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LA City Council approves $2M for immigrant defense fund

Los Angeles City Council members Paul Koretz, left, and Nury Martinez expressed reservations about allowing legal nonprofits to use their discretion in deciding whether immigrants with convictions for violent offenses should benefit from the city's contribution to a legal defense fund. The council voted to designate $2 million for the fund on June 23, 2017 at City Hall.
Los Angeles City Council members Paul Koretz, left, and Nury Martinez expressed reservations about allowing legal nonprofits to use their discretion in deciding whether immigrants with convictions for violent offenses should benefit from the city's contribution to a legal defense fund. The council voted to designate $2 million for the fund on June 23, 2017 at City Hall.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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The Los Angeles City Council Friday designated $2 million to cover the city's share of a legal fund for immigrants facing deportation, and allow some violent offenders to get legal aid under very limited circumstances.

The council voted 11-1 in favor of the contribution to the L.A. Justice Fund, which will combine city, county, and philanthropic funds totaling $10 million to pay for legal help to immigrants facing deportation.

L.A. County supervisors voted Tuesday to approve the county contribution to the fund, amounting to $3 million over two years. The fund will be administered by the California Community Foundation. 

One point of debate for both the county and city has been whether immigrants convicted of violent felonies should qualify for the legal aid.

The supervisors voted to bar them from benefiting from the county money. The City Council approved a similar exclusion, but one that would allow legal nonprofits representing the immigrants to tap the city funds if they can determine there are extenuating circumstances or a particularly strong case for immigration relief.

There was a lengthy discussion among council members on the issue before Friday's vote.

"I'm just not sure that this is, for me, the best use of taxpayer funds," said Councilman Mitch Englander, who cast the sole dissenting vote.

Others supported the city's contribution in general but still had reservations about who should be eligible for the legal assistance.

"I want some sense that we are not going to be serving people that we would not want to be serving," said Councilman Paul Koretz.

Council member Nury Martinez voiced concern about the provision allowing legal providers to use discretion if a person with a violent felony record has a "potentially meritorious claim" for staying in the country.

She had supported language earlier this year to exclude those convicted of violent felonies, human trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence and pimping from benefiting from the legal fund.

"As long as I get a vote on this council, I will not support our money going towards representation of people who've been convicted for these malicious, horrible crimes on others," Martinez said.

Council members Gil Cedillo and Mike Bonin argued that former offenders who have straightened out their lives deserve a chance at legal representation.

Bonin talked about how he had been a former drug user.

"I wouldn't want my life to be judged by my darkest and weakest and stupidest moments," Bonin said. "And I don't think we should judge others by their darkest and weakest and stupidest moments."  

At the suggestion of council member Bob Blumenfield, the language was amended  to include "justifiable extenuating circumstances," setting the bar higher for immigrants with violent criminal convictions to tap into the legal funds through their attorneys.

The council plans a second vote next week since the initial vote was not unanimous.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti praised the council action, saying in an emailed statement that the fund "means that more Angelenos will have legal protection, more families will stay whole, and more people will be able to build lives with the people they love, in the country they chose.”

The legal defense fund is set to kick off next month.