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LA, other municipalities plan immigrant legal aid after Trump's win

In this Dec. 16, 2016 photo, Esperanza Villalobos, a "community navigator," works at her office at The Resurrection Project in Chicago. Villalobos helps immigrants who might need legal services to avoid deportation or learn about their legal rights. The organization she works for plans to hire more individuals like her after the city approved $1.3 million for a legal services fund for immigrants. Chicago is among several entities nationwide working to beef up legal services for immigrants. Sophia Tareen/AP

Major U.S. cities and counties are beefing up legal services for immigrants to help them fight deportation and avoid fraudulent lawyers in the wake of Donald Trump's election and his hard-line immigration enforcement promises.

Tapping local government funds to represent immigrants in federal proceedings provides an early example of the type of pushback the Republican incoming president will receive in Democratic strongholds. Advocates call it a matter of justice and smart economics, but some question whether it's a fair use of taxpayer money.

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors is scheduled Tuesday to approve $3 million for a legal fund that could grow to $10 million over two years. The city of Los Angeles could kick in another $2 million and California Community Foundation and two other charities have promised the remaining $5 million.

While it’s not set in stone, the foundation could administer the money and issue grants to legal nonprofits that provide legal assistance to immigrants.

But some say the fund could be legally sticky.

“They are giving a charitable gift with taxpayer funds — it is not their money to give,” said  John Eastman, Chapman University law professor.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer doesn’t see a conflict. He said the federal immigration system provides that those facing deportation be treated fairly.

“Helping to promote that objective by providing representation in a system where having a lawyer makes all the difference in the world is consistent with everyone’s goals,” he said.

Los Angeles officials want a legal services fund set up before Trump becomes president in January. 

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she's especially worried about the fate of unaccompanied minors and young immigrants who filed personal information with the federal government to obtain work permits under the Obama administration.

"Right now, the most important thing is that this fund be established and that our most vulnerable communities know that we are working towards keeping them safe and protected," Solis said.

Immigrants aren't guaranteed a lawyer in immigration court and only about 37 percent of those in deportation proceedings have legal representation, according to a September American Immigration Council report.

Democratic state lawmakers in California have proposed legislation that could cost up to $80 million for immigration attorneys and other legal training. Santa Clara County is looking into the idea and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee added $1.5 million to a fund for immigrant legal services.

Chicago has approved a $1.3 million legal fund and New York is mulling a public-private legal fund, building on New York City's public defender program that's considered a national model.

"We need to be able to stand by people who are fearful," said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, after the measure passed the City Council last week.

Trump's pledges to build a border wall and deport the estimated 11 million people living in the country without legal permission have triggered uncertainty in immigrant circles. He has since scaled back the deportee number, but has not deviated from his platform.

Since Trump's win, a lack of legal representation for immigrants has become a growing concern. It was the top issue raised by a Chicago task force of leaders, including Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, convened after the election.

In Chicago — where an estimated 150,000 people do not have permanent legal status — the money will be divided among two nonprofits. One will focus on poor immigrants facing deportation. The other will employ 200 "community navigators" who will network through churches, schools and community events to find immigrants who are in the country illegally and help them figure out if they have avenues to stay.

"People are nervous," said Esperanza Villalobos, who already does the job in Mexican-heavy Chicago neighborhoods. She reports a surge in immigrants seeking her out since the election.

In Chicago, which has some of the most immigrant-friendly laws in the nation, the debate over the fund had tense moments, highlighting how contentious the issue is outside Democratic strongholds. Chicago set aside money only for one year and is banking on private donations to keep it going.

Three aldermen representing neighborhoods with strong Trump support voted against it, including Nicholas Sposato. He dismissed it as "the legal defense fund for the illegals" and said Chicago should consider the money for other issues. The cash-strapped city diverted the funds from a little-used homeowner rebate program.

"I'm not a hater," Sposato said during the vote at full the council meeting. "Any given day, 1,000 homeless veterans out there. What are we doing for them?"

Another reason cited by local governments for creating the funds is the economy, because immigrants, regardless of legal status, work and pay taxes. In addition, children of immigrants who are deported may end up needing publicly-funded services such as foster care and health care, said Avideh Moussavian, a policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Washington.

"There's the due process issue, but there's actually quantifiable economic impact," she said.

In 2013, New York City tested a program to infuse public defender offices with money for attorneys dedicated to representing detained immigrants. The program has grown from $500,000 in its initial year to roughly $6 million. Attorneys have represented more than 1,500 immigrants from 2013 through late last year, the most recent statistics available. About 70 percent of attorneys won their cases, according to the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

In Chicago, another goal is to help immigrants avoid fraudulent services, something 24-year-old Jose Lopez knows firsthand.

The college student, brought to the country illegally as a child, qualified for a work permit under the Obama administration. Twice he sought out attorneys who advertised on Spanish-language radio stations.

However, the paperwork they filed was unnecessary, his case stalled and he lost nearly $2,000. He's since obtained the permit and has a graphic design job, but hopes others can avoid his mistakes.

"I had to stall a career. I had to stall school," he said. "I had to stall life."

This story has been updated.

Taxin reported from Santa Ana, California. Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed to this report from Los Angeles.