LA designates $1M for immigrant defense fund, but it's still not a done deal

The Los Angeles city budget approved by the City Council last week sets aside $1 million for an immigrant legal defense fund, to be combined with county and philanthropic money.
The Los Angeles city budget approved by the City Council last week sets aside $1 million for an immigrant legal defense fund, to be combined with county and philanthropic money. Steve Lyon/Flickr

The Los Angeles City Council approved a city budget last week setting aside $1 million in the coming year for a legal fund to help immigrants facing deportation, but it's still unclear just how it will be used.

Officials in December announced the $10 million L.A. Justice Fund, with contributions from the city, L.A. County and private donors, as the reality of then President-elect Trump's plans for stricter immigration enforcement took hold.

Setting up the fund and agreeing to its operations has been a slow-moving process.

City officials must still sign off on a policy plan — including details on which immigrants might benefit — before the city can agree on a contract with California Community Foundation, which will oversee the fund.

"We wouldn’t be able to, of course, enter into a contract until the policy decisions are made by the council and the mayor, but the money will remain in the budget until that happens," said Yolanda Chavez, assistant city administrative officer.

L.A. city officials are still discussing a controversial carve-out that would generally exclude immigrants with violent criminal convictions. The provision is similar to one that has so far held up the county’s contribution to the defense fund.

In December, county officials voted to contribute an initial $1 million and eventually up to $3 million toward the fund. Last month, after outcry from immigrant advocates, county supervisors decided to redraw a plan that would exclude violent offenders. 

The proposed city policy would prevent the fund from helping those convicted of such crimes as human trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence and pimping. 

Chavez said the city's proposal would let attorneys use some discretion if a person with a criminal record has a particularly strong case for staying in the country.

The city and county plans were modeled after a state bill that also aims to provide legal services for immigrants facing deportation, excluding violent criminal offenders.

But some immigrant advocates want everyone eligible to get help from the fund, even those found guilty of serious crimes. On the other side of the issue, opponents say taxpayer funds should not be used to fund anyone's deportation defense.

Chavez said the City Council's budget and finance committee could hear the policy plan in June. City officials hope the plan can move through the council and to the mayor's office before July 1, when the defense fund is set to start.

"Nothing is 100 percent guaranteed," she said. "But we are optimistic because the money has remained in the budget throughout the budget process."

There is a still the chance that plans for the legal defense fund could be redrawn. If officials decide to go in a different direction, the money would revert back to the general fund, Chavez said.

Santa Ana is taking similar steps to start a legal defense fund for immigrants, although the city has a limited budget.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown's revised budget plan calls for an additional $15 million to provide legal services to people fighting deportation or seeking naturalization or other legal immigration status. The sum brings the total proposed funding for such aid to $30 million.

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