyer by their side,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, Executive Director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center. “This carve-out reinforces the inequities that are already part of the criminal justice and immigration systems,” said Andrés Kwon, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

Surprisingly, the main proponent of the carve-out on the Board of Supervisors is one of the most storied champions of immigrants in Los Angeles: former Congresswoman and Labor Secretary (and current Supervisor) Hilda Solis.

For months, immigrant rights groups such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and civil rights activists, including attorneys with the ACLU and Public Counsel, have urged Solis to remove the carve-out from the measure, arguing that due process means nothing without universal access to legal representation.

But Solis has refused to budge. Writing in The Huffington Post on Monday, she even went so far as to call her detractors’ arguments for universal representation “racist”:

I refuse to buy into the racist belief that a minority of undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a felony are the same as those who live and work in this country, trying to create a better life for themselves and their families. That is something this President does.

But it’s the notion that immigrants can be sorted into these two neat, mutually exclusive categories—those “who have been convicted of a felony” and those “trying to create a better life for themselves and their families”— that strikes many immigrant rights advocates as “something this President does.”

“Categorizing anyone with a felony conviction as someone who’s not a hard-working family person, and as someone who should be forever defined by whatever they were convicted of, I just think that it’s very simplistic,” said Kwon, “in a way that completely overlooks the holistic nature of people’s lives and relationships, as well as the complicated realities of the criminal justice system.”

“She continues to feed into this rhetoric that immigrants are criminals—the rhetoric of anti-immigration forces, including Donald Trump,” said Carlos Amador, Organizing Director with the California Immigrant Policy Center, speaking of Solis.

At City Hall, council members are considering language for the city’s contribution to the L.A. Justice Fund that, like the County measure, includes a carve-out, but with additional language that would allow the lawyers hired under the fund to override the exemption if a client’s case for remaining in the country was particularly strong.

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“We still hope that the city comes up with a policy that reflects the values of this community,” said Emi MacLean, an attorney with NDLON. “Los Angeles should be leading the country, not following.”

The city’s Budget and Finance committee voted Monday to provide an initial $1 million to the fund; the full council will meet to resolve the eligibility question on Friday.

With the Supervisors’ vote on Tuesday, that question has been settled at the county level. “Unfortunately,” Toczylowski told LAist, “by excluding some from eligibility for the L.A. Justice Fund, the Board of Supervisors is saying that due process is not a right to which all our community members are entitled.”

Related: Will The L.A. Justice Fund Throw 'Bad Hombres' Under The Bus?

Leighton Woodhouse is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. His print stories have appeared in The Intercept, Gawker, The New Republic, VICE News, Newsweek, Fusion, The Nation, Salon, and The Awl. He has directed short documentaries for The Intercept, The Nation, and Participant Media, as well as a feature documentary for the Fusion Network. He has a Master’s Degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley.