The city of Santa Ana has taken another step toward setting up a legal defense fund for immigrant residents facing deportation, ordering staff to put forth a full proposal and dollar amount to be voted on by city council.
The idea for a fund, which was first proposed by city councilman Vincente Sarmiento in February, follows other cities, including New York and San Francisco, that have allocated money to help low-income immigrants access lawyers to represent them in immigration court. The city and county of Los Angeles are also working on setting up a joint, $10 million immigrant defense fund, but details are still being worked out, including who will be eligible for legal aid.
Immigrant-heavy Santa Ana declared itself a sanctuary city following the election of President Donald Trump. Nearly half of Santa Ana’s population of some 340,000 was born outside of the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The city is now studying a range of proposals for defending its immigrant residents from possible deportation by federal authorities, including setting up a legal referral center and seeking a joint powers authority with other Orange County cities or the county in order to pool funds and potentially partner with philanthropic organizations to flesh out the fund.
The city itself has scant resources available to dedicate to immigrants’ defense. Santa Ana is facing a budget shortfall thanks, in part, to the cancellation of its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for use of the city's jail to house immigrant detainees.
The city had decided not to renew the contract, which brought in about $2 million annually, when ICE cancelled it preemptively in February.
At a May 16 city council meeting, Sarmiento and city staff identified around $65,000 that could be used as seed money for an immigrant legal defense fund. But City Attorney Sonia Carvalho noted at the meeting that the amount would likely be enough to cover legal costs only for a few people.
In comparison, the county and city of Los Angeles have pledged to contribute an initial $1 million each to their fund, albeit for a population nearly 30 times larger than the Orange County city.
Councilman Sarmiento acknowledged Santa Ana’s fiscal limitations for supporting legal defense for immigrant residents, but said its involvement would lend key credibility to the initiative.
“We see that when cities are involved in these efforts, they’re taken much more seriously,” he said.
The city is considering applying for a grant with the Vera Institute of Justice, which partners with communities to increase immigrants’ access to legal support. But that would likely require a $500,000 annual commitment from the city, something Sarmiento acknowledged is unlikely.
Still, the councilman hopes individual donors and philanthropic organizations will step in to fill the gap.
“This was never an effort that was proposed for the city to fund the entire effort,” he said.
Another possibility is to partner with other Orange County cities or the county to create a legal defense fund.
The county is home to some 250,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. But it’s unclear whether political appetite exists outside of Santa Ana to participate.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors recently voted to expand its contract with ICE to jail immigrant detainees, and no other Orange County city besides Santa Ana has declared itself a sanctuary city.
Councilman Sarmiento mentioned Anaheim as a possible partner, but Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said the topic has not been discussed officially.
Jennifer Koh, who directs the immigration clinic at Western State College of Law, supports Santa Ana’s effort and said she also hoped other cities would step up.
"The political will doesn’t seem obvious but a number of citizens and voters are becoming aware of how immigration enforcement under this administration could really devastate their communities,” Koh said.
She noted the potential loss of employees if immigrants are deported and the potential increased need for foster care for immigrant children if parents are deported.
There is no constitutional right to legal representation in the immigration court system, which is part of the U.S. Justice Department. A 2016 study by a coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups found that immigrants in California with lawyers were more than five times more likely to win their cases in immigration court than those without.
Koh and colleagues at the immigrant rights clinic at UC Irvine School of Law stand ready to support Santa Ana’s effort, but they, too, have limited staff and funding. Koh described the work of the two clinics as “a drop in the bucket” in terms of overall need for immigration legal services in Orange County. She said even a modest contribution from Santa Ana would help.
"I'd rather see us start somewhere than nowhere,” she said.
Santa Ana council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas voted last week against moving forward with a legal defense fund for immigrant residents and Mayor Miguel Pulido was absent from the vote.
Solorio was unavailable to respond to an inquiry about his vote, but he expressed concern during the May 16 council meeting about the city’s budget crunch and noted that the state is considering a similar effort that might make legal help available to Santa Ana's immigrant residents.