08 April, 2018
In the United States, the federal government is working to detain undocumented immigrants and get them removed from the country.
Yet some U.S. city and state governments have started programs to defend undocumented individuals.
More than 10 state and local governments have joined a group to expand legal representation for immigrants facing detention and possible expulsion, officials said.
Helping local communities
That group is called the Safe Cities Network. It promises to keep communities "safe and strong by protecting due process and providing legal representation to immigrants facing deportation."
"We're not just talking about one person going through," noted Annie Chen. "One person going to court. One in detention and going through the deportation process. You're talking about families, entire families and communities being impacted, she said.
Chen is program director at the New York-based VERA Institute of Justice. Her group partners with state and local officials to change the U.S. justice system.
She added that with increased enforcement of immigration policies, local officials have a better understanding of the issue, and see how it affects their communities.
Recently, the city of Baltimore, Maryland established a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants. City officials approved $100,000 in public money to help immigrants fight deportation.
The money was added to a collection of private money, with additional financial support coming from VERA.
Catalina Rodriguez is director of the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs. She told VOA that after the launch of a campaign for increased immigration enforcement in February 2017, city officials started hearing from people living there.
"All of these individuals [arrested] were not necessarily criminals. Their ‘crime' was they were here [in the U.S.] undocumented, and they had already a deportation order. However, they were members of our city, (and) business owners," said Rodriguez. She added that a lot of people in Baltimore were concerned.
Being in the U.S. unlawfully is not a criminal violation, but a civil one. Rodriguez said Baltimore officials learned from New York, the first U.S. city to have a legal fund program. The Baltimore fund is expected to help about 40 people identified for deportation.
Good and bad effects
The immigration data tracker TRAC reports that out of 304,642 immigrants detained from 2002 to February 2018, only 62,697 had legal representation.
Immigration lawyers and activists told VOA that access to legal representation "greatly" increases an immigrant's chance to win their case.
Chen said that in the U.S. criminal justice system, if you do not have enough money for a lawyer, you have a right to a public defender. However in immigration court, you do not have that right. This means that someone who cannot pay for a lawyer will not have one to represent them in court.
Not everyone agrees with public money going into a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants.
A spokesman for Maryland's Republican Party chairman Dirk Haire said that Maryland Republicans questioned whether the money is being wisely spent.
Haire said that most people in the city, "would prefer to have that money spent on heat and air conditioning in Baltimore public schools" instead of legal costs. The Baltimore Sun newspaper reported his comments.
Baltimore city councilman Zeke Cohen told the Sun that increased enforcement of immigration laws has resulted in the arrest of many community members.
"What kind of a country do we live in that would orphan a child in order to enforce its broken immigration laws?" Cohen said.
A recent study found that the Baltimore area is home to 281,109 immigrants, or about 10 percent of the local population.
In 2014, immigrants paid about $3.4 billion in taxes and had a spending power of $7.7 billion in the same region.
The story was a project of a group called the New American Economy. It is a coalition of business leaders and city mayors working toward immigration reform.
I'm Phil Dierking.
Aline Barros reported this story for VOANews. Phil Dierking adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Do you think that public money should be used for legal defense funds for illegal immigrants? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
air conditioning - n. a system used for cooling and drying the air in a building, room, etc.
deport - v. to force (a person who is not a citizen) to leave a country
due process - n. fair treatment through the normal judicial system, especially as a citizen's entitlement.
fund - n. an amount of money that is used for a special purpose
impact - n. a powerful or major influence or effect
orphan - n. a child whose parents are dead
jurisdiction - n. the power or right to make judgments about the law, to arrest and punish criminals, etc.